At the time this article was
written Susan Bishop was Legislative Librarian with the Manitoba Legislative
Two of the most heavily-used
documents in any legislative or parliamentary library are the printed record of
debates and the statutes currently in effect. In Manitoba, automation has been
used to enhance access to both types of publications. The legislative library
has been an active user of the Hansard online database since it was launched
and has participated in trials of other related databases put up by Manitoba
Like many of the databases which
libraries have used since the l970s, Hansard online evolved from a need to
produce a hard copy product in a more timely and efficient manner. The impetus
to create a database came from the Office of the Speaker as a means to speed up
the retrieval process for MLAs and others who want to find out exactly what was
said in the Chamber.
The Manitoba legislature's Hansard
database was initially created using data transcribed by word processing staff
in the Hansard office from the Debates and Proceedings of the fourth session of
the Thirty-second Legislature which opened on March 7, 1985. Hansard staff
input data using WANG word processing equipment and transmit their work to the Manitoba
Data Services computer. Retrospective files from 1981 on were later added,
giving a potential of eight years' worth of the Debates. Because the files are
large, only the current session and the two previous sessions are available at
any time. Special arrangements must be made to load the backfiles, with a
charge levied for this service.
This database, as well as other
related files, are maintained by Manitoba Data Services who provide user
training, technical support, and documentation. Manitoba Data Services chose
the STAIRS system to create the Hansard database, and users access the system
using AQUARIUS (A Query and Retrieval Interactive Utility System), a sub-system
The Hansard database and other
related files are used extensively by legislative library staff, staff in the
Offices of the Speaker and the Clerk, caucus researchers and legislative
interns as well as government departments, making a total of 126 registered
users of Hansard online. Most searches are completed in five minutes or less.
The system is available from 7 a.m. to 1:45 a.m., seven days per week. Normally
the full text of the previous day's debate is available by 10 a.m.
Legislative library staff perform
an average of 25 to 30 searches per month on behalf of clients. Most of these
are done onsite at the Legislative Reading Room using a dedicated line which
gives fast logon and response time, as well as fixed cost charges.
Alternatively, if a user wishes to search using a multipurpose computer, it is
possible to access the file through the Datapac network.
In order to use the databases
effectively, a searcher needs two types of information. Because of the volume
of data associated with a full-text database, a knowledge of parliamentary
procedure and terminology is essential. A searcher who knows how to track
legislation, where to find information related to estimates, and what type of
language is used in the House can produce good results quickly. It is equally
important to know the names of members as well as their individual
responsibilities as ministers or critics.
Secondly, the searcher needs to
become familiar with basic information retrieval concepts (Boolean logic,
ranking, limiting and truncation) and then to learn the specific commands used
in interacting with the system. Users who expect to use the system frequently
would be well advised to take advantage of a formal Manitoba Data Services
training session in the use of STAIRS and to order the STAIRS manual for a more
complete understanding of the system.
The basic retrieval commands in
AQUARIUS are "Search" and "Select". using the
"Search" command, it is possible to locate occurrences of single
words, words in proximity to each other, or terms with some logical
relationship to each other. For example, the names "Filmon" or
"Carstairs" or "Doer" can be searched to find out what any
of the party leaders have recently said in the House.
Use of the standard Boolean
operators "and" "or" and "not" allows a user to
construct a query describing a subject. Since the database is a record of what
is actually said, the terms found in the file reflect all the diversity of
language used in the House -- at least as it is recorded for posterity.
The effectiveness of the Boolean
operators is somewhat mitigated by the structure of the database. A
"document" is one section of a sitting, such as Oral Questions. One
document can be as long as 100 screens, and can contain the discussion of
several unrelated topics by several Members. A search strategy intended to
identify what a given individual has said on a specific topic could retrieve
documents in which the personal name appeared on "page" one, while
the subject itself is found on "page" ninety-nine in the speech of
another Member. While browsing a document, the searcher can command the system
to display the specific portions of the document containing the search terms
and to highlight the word(s). There are techniques which can help the searcher
improve results within a full text system. Using the STAIRS commands "with"
and "same" to link terms or groups of terms gives more precise recall
since they require the terms specified to occur in the same sentence or
paragraph. Another of the most useful methods to zero in on a topic is the
"select" command which limits the retrieval to a given date range or
a specific set of documents such as "oral questions".
The Hansard databases are used to
answer several different types of questions. They can be used to pinpoint an
exact date or the number of times a phrase such as point of order is used in
the House. A new speech writer can sample the verbal style of a Member in order
to write an appropriate text. With a change n government, a newly appointed
Minister may want to know what the previous Minister or critic said in the last
session on a given topic. Following the most recent election in Manitoba which
saw a large number of first-time MLAs elected, the Hansard database was useful
in answering questions related to procedure in the Legislature. The most
obvious benefit from the Library's perspective is the ability to offer a faster
and more comprehensive service while saving staff time. This is particularly
true for queries where the client is unable to narrow down a time frame or
requires a comprehensive search such as: "Find all occurrences of the
expression `affirmative action' in this session to date".
Access to the database on demand
makes this information available to offices or libraries who do not have
sufficient space or need to collect the printed Hansard. However, the searcher
should be familiar with the printed version in order to search effectively.
Because Hansard online is
relatively inexpensive, it can be used to demonstrate capabilities and
techniques of online retrieval for both clients and staff. Given its subject
content, it is of special interest for Members and caucus researchers.
Based on the legislative library's
experience with other online retrieval systems and in guiding end-users to
conduct their own searches, there are some areas in which the library would
like to see this useful service made even better:
Occasionally retrieval is limited
by the data input quality or practice. Although rare, this can result in
failure to identify a key reference. Consistency in input would remove this
There is at present no way to link
a "page" (i.e. screen) of Hansard online with a page of the printed
Hansard. This can be confusing for clients and limits the usefulness of the
option of printing brief references instead of lengthy full-text extracts.
Increasingly, information providers
are becoming aware that their systems must consider user needs and preferences
in designing access procedures. Since both content and retrieval are relatively
complex, users should have the option of a user-friendly menu-driven system
which would walk them through the typical steps and options of a Hansard
search. Experienced searchers could bypass the menu and use the system commands
The Law Library of the University
of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Public Library have indicated interest in
accessing some of the files maintained by Manitoba Data Services, such as
Hansard and the Continuing Consolidation of the Statutes of Manitoba, in order
to make this information readily available to the public. If the database is
going to be used by a wider user-base, there will be a need for documentation
which explains the contents of the file for a novice and offers a tutorial
walk-through. It might also be helpful to incorporate that information into the
online help function.
Another desirable feature would be
greater flexibility in browsing the database on screen or by printing. This
function is perceived as cumbersome, particularly for those accessing the
system at 1200 baud, since all information is transmitted one screen at a time.
Manitoba Data Services indicates that new communications software and 2400 baud
access could improve this function.
These comments and a wish list for
improvements do not in any way negate the success of this initiative which has benefited
the legislature, the legislative library and the many other users of the
system. Indeed, Manitoba Data Services has extended its range of databases to
include online versions of the Minutes of Standing Committees as well as the
Continuing Consolidation of the Statutes of Manitoba in both official
languages. The combined group of databases contributes to efficiency within the
legislative assembly and government operations. Public access to this
information supports the concept of openness in government and recognizes the
need to make this information available as quickly as possible to the citizens