Celebrating 50 Years of Parliament’s Research Service

Brittany Collier and Tonina Simeone
Legal and Social Affairs Division

This year, the Library of Parliament celebrates its 50th year of providing impartial research and analysis to senators and members of Parliament.

From modest beginnings in the 1960s, the parliamentary research unit is today a dynamic service relying on the expertise of highly skilled professionals to meet the research and information needs of individual parliamentarians, parliamentary committees and parliamentary associations.

While the range and scope of services offered by the research unit have changed considerably over time, its dedication to providing parliamentarians with access to balanced, timely, confidential and high-quality research has remained constant.

To mark the service’s 50th anniversary, this HillNote traces the evolution and responsibilities of the unit from its early days to the present.

The beginnings

In 1965, Canada was among the first members of the Commonwealth to create a research service for parliamentarians.

Citing the growing research needs of parliamentarians, in 1964 the House of Commons Special Committee on Procedure and Organization recommended the creation of a parliamentary research service, to be housed in the Library of Parliament. The Special Committee recommended that one research assistant be assigned to every 10 members of Parliament, who at the time numbered 271.

The Committee’s recommendation was subsequently endorsed in November 1964 by then Speaker of the House of Commons, the Honourable Alan Aylesworth Macnaughton. He observed that parliamentarians would benefit from a research service to assist them in their duties, which required knowledge of a growing array of topics.

A year after consideration of the Committee’s report by the House of Commons, the parliamentary research service was established, with an initial staff of six research assistants to serve both the Senate and the House of Commons.

The evolution

In 1965, Erik Spicer, then Parliamentary Librarian, noted that the establishment of the research service transformed the Library of Parliament’s core work from providing traditional reference services in the form of “raw material of books, pamphlets, clippings” to synthesizing and analyzing that information in a more “useable format.”

At the start, the research service focused on providing confidential research materials in response to individual requests by parliamentarians. As the service evolved, it began to produce research papers on a wide range of policy topics of interest to senators and members, as well as Legislative Summaries of bills introduced in Parliament, under a newly minted publications program.

In the mid-1980s, the parliamentary research service expanded to meet the enhanced responsibilities of House of Commons standing committees, which could study any subject related to their mandate, rather than solely matters referred to them by the House. For the first time, research analysts were assigned, based on their policy expertise, to serve committees.

To respond quickly to increasingly complex research and information requests, the Library gradually embedded a number of librarians into the research service to enhance their collaboration with analysts in supporting the work of Parliament. When the integration of librarians was completed in 2004–2005, the research service changed its name to the Parliamentary Information and Research Service (PIRS).

PIRS today

The nature and level of services provided to parliamentarians by the research service has evolved considerably over the years. Today a team of about 90 highly skilled professionals (librarians and specialists in law, economics, science, public administration and social affairs) continue to provide non‑partisan research and analysis services.

The research service, which still produces Legislative Summaries and research publications, has expanded to include public education and outreach programs, such as the Teachers Institute on Canadian Parliamentary Democracy, information sessions for parliamentarians and their staff on current policy and legal issues, statistical and mapping services, and personalized news clipping and media monitoring services.

PIRS analysts handle over 4,500 research requests from parliamentarians annually. These requests, combined with reference and information requests received across the Library, total close to 61,000.

In addition, PIRS analysts assist 46 Senate and House of Commons committees; serve as advisors to 12 parliamentary associations; and produce a range of research materials designed to provide parliamentarians and the general public with independent analysis of relevant federal policy issues.

50 years of PIRS EN graph only

Notes:      *    While the research branch was established in 1965, production of research projects did not start until 1966.

**  Prior to 1968, the calendar year was used to total the number of reports produced by the Library. Starting in 1968, the fiscal year was used to calculate this total.

*** Data for the 2014–2015 fiscal year is the most recent available data.

From year to year, the number of research projects completed by PIRS is affected by changes in the parliamentary cycle such as elections and prorogations of Parliament. For example, between 2005-06 and 2010-11, the number of research projects completed by analysts decreased due to prorogations of Parliament in 2008 and 2009 and the three general elections held in 2006, 2008 and 2011.

Looking ahead

As is the case for other parliamentary research services, technological developments have changed the way in which PIRS conducts and disseminates its research. The Library is working to take advantage of technological advancements to “speed up, integrate, and enhance” its services (Strategic Outlook 2012–2017).

These developments include using social media and sites such as Twitter to disseminate Library products; using GIS/geo-location software and mapping tools, as well as infographics, to offer more types of research and analysis; and increasing the Library’s digitized holdings and enhancing online “searchability” and access to the Library’s catalogue.