How to use the Commons library

Posted On: 
16th January 2020

Penny Young is your guide to the House of Commons library and how it can help MPs, for The House magazine’s 2020 MP Toolkit

The Commons Library
Credit: 
UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

A stone’s throw from the Commons chamber you’ll find the House of Commons library. Originally built in 1828, then rebuilt following the Westminster Palace fire of 1834, the library is an integral part of Parliament for MPs seeking impartial research, access to online resources, books, and a quiet place to work.

Over its lifespan, the library’s collection has grown to 228,000 items, including books, journals, maps and more. A research and information service was added in 1946, which now produces impartial analysis, statistical research and data dashboards and visualisations, and resources to help MPs and their staff scrutinise legislation, develop policy, and support constituents.

The library’s research briefings and shorter ‘Insights’ into key policy areas are publicly available to everyone via the library’s website, and can be picked up inside the library and around the Parliamentary estate. 

We are proud of our combination of unique heritage and up-to-date information provision. Don’t just be seduced by the beautiful Gothic splendour of the library itself – we are much more than this!

As House of Commons librarian, I lead the teams and services that make up the library. Here’s what all MPs will want to know about how to get the best from us and use our resources to inform their work.

We weigh the evidence, share our sources and give MPs the evidence base they need to do their jobs.

We have expertise in a huge range of topics 

MPs have an incredibly difficult job to do. Supporting constituents, scrutinising legislation and developing policies all require a firm grasp of the facts. Often MPs need to get on top of a brand new subject very quickly for a chamber debate, a media appearance, or to talk to constituents. Or they might want to spend longer developing a new policy, or scrutinising a government statement. This is where we can help.

We have around 200 expert staff working across the library. They are subject-specialist researchers, statisticians, economists, librarians, indexers, data scientists, professional trainers, a communications team and more.

We’re experts in the topics MPs need to know about: Brexit, housing, education, the environment, business, immigration, economics, trade, how Parliament works and much more.

We are impartial 

We work for MPs from across the political spectrum, and pride ourselves on giving the facts without any political slant. That doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes publish things MPs might not want to hear. But it means we weigh the evidence, share our sources and give MPs the evidence base they need to do their jobs. 

The library service is more than just books 

MPs and their staff can use our expertise in a few ways: 

  • Read our analysis of bills, legislation, policy, topical issues and statistics.
  • Request information and bespoke analysis, particularly if it requires more technical expertise or knowledge.
  • Use our books, journals, databases and workspaces.
  • Come to our research skills workshops, events and talks on topical policy issues.

We particularly encourage MPs to ask their staff to take up our training and support so that their information skills are the best they can be.

It’s all online

We publish a huge amount of our research online, so you can find relevant briefings and resources while you’re on the go. If there are topics you’re particularly interested in, we can make sure you get the latest research delivered straight to your inbox – just subscribe on our website. 

We know the topics MPs need to become experts in 

At the start of each new Parliament we produce a series of short briefings on the key topics MPs need to be aware of. These 10-minute must-reads give a snapshot of the latest policy developments and statistics, to help MPs get up to speed.

We are publishing the Insights on commonslibrary.parliament.uk, and collating them into a hard-copy publication for MPs and their staff to consult. Our Insights cover a wide range of issues:

  • Living and working in the UK.
  • Health, social care and welfare.
  • Education.
  • The environment.
  • Trade and the economy.
  • Crime and cyber security.
  • Foreign affairs.
  • Parliament and the constitution.
  • Brexit.

We have up-to-date stats on every constituency 

MPs cannot get enough information about their constituency. We have developed local data dashboards to give up-to-date statistics on everything from universal credit to road accidents and house prices by constituency. You can find them all at commonslibrary.parliament.uk/local-data.

Must-dos for new MPs

  • Book yourself on to an induction session as soon as possible so we can find out more about your interests.
  • Once you have staff, point them in our direction to get trained properly on our resources. All the info you need is at commonslibrary.parliament.uk/training-and-events.
  • Make sure your staff check out our website – commonslibrary.parliament.uk – and what’s available before placing any bespoke requests. 

Spotting misinformation

Spotting false or misleading information can be difficult. Here are some top tips to help you sort the good info from the bad:

  • Is the info from a trusted source ?
  • Are the statistics and quotes included in a story or online post sourced to a trusted organisation/person? If not, why not?
  • If you’re sharing any statistics the library has provided, make sure you include any caveats we’ve added to ensure you’re not inadvertently misleading others.
  • Use factchecking organisations like Full Fact – the UK’s independent factchecking charity.  

Penny Young is House of Commons librarian