Historical Overview: The Parliamentary Library from Past to Present
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Historical Overview:
The Parliamentary Library from Past to Present

In 2002 Quebec's National Assembly hosted an international conference on the history of parliamentary libraries. On that occasion, Gaston Bernier called for more research on the history of parliamentary libraries, inviting researchers to make use of the rich and unexplored archives of parliamentary libraries throughout the world (2003). This historical overview features some of the most prominent parliamentary libraries in the world, their evolution, and the collections and services the institutions provide to their constituencies.

Parliaments are assemblies of elected representatives, usually of an entire nation, that have supreme legislative powers within a particular state or country. The distinctive qualities of different types of parliaments may be explained by the varying historical contexts in which countries have established their parliaments. Systems of parliamentary government vary according to the constitutional role assigned to the parliament and the electoral and party systems that determine their composition and political organization (McLean, 1996). Parliaments are an expression of democratic values. Democratic parliaments should be representative, transparent, accessible, and effective. In order to fulfill these characteristics, parliamentarians need access to up-to-the-minute unbiased research and information facilities. A well-resourced parliament, such as is typical in developed economies, will have, inter alia, a comprehensive library and information service (Beetham, 2006).

Parliamentary libraries (also known under various terminologies such as federal libraries, legislative libraries, information resource centers, documentation centers, or reference services) enhance the research and information capacity of parliaments. As their histories show, however, some also came to consider their constituencies as lying beyond the confines of their parent legislature. [End Page 418]

Most parliamentary libraries are relatively modest in scale. The median number of staff is approximately 15 for libraries in Western Europe, 10 for Latin America, and 4 or 5 staff for the rest of the world. A few parliamentary libraries are quite large: the U.S. Congressional Research Service (part of the Library of Congress) has a staff of almost 900, including over 370 specialized researchers. Library staffs of 200 or more are found in Australia, Canada, India, South Korea, and the UK House of Commons (Robinson, 2003).

Older parliamentary libraries have been able to amass extensive collections, while those that have appeared relatively recently are much less well endowed. In 2004, Roumeen Islam noted that the distribution of parliamentary libraries and their resources varied greatly, from the U.S. Library of Congress, which has 110 million books and 75,000 periodical subscriptions, to Burundi, whose parliamentary library has only 50 books, and to Paraguay, whose library subscribes to only 1 periodical. Not surprisingly, the distribution of research staff is equally skewed—meaning that deficiencies in parliamentary library collections are typically not offset by other sources of information (Islam, 2004). General information on parliamentary library resources and staffing worldwide is available at the Database of the World Directory of National Parliamentary Libraries hosted by the German Parliament (German Bundestag), although certain entries need to be updated. Today, nearly all legislatures have parliamentary libraries to assist them in obtaining and using information in their deliberations (Robinson, 2003), although this was not always the case.

Europe

France

One of the outcomes of the French Revolution was the establishment of the National Assembly. In 1792 the National Assembly decided to begin purchasing reference books, and the following year they appointed the first librarian. In 1794 the Committee on Public Instruction decided to constitute a collection consisting of "the best works" to support the activity of the different committees of the National Convention. In 1796 a law stipulated the establishment of a library that was to serve both chambers of the legislation. Between 1796 and 1828, the library was entitled to receive legal deposit copies that contributed to the growth of its collections (Assemblée Nationale, n.d.). Today the collections amount to 700,000 books and 3,000 periodicals, and its staff consists of 21 librarians. The library is open to the deputies. Only its historical collections are available for scholarly research. Valuable items from the rare book and manuscript collection constitute objects of temporary exhibits and displays.

The Senate is the other chamber of the French Parliament...


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