From Casework to Covid: Celebrating 75 years of the House of Commons Library Research Service
The Oriel Room in the House of Commons Library
For three-quarters of a century, the House of Commons Library Research Service has been the go-to resource for MPs and parliamentary staff seeking answers. Lef Apostolakis delves into its past, present… and future
The Commons Library Research Service celebrated its 75th anniversary this year. In the grand scheme of parliamentary history, that’s equivalent to a sweet 16.
Yet it’s hard to imagine Parliament without the Research Service. Every day, thousands of people access information while, in the background, specialists answer dozens of questions from MPs and their staff, and work tirelessly to update old research and publish new papers.
And research is showing no sign of slowing down.
A Research Service is born
But the Commons Library has not always been an epicentre for research. HG Wells lamented that: “There are no research workers preparing synopses or abstracts of information; no effort, indeed, at all to relate the Library, as such, to the specific needs of those who might use it.” He went on to describe available materials as “pathetically inadequate”.
To redress the balance, the Library established a dedicated Research Service in 1945. The first two researchers were hired in 1946. By 1970 this had grown to 53 staff and there were several distinct research sections, including a scientific section and a statistical division. Officially the Library offered “to provide written answers to enquiries from MPs involving research and/or specialist knowledge” as part of its services.
Today, Library research is widely respected for its quality and balance inside and outside Parliament. Since the founding of the Research Service, the Commons Library has had thousands of citations in the chamber and in written statements. Each year, millions of people read Library research online, and Library staff answer thousands of confidential questions from MPs.
But the Research Service has not stood still. It has kept pace with changes in Parliament and the wider world throughout its 75 years. Richard Cracknell has been doing research for the Library for longer than he cares to reveal. Now head of the social and general statistics section, he reflects on the impact of the birth of the internet.
“The internet, which anyone under 40 probably takes for granted, has meant a huge change in what data and information is available from your desktop, replacing, literally, kilometres of books on shelves,” says Cracknell, referring to the more than 150,000 titles in the Library’s collection, many thousands of which have been loaned, on a permanent basis, to the British Museum.
In terms of research the internet also revolutionised what is possible for the Library.
“The availability of digital data means we no longer spend much time keying numbers in, and the range of data now available means we have to be continually alert to new datasets.”
I enjoy being in the centre of politics and the feeling that what I am doing has impact
While that may seem like a headache, it has allowed Cracknell and his team to drill down into data that had gone unnoticed – constituency-level data. “Historically, constituencies were seen as an ’irrelevant geography’ by government statisticians,” he says. But for MPs, constituency data are invaluable as it can help them understand the needs of voters. Cracknell’s work helped convince official bodies that constituency data are intrinsically linked to the democratic process.
Today, the Library has a series of constituency dashboards and other tools that are regularly updated to give an accurate picture of healthcare provision, house prices, school funding and even road traffic accidents in each constituency. They are routinely used by constituency caseworkers to answer constituents’ questions, and by the public to find out about their neighbourhood.
Identity and equality
Beyond tech, there have been other changes in the make-up of the service and its approach to research.
Anna Dickson left academia for Parliament in 2004, looking to make a difference. “I enjoy being in the centre of politics and the feeling that what I am doing has impact,” she says.
Now head of the international affairs and defence section, Dickson says the internal projects she’s worked on are among the most memorable.
Her favourite example is the creation of the workplace equality networks (WENs) – staff-led networks centred around characteristics such as race, gender, sexuality and disability. Dickson is involved with ParliREACH, the WEN established to increase awareness and appreciation of race, ethnicity and cultural heritage issues in Parliament, and believes the networks have transformed the culture in Parliament.
“I remember when the WENs were created; how they recognised that staff issues and identity issues matter, even though they are not necessarily directly connected to your role in the House,” she says.
She thinks the wider diversity and inclusion work the WENs have spearheaded has also allowed the Library to think about the place of identity and equality in research. “We are beginning to think about our research outputs in terms of their equality aspects,” she says and reveals her team is currently working on a series of country profiles written through the lens of LGBTQ+ rights.
Crisis and collaboration
Another veteran of the Research Service is Tom Powell. From restructures to referendums, Powell, a researcher in the social policy section, recalls many key moments during his 25 years at Parliament, including the expenses scandal in 2009, a string of memorable elections, Brexit and now the Covid crisis.
Despite all these “moments” Powell says the biggest change he’s noticed is in the way people work. “We’ve got much better at working together – with the Committee Office, with POST [the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology], and colleagues across Parliament,” he says.
Health researchers have been meeting routinely over the last two years to co-ordinate their work and share insights around Covid and health policy.
Covid has been particularly hard to navigate due to the parallel misinformation epidemic that has been unfolding. “We have to steer a very careful course in the Library as an impartial research service,” says Powell. “Misinformation increased the pandemic’s public health risk. It’s been a huge international challenge.”
Library sections are also working closely together and leaning on each other’s expertise. “We’re better at co-ordinating across teams,” Powell confirms. And he would know – he’s worked in many different teams, from the Commons Library to the Parliament and Constitution Centre.
“When you work somewhere for a long time, you work with so many different generations of people within the organisation,” Powell reflects.
“It is a bit of a cliché but the nicest thing about working here is that you get to meet a lot of great people who you value enormously.”
And it’s that camaraderie, coupled with a commitment to providing politically impartial material, that puts the Commons Library Research Service in a great position to survive, and thrive, for another 75 years. Surely HG Wells would agree with that.
Lef Apostolakis leads on external communications for Research and Information at the House of Commons Library
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