Behind the scenes at the House of Lords Library

In this article, Matthew Purvis, Head of Research Services in the House of Lords Library, provides an introduction to the role of the House of Lords Library, what services it offers and how it works.

You may have seen shots of Members working in the library in the recent BBC documentary Meet the Lords. However, the documentary did not show the wide-range of important services the Library offers Members in support of their parliamentary duties.

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House of Lords Library. Image via Flickr. Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.

What we do

The House of Lords Library provides impartial, authoritative, timely research and information services in support of the parliamentary work of Members of the House of Lords. We work exclusively for our Members. MPs have their own, separate research service. This year, 2017, marks the 40th anniversary of the Library service enjoyed today by Members of the House of Lords.

Lords Library research services range from briefings on all major items of business in the Chamber to bespoke responses to Members’ research and information enquiries. Briefings are produced to inform Members about bills, debates and questions in the Chamber and issues of topical interest.

The Current Affairs Digest (CAD) provides Members with a monthly digest of articles from the Library’s academic journal subscriptions, from blogs and magazines, plus speeches and think tanks. It brings together this content across six policy areas—economic affairs, home affairs, science, international affairs, the constitution and social policy—with a focus on articles and comment relevant to business of the House. This is sent to nearly 600 subscribers across Parliament and can be read on-the-go-on the CAD app.

Resources for Members include access to over 200 journals and 50 electronic databases, complete sets of UK legislation, parliamentary materials and approximately 80,000 books. The Library also offers tailored coaching to enable Members and their staff to access parliamentary information and news quickly and independently; a quiet workspace for Members close to the Chamber with a range of facilities including computers, printers, copiers and scanners; and support for Research Assistants in the Millbank House Library suite.

Activity

We are a very busy team, as is typical of most offices across the House of Lords administration. Last year, 734 Members used at least one of the Library’s services. Over 300 briefings were produced and made available to Members, with an overall distribution of 28,547 items. In addition, we:

  • Answered 3,816 enquiries;
  • Responded to 1,698 requests for bespoke research briefings;
  • Loaned 1,457 books;
  • Indexed over 900 deposited papers; and
  • Added 1,659 titles to the Library’s catalogue.
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A House of Lords Library Note (March 2017)

Who we are

The Library currently employs around 45 staff, most of whom are either librarians or researchers. The Library is split into three areas of work: the Enquiries and Research Service, composed of the researchers and librarians who complete enquiries and briefings for Members and manage the front-of-house service; Information Management, composed of librarians who manage the collection of books, materials and electronic databases; and Central, composed of support staff who assist the Director of Library Services in the strategic and financial management of the Library. This short video about the Library says more about what we do and introduces some of the team.

I lead the Enquiries and Research Service, with responsibility for delivering those services. My team is made up mainly of researchers; generalists with a set of sharp research skills, including the ability to source information, sift and analyse large volumes of evidence and write impartial, balanced briefings to strict deadlines. Among my tasks is to ensure that enquiries and briefings continue to meet expected levels of quality through setting standards and providing overall editorial control of output. I also do some outreach work in universities through Parliament’s outreach team. Before my appointment in 2015, I worked for six years as a researcher, having joined the Library in 2009 from the then Information Office where I worked answering enquiries from the public. I have a degree in Politics from Royal Holloway, University of London.

A Short History of the Library

The Library was founded in 1826 following a Select Committee’s recommendation that the Clerk Assistant of the House should provide “such a collection of English law books as, in his experience, he may consider useful to the House for reference”. Until the mid-twentieth century, the Library’s chief focus had therefore been on supporting the judicial work of the House, rather than the legislative work. By 1976 it was clear the Library’s services were in need of modernisation. Lord Eccles, a former minister, was appointed to chair a Committee which reported in March 1977. Among other things, the report recommended the creation of a proper research service for Members, the acquisition of more books relating to current affairs and the business before the House, the establishment of a new centre for enquiries in the Queen’s Room, the introduction of IT facilities and, for the first time, the recruitment of librarians with professional qualifications.

How we can help one another

Many of our briefings are available on the Parliament website, covering issues from public policy but also in-depth briefings on the House of Lords itself. These might be useful reading for classes or a starting point to understand a particular aspect of the House of Lords. Our briefings also provide an insight into how our Members want information presented: well structured, the relevancy to their parliamentary work signposted, easy-to-read and based on authoritative sources.

Our work obviously requires access to good sources. Academic papers and journals are very important but working to very tight deadlines we increasingly rely on blogs and having access to specialist contacts across academia. I am always grateful to hear about policy work or materials that may be of relevance to our work and am happy to be contacted.

Finally, keeping track of what’s going on in the Lords is easy: do sign-up to the House of Lords’ newsletter or follow @UKHouseofLords on Twitter.

Notes:

Matthew Purvis is the Head of Research Services in the House of Lords Library. You can follow him on Twitter @HLLibResearch

To write for the PSA Parliaments and Legislatures blog, please contact us: psa.parliaments@gmail.com

 

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