Our living library From gentleman's club to digital detectives

The Victorian Parliamentary Library is celebrating a significant milestone with 170 years of continuous operation. From its earliest days as a ‘gentleman’s library’ bathed in cigar smoke, to a 21st century research library that keeps Members of Parliament up-to-date on the most pressing issues facing Victoria today, the library has served 59 parliaments and more than 1800 members.

To mark the event Communications Adviser Bill Bainbridge sat down with the current chief librarian, Carolyn Macvean (Manager, Parliamentary Library and Information Service) to ask about the history and future of the second oldest library in Victoria.

Bill Bainbridge: So tell me about the origin of the library?

Carolyn Macvean: The library started 170 years ago in Bourke Street when the Legislative Council chamber used to be there. It was located on the lower floor in St Patrick's Hall. Deemed inconvenient to members, it was later moved out the back in a wooden room.

It was known as the ‘gentleman's library’ at the time, and the second committee ever established by the Legislative Council was the library committee, so obviously they valued that library as important for members.

When Parliament House was built, the current library was built shortly after the two chambers. If you think about this building and where it’s located, we're on the best piece of real estate in I would say the whole country, but certainly it is one of the best places in Melbourne. It's grand, it's beautiful and it's still operating, and it still serves a very important function for members.

BEGINNINGS ON BOURKE: St. Patrick's Hall, the first Legislative House of Victoria, circa 1851. Image: State Library Victoria.

BB: And so is that the role it's always played at the Parliament?

CM: Originally the members had this place to do their own research, whereas nowadays we do more of that support role for them. So the gentleman's library went out the door, I'd say probably by the early 1900s.

I did read the library committee minutes from way back and the librarian at the time said “can we buy a Webster’s Dictionary?” And the committee said “no, you can't buy a Webster's Dictionary. But can you make sure that the there's enough cigars for the library?”

So obviously it's changed since then, and the smoking ban came in very, very early days, because it was spoiling the books, they didn't smell right. Obviously, you can't have smoke-damaged paper, and they did fear that a fire might occur, so we have moved on a lot since then.

BB: And the library at the current location, opened in 1861, was purpose built?

CM: Absolutely, Peter Kerr [the principal architect of Parliament House] designed the library. When you come and look at the library, you can actually see the architecture of the columns and the furniture have matching design motifs. So it was very much built to purpose, with its two central staircases, and if you stand in the Central Library you'll see that the North and South Libraries are perfectly symmetrical.

So yeah, it's just a beautiful purpose-built library and it still serves that purpose now 160 years later.

SUPERB SYMMETRY: The library's east elevation drawn by principal architect Peter Kerr.

BB: And so the library was critical in the original federal parliament sitting in Victoria?

CM: I believe the story goes that the federal parliament had to sit here in this place and the state parliament had to move up the road to the Exhibition Building because Alfred Deakin, who was a member of the federal parliament, didn't want to see his library disappear. He had to stay with his library.

And we've named the Deakin Gallery after him because he valued his library so much.

PAST AND PRESENT: Librarian James Smith, who served from 1863-69, and current Parliamentary Librarian Carolyn Macvean. Smith’s image: State Library Victoria

BB: And so what’s its primary role these days?

CM: Its major purpose is to support the Members of Parliament, but it's also to support the members’ electorate offices, because they do research on behalf of their constituents.

On sitting days we will have members come in and say “I'm speaking on this bill in two hours’ time, I need some background information on this topic”, so we'll put that background information together.

We also prepare research papers for topical matters that we think may end up as part of some piece of legislation in the future.

There's a lot of legislation before Parliament and, if you think about the smaller or minor parties where they don't have a team of lots of people to help them out, they come to us mostly to support their needs and to put together briefs for them on legislation Parliament is considering.

KNOWLEDGE AND KNOW-HOW: Seminars during sitting weeks and capacity building for Pacific parliaments is all in a year’s work for library staff.

BB: So in the age of the internet, what's the relevance of libraries?

CM: Well librarians know the difference between the chaff and the hay.

The internet is good, it serves its purpose. But there's a lot of rubbish out there as well, and unless you know what you're looking for and you understand the nuances then you could be led up the garden path. But with librarians, we know how to find stuff. I mean, that's it in a nutshell, if you're looking for something halfway across the world it might not ever have been published online but a librarian will know how to track it down, so it's our knowledge of other networks, not just the electronic network.

The material that we produce, we know it can be verified. It's peer reviewed and it's good quality information and it has to be, because it's being spoken to in Parliament and what gets reported in Parliament is reported in the papers. So it comes back to us to make sure that we put together the most precise information that we understand at the time.

So that's where our role, our skill set comes in.

BB: And so, speaking of your role and skill set, how has the role of the library changed?

CM: Well, one of our innovations is in scraping websites and getting the media releases and things like that. We keep a wealth of information on media relations, political parties and all those sorts of things. So we keep all that material forever because, particularly around election time, you'll get all the policy information come up and all these announcements on websites and then when things don’t go the way people expect them to go, that material gets taken down very quickly. But we capture this material in perpetuity.

BB: So what about the future? What are some of the things that you're thinking you will develop and change?

CM: Well, we've already started down the machine learning and the AI [Artificial Intelligence] path and obviously digital assets are huge, and we've started with that.

One example is the library’s semantic AI-enabled ontology classification. That’s software used for classifying our externally generated online media content.

These articles are automatically extracted and classified into our database, and that gives us a far more accurate result. Over the last two years, for example, the system automatically indexed on average 164,000 news articles and 8,000 TV and radio clips.

The library also provides digital and online access to the major newspapers allowing members and parliamentary staff to access exclusive subscriber content as well as digitised versions of the print papers

Nowadays most of the library’s print serials are produced in digital only, or digital plus print. The library provides its online and print journal subscriptions into one aggregated service, which has been great for streamlining workflows and reducing costs.

Also, when we get our new website together, I'm very keen to have the public help us piece together our stories here. There's a lot of people who work through this system. Not only MPs but all the support staff and so we want to use technology and the internet to assist us getting that information together.

All of the research material we produce is electronic and our research papers are publicly accessible and we send them out through the different networks. So the library of the future is very much in a technology space.