November 16, 1985 marked the twenty-fifth
anniversary of the appointment of Erik Spicer as Parliamentary Librarian. He
has the distinction of being the only person of deputy minister status
appointed by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who still holds office. In this
interview Mr. Spicer reflects on the role of the Library of Parliament and
recalls some of the changes and developments it has undergone during his tenure
as Librarian. He was interviewed for the Canadian Parliamentary Review by Barbara
Benoit in October 1985.
Can you describe briefly the history of
the position of Parliamentary Librarian?
The position has existed since Confederation
and has always been a prestigious one. There used to be two positions of equal
status: General Librarian and Parliamentary Librarian. This dual system was an
invention of that consummate politician, Sir John A. Macdonald. Before the
Library of Parliament Act (1885), there had been only one position and, as it
carried deputy-ministerial rank, there had been a great deal of competition for
it. Sir John argued that the job of Parliamentary Librarian should go to an
English-speaking Canadian, who would be more familiar with parliamentary
tradition, and that the General Librarian should be a French-Canadian.
French-Canadians were known as men of culture and the General Librarian would
be responsible for building up a general collection to be the basis for a
national library. So Sir John made everyone happy.
We did not, however, get a National Library
in Canada until 1953. Until then, and indeed for some years after, the Library
of Parliament fulfilled some of the functions which the National Library
gradually took over. After the National Library was created, the Library of
Parliament Act was revised and the position of General Librarian abolished.
How did you come to be appointed to the
position of Parliamentary Librarian?
The Conservatives had argued strongly, while
the Library of Parliament Act was under review in 1955, that future appointees
to the position of Parliamentary Librarian should have professional training.
They remained committed to that principle.
Professional qualifications for librarians
were still a relatively new thing in the 1950s. It was clear, however, at least
to people working in the field, that professional training would be
increasingly necessary. The Canadian Library Association had taken a very
strong stand that the Parliamentary Librarian should be professionally trained.
I was, at that time, deputy librarian at the
Ottawa Public Library and had some of the most advanced professional training
then available. I had completed a master's degree in library science at the
University of Michigan and, in the course of my studies, had also taken courses
in business administration and journalism.
I had political as well as professional
credentials. My father-in-law, Dr. W.G. Blair, had been the Conservative member
for Lanark for twelve years. He was re-elected in 1957 but died before the
Cabinet was announced.
Although my political connections certainly
helped, I think, however, that my professional qualifications were of
Did the government remain committed to
the need for professionally qualified staff?
On the whole, yes. The Associate Librarian
position has become vacant twice during my time here. In each case, I waited a
decent period and then wrote to the prime minister offering to provide a list
of suitable candidates. Both Mr. Pearson and Mr. Trudeau accepted my
recommendations. There are not many deputy ministers who can successfully
recommend the appointment of their associates to the prime minister.
The position of Parliamentary Librarian
carries with it some very special demands. How did you go about establishing
yourself in the position?
I knew, of course, that it was important to
get in touch with Members of Parliament as quickly as possible, to make myself
known and to meet people. I remember thinking that I should waste no time in
introducing myself to the Speaker, Roland Michener. I went down to see him and
chatted away for quite a while. Finally, he said, "Well, Mr. Spicer, this
is all very interesting. But what are you doing here and why are telling me all
this?" I said, "I'm here, sir, because I have been appointed
Parliamentary Librarian." He was quite astonished. It was news to him. It
was an awkward beginning to our relationship, but we later got on quite well
and I liked him very much.
Was it a daunting task, imposing
professional standards of organization on the library?
When I came, it was administrative chaos.
Doug Fisher, the former NDP Member of Parliament, had been a professional
librarian – is in fact, the only librarian ever to be elected to the House of
Commons. I remember that he said to me: "Erik, if you can not turn the
library around in two years, it will defeat you". It took me three years,
but I did it.
I do not want to give you the impression
that I was the only professional around. I had about 65 people on staff,
working in one capacity or another. A number were trained librarians. There
were some very good people and they worked very hard but, because of the
structural set-up, they were sometimes working at cross-purposes. I think the
most valuable asset I brought to the library was sound administrative training
Even the basic tool of a card catalogue was
quite a new thing when I took over in 1960. Until the fire of 1952, new
acquisitions were simply recorded in ledgers and given location numbers which
showed where they ought to be on the shelves. There were no classification
numbers. After the fire, the Library was closed down for three or four years
while the collection was classified according to the Library of Congress
system. Although much of the basic work of classification was complete by the
time I came, there was still a great deal of work to be done in making the
information in our holdings accessible. I was appalled, for example, to find
that committee reports were not indexed. A librarian could spend three or four
days leafing through old volumes of reports, trying to answer some simple query
from a member.
Were the Members of Parliament at the
time particularly aware of the need for better service?
I do not think there was much active
dissatisfaction. The sessions were shorter then and the pressures were not what
they are today. Members were not particularly aware of how much better the
service might have been. A few wished to make speeches on our behalf, saying we
needed more money and more staff. But I discouraged this. I was used to the
Ottawa Public Library, which was chronically understaffed, overworked and
underpaid. My first goal was to organize my existing staff to ensure that they
were working as hard and as effectively as possible.
How did you move toward this goal?
I did not set out to make myself liked. I
made it clear that my standards were more exacting and that I expected them to
be met. You cannot be a good administrator if your main goal is to be liked.
But you do not have to be hated either. The army has a phrase for good
administrative technique: the three Fs – fair, firm, friendly.
Straightening out the lines of command was
another priority. I recall that one day, shortly after I took over, a very
junior staff member came to my office and asked if he could have the day off.
"Why are you asking me?" I said. He replied with quite disarming
candour, "Because I've already asked everybody else and they said
no." That is an amusing example of what was, of course a more serious
Assuring confidentiality was another key to
improving library service. I knew that some members who could have used the
Library of Parliament were going elsewhere to do their research. I asked a few
why they went elsewhere, and one said: "Oh, as soon as I ask for a book at
the parliamentary library, everyone knows what I am working on, and the
opposition gets right to work preparing its attack." Now part of the
problem was just the structure of the Library. The books are in bays around the
dome and voices carry. Some of the librarians were careless and in the habit of
simply calling out to a colleague: "Can you help me with such-and-such? I
need it for so-and-so right away." Frequently there would be journalists
or other members within earshot. So we began to take a number of measures to
eliminate this problem. The staff were instructed to respect the
confidentiality of any request from a member and access to the Library to
outsiders was severely restricted.
Have the research services expanded a
great deal under your direction?
Oh, it's simply not the same library! When I
came, members were getting rather relaxed library service, certainly not the
research service they needed. The research branch was founded in 1965 and
modelled after the Congressional Research Service in Washington. We have more
research officers now than librarians.
How did the research branch come into
It was created in response to a
sub-committee report in which the then Members of Parliament, Pauline Jewett,
Gordon Fairweather and George Lachance, strongly recommended its formation. Of
course, their recommendation was not the end of the story. There was opposition
in cabinet to the idea and, to prevent the formation of the branch from being
blocked, I had to go myself and personally persuade two ministers that this was
a useful and indeed necessary service.
The Research Branch proved its usefulness
immediately and underwent quite massive expansion within three or four years.
The former Liberal Whip, Jimmy Walker, is one of the unsung heroes of the
expansion. I went to see him and pointed out that the parliamentary committees
needed more formal and more specialized research services. He agreed and helped
set up an in-camera meeting. There was some acrimonious dispute, but, in the
end, the members asked for ten research staff to serve House of Commons
Senate Speaker Madam Fergusson was also most
helpful. She gave a luncheon to which she invited the chairmen of the Senate
Committees. After much discussion, they asked for ten research officers as
well. I had originally envisaged a total expansion of only ten positions. Now
Parliament wanted twenty! Ten were approved.
It was eminently logical to provide the
research service through the Library. Bills go through the House and the Senate
and vice versa, so it seems logical to have the same research officers follow
the legislation through both houses. If the Senate and the House had their own
separate research services, neither service would be large enough to offer
interesting career possibilities to officers. Neither would be able to keep
officers busy full time. Neither would be able to hire a broad range of
specialists. But through the Library, a large staff with expertise in many
different areas can work for Parliament as a whole.
I think we have given Parliament a quality
of service unrivalled throughout the world, except, of course, in Washington.
What kind of services does the research
We prepare background papers and papers on
specific issues and we do oral briefings as well. We do a great deal of work
for committees. We help write reports, suggest names of witnesses and prepare
questions for witnesses. At the request of a committee chairman, our staff may
take part in questioning witnesses. At times, senior officers have even filled
in on speaking engagements for members who were unable to address a particular
group. We do not, of course, have experts in everything, and so we engage
outside experts when required. For example, we hired a prison guard once to
work with a sub-committee looking into problems in prisons. The research branch
also prepares a Current Issues Review List and background papers for individual
members' information. They also give considerable help to Parliamentary
Associations with briefings, papers and direct staff assistance. For example
one member of the research branch has been seconded to the Association of
French-Speaking Parliamentarians in Paris; another provides the editorial
services for this journal.
What are some of the other services
offered by the Library?
We have an extensive clipping file. Twenty
Canadian papers are clipped on a daily basis and many more dailies and weeklies
as the need arises and time allows. Quorum is our very popular daily selection
of xeroxed clippings. Staff are in every week day at 6 a.m. preparing Quorum
for circulation. The clipping services are provided through our information and
reference branch. This branch also produces a Selected Additions List of books,
bibliographies and government documents that might interest MPs and a Selected
Periodical Articles List, including reference to recent articles.
Do you think members make optimum use of
No, certainly not. Almost all members make
some use of the Library. A large number of members and senators make very full and
intelligent use of the services we offer. But there are still many who are
simply unaware of the extent to which we could expedite their work or who don't
need extensive help.
One of our big problems is being taken for
granted. I remember at a political science meeting listening to a paper on
information for Parliament. Now, the Library is the single most
important source of information, but it was
not mentioned once. On another occasion, I approached a journalist who had
written an article on information systems on the Hill without mentioning the
Library and I expressed surprise. He said he had got all his information out of
our clipping file!
What is your view on the uses of
automation within the library?
First, let me say that we are very highly automated
and have been for a long time. Our catalogue is entirely on line: there is no
more card catalogue. Automation is a necessary tool in a modern library, but it
carries with it some dangers.
It is not access to information but
interpretation of information that is the great problem at the present time.
Unfortunately, many people believe that
anything that comes out of a black box must be right. It is very difficult for
people who are swamped with information to maintain their critical faculties.
All of the MPs have more information than they can handle. What they lack are
information and subject specialists who know how to use the data banks, have
some knowledge of the particular strengths and weaknesses of the different
banks and are able to interpret the information they gather, who are able to
say, "this book is considered seminal," "this periodical is
considered eminently reliable," and to process the raw data.
The major federal libraries, including the
Library of Parliament and the National Library, use DOBIS (the Dortmunder
Bibliotheks system) in a version modified to suit Canadian requirements, such
as bilingualism. It is a very complete and very flexible system and its data
base contains nearly two million records. This is the system through which all
of our cataloguing and many of our bibliographical searches are done.
Access is maintained through 33 terminals.
To access outside data banks and automate inside information, we have eight
personal computers (IBM, COMPAQ and NORTH STAR) and three computer consoles
(HEWLETT-PACKARD and ANDERSON-JACABSON). These permit access to over 400 data
bases. I should point out, however, that although the machines are used
extensively in response to some questions, only about four per cent of the
requests we receive require their use at all. Because of the nature of the
parliamentary system, we are less dependent o~ automation than, for example,
the Library of Congress. We have no need for an elaborate bill-tracking system.
Speed is of great importance in filling requests
for information, and, to reply with optimum speed, we need to have material on
hand in our collection. But we are overstocked with some 700,000 items. We look
forward to the time when the National Library will have the space to accept
about 200,000 items and when we will have the time to select the items for
Has the need to provide bilingual
services posed any special problems for the Library of Parliament?
I would say that, at present, the Library is
a model of bilingualism. I mentioned earlier that Sir John A. Macdonald saw fit
to appoint two librarians of equal status, one French and one English. Now,
although these librarians were supposed to fulfill distinct functions, in
practice they appear to have run two parallel libraries, one French and one
English. Such a system was unwieldy administratively. I amalgamated all the
services. For example, it did not make any sense to me to have separate English
and French References Branches and Cataloging Branches. We used even to have
separate English and French letterhead, but I made that bilingual as soon as we
ran out of the old stock.
Because we were a small organization, we
were able to pursue bilingualism in other ways. We were giving French and
English lessons to the staff long before the practice was introduced in the
public service. It had nothing to do with the politics of the language issue.
It had everything to do with sensible administration. We used our own staff as
teachers. One person from the Maritimes had formerly been a teacher. The other
was just naturally gifted. We held the classes from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., half on
work time and half on the employees' own time. The classes were very popular
and successful so successful that House of Commons employees asked me to set up
a French school for them. But I said, "No, I am trying to run a library
and don't have time to run a language school."
What would you say has been the most
interesting aspect of your job during your 25 years here?
The job has been absorbing and interesting
in many ways. In addition to establishing professional research and
professional administration on Parliament Hill I think one of the most
interesting individual things I have ever done was to go to Nigeria for UNESO
in 1982 to run a seminar for parliamentary librarians there. There is an
important international aspect to the job of Parliamentary Librarian. It is
part of my responsibility to keep in touch with other parliamentary librarians
in Europe, in the Commonwealth and around the world. We are in many ways a
world leader and have received observers and trainees in legislative research
from many countries Korea, Nigeria, Trinidad, Tunisia, Cameroon, Switzerland
and Bangladesh to name a few. Our people have gone abroad to advise on the
setting up of library services in other countries and we have had exchange
programs with England, Australia and the United States. I have been quite
heavily involved with the work of IFLA (the International Federation of Library
Associations) since I first went to an IFLA meeting at the Hague in 1966. I
later became Chairman of the Parliamentary Libraries Section of IFLA
Can you sum up the general pattern of
development in the administration of the Library under your direction?
In a word, service. We are much more
oriented toward service than we used to be, and much less collection dependent.
We used principally to be custodians of enormous holdings where members,
senators, journalists, and others could come to search for what they needed.
Now we are geared to providing specific information in response to specific
needs and requests, and to providing it with great speed, confidentiality and
thoroughness in an appropriate format. Our orientation is much less general. We
are geared toward the special needs of parliamentarians and we give real
research, in depth, in many fields.