If Special Libraries Are Disappearing, Why Are Parliamentary Libraries Surviving? Contradictory Currents and Changing Perceptions

Article excerpt

The new information and research orientation of parliamentary libraries, accelerated by the advent of information technology, the changing pattern of parliamentary politics, and new social and economic developments, causes us to ask where they should be placed among special libraries. The author speculates about the prospective role of parliamentary libraries in a society increasingly critical of existing political party realities, politicians, and of Australian public institutions. Contradictions facing parliamentary libraries are pointed out, and the article concludes by suggesting a more clearly differentiated `special' role for them as part of a parliamentary `information ecology'. By accepting a wider social responsibility for political communication and political education extending beyond the already richly served parliamentary elite, parliamentary libraries can contribute by way of their information expertise to the evolving concept of participatory democracy in Australia. A wider role for them for them as `political resource libraries' is also advocated. An appendix briefly reviews the origins of the undervalued heritage collections held by the state parliamentary libraries and suggests what should be done with them under the new circumstances of a parliamentary information ecology.

Manuscript received May 2000

ARE WE JUSTIFIED IN SEEING THE 1990s AS A PARADOXICAL TIME FOR LIBRARIES? If we accept that a paradox is a `situation which combines contradictory features or qualities', as the New Oxford Dictionary of English puts it, the term seems appropriate. Despite the currently strong use of public and academic libraries, the future and rationale of libraries as a whole are being regularly scrutinised and questioned. Some library practitioners see the future of libraries as bleak and, of course, many colleagues have found their jobs and even their libraries already disappearing. This is bleakness indeed.

Information technology, having altered the fabric of society, is impacting in drastic ways on library systems and services, and increasingly, on their design and appearance. In the process, traditional library values have often been pushed aside, or even found redundant. This is noticeably the attitude of management consultants whose understanding of these traditions and values is limited, and who may, in any case, doubt their validity. We must, it is claimed, ready ourselves for the advent of a `new informational structure instead of a library', `libraries without walls', and `virtual or electronic libraries'[1]. Increasingly as the emphasis grows on the quick availability of information and data from electronic sources (`facts: not texts') so the devaluing of printed materials and of the knowledge associated with their history, understanding and collection gains momentum. The rationale for the creation (and maintenance) of libraries is certainly changing its character[2].

This phenomenon of questioning on the one hand, and unbounded enthusiasm for technology on the other, has tangled roots. It may be yet another part of the wider phenomenon of modernity, whose social, economic and political aspects are still the source of so much analysis and debate. Is it legitimate to wonder whether the library profession itself also lost its way too easily and helped to accelerate, or did little to impede, the spread of a certain air of impotence in the profession? These are contentious and divisive questions. The enthusiasm of only two decades ago for developing an Australian national library and information policy surely needs resurrection if we are to create a viable system rather than a plethora of disconnected palliatives to ward off pressures, and if we are to attain consensus on guidelines and principles for the future. No one seems as yet to have found the answers to these questions as special librarians may attest.

Special libraries in Australia, including parliamentary libraries, have been in the forefront of technological innovation in their workplaces. …