Celebrating 200 years of the
House of Commons Library
2018 marks 200 years since the first House of Commons Librarian was appointed.
Today, the House of Commons Library is an independent research unit based in the UK Parliament. MPs use the Library to get factual information on any topic or legislation they are dealing with in the course of their work. And anyone can read the research the Library publishes online, which covers topics from Brexit to bees.
Much has changed in the Library's 200-year history. Over the years, Library staff have witnessed major political events first hand. Staff have also seen dramatic changes in the workplace, with the development of technology and changing attitudes towards gender equality.
Some former employees share their memories of working for the Commons Library…
"I didn't know then that the previous advertisement for the job had specified that 'Men only need apply'"
Jane Fiddick (née Hodlin)Joined the Commons Library
1963–1969, rejoined 1976, retired 2000
I applied for the post of Junior Library Clerk in the House of Commons Library in late autumn 1962. I didn't know then that the previous advertisement for the job had specified that "Men only need apply" (on that occasion, nobody was appointed). I later learned that one of the Board had started his summing up by throwing a gauntlet to the other members by observing what a pity it was that the best candidate was a girl.
I was not the first female Library Clerk; there had been one during the war. But in the meantime, Library Clerks had been allowed to share a privilege granted to Clerks of the House: Officership of the House of Commons. I think I may have been the first non-male Officer. This would prove a somewhat mixed blessing. The police and attendants, let alone Members, weren't warned and when I ventured into the Chamber or the Tea Room or other areas forbidden to ordinary mortals, I was constantly and embarrassingly challenged.
Various memories stand out from the period before the election of 1964. It didn't seem so important then, but I now value highly the fact that I can tell my grandchildren that I often saw Sir Winston Churchill. He would be wheeled in to take his seat beneath the Gangway as MP for Woodford for Prime Minister's Questions. Even then, he still had presence, and his attendants were sure that he knew exactly where he was.
When he died in 1965, I received an impressive purple-edged invitation to his state funeral in St Paul's Cathedral from the Lord Chamberlain. The singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic raised the roof and remains in the memory. As does his lying-in-state in a chilly Westminster Hall, wreathed in mist, with long queues of mourners waiting patiently way back over Westminster Bridge.
One quite exciting moment happened in 1968 with the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The Research Section produced Reference Sheets, which were annotated lists of briefing material kept in boxes to provide background to current legislation. Events had led to a recall of Parliament. The head of the Science and Defence Section decreed that we should produce documents to provide a coherent analytical background to what was happening. This was the beginning, I think, of the current style for the preparation of research papers, which are now available online.
I also remember the sheer wonder of being set to work in the Library suite of rooms overlooking the river, with their Pugin furniture and superb Gothic revival desk accessories. And, occasionally, looking out of the Oriel Room window to see the sun rising over St Thomas' Hospital. These were very special and unforgettable moments. Especially when you have just, perhaps, walked past Westminster Hall.
"We heard the explosion and knew immediately it was serious"
European Communities Desk and Higher Library Executive, International Affairs section, 1975–1982
In 1979, Airey Neave was killed by a car bomb as he was driving out of the underground car park. The Irish National Liberation Army claimed responsibility. Working in the main library suite, we heard the explosion and knew immediately it was serious. What I particularly remember is the deathly silence as we left the House of Commons some hours later as traffic had been completely barred from Parliament Square. My car was in the underground car park but fortunately I was able to walk home and retrieve it the following day.
A rare Saturday sitting of the House of Commons was held to discuss the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, which had taken place the previous day. As part of the International Affairs team that had been responsible for briefing MPs and preparing background reports, I felt especially involved. Mrs Thatcher announced that a task force would be sailing to the Falklands. At the time it seemed quite exciting but of course we didn't know then how many lives would be lost, both Argentinian and British.
"My eyes fell on the white placard which displayed the words: 'Jeremy Thorpe MP charged with conspiracy to murder'. I still recall my sense of disbelieving shock that this was the debonair, self-confident politician in Room 45 yesterday."
Senior Personal Secretary to the Librarian, 1975–1998
I joined the Library in June 1975. I found Parliament to be a very exciting environment in which to work. The government had a wafer-thin majority and Members seemed to me to be good examples of dedicated representatives of the people. It was quite thrilling to pass people like Barbara Castle, Dennis Healey (who once announced himself on the phone to me as 'Eyebrows Here'), and the Prime Minister in the corridors. I also had a brief chat with Lord Hunt (of Everest fame) and with Garrett Fitzgerald (then Irish Taoiseach), who had got slightly lost in the building.
It was early August 1977, the whole Palace seemed deserted, apart from the very few staff on duty and workmen carrying out remedial tasks. I was by myself at my desk in the North Curtain Corridor when at about 3 o'clock, the door was flung open and there stood the Rt Hon Jeremy Thorpe MP. Doffing his hat, he exclaimed "Madam, I am in need of help", to which I replied: "Well Mr Thorpe, the Librarian is on leave but I can quite easily get hold of the Clerk-in-Charge for you". "No, no", he said, no librarians, no clerks, I need you".
With that, he took a folder from under his arm which he laid on my desk: "write there, I want you to witness my will". He added that the second signatory was Princess Alice (with whom he had just enjoyed a 'delightful' lunch at the Ritz) and went on chatting in that vein while I appended name/address in the appointed place. Thorpe then departed in a small flurry to get a taxi to the Inns of Court (doubtless to lodge the will with his lawyer). I went home that evening thinking that it was an unusual interlude in an otherwise uneventful day.
24 hours later, I was walking up Richmond Hill with my (then young) daughter at my side. As we approached the Odeon cinema, the news vendor was in his normal position and naturally my eyes fell on the white placard which displayed the words: 'Jeremy Thorpe MP charged with conspiracy to murder'. Even at this distance in time, I still recall my sense of disbelieving shock that this was the debonair, self-confident politician in Room 45 yesterday.
"The older colleagues in the room knew instantly that it was the sound of a bomb, they remembered the sounds from the war"
In my first six months here in 1978, I watched the political turmoil as the Callaghan government came to an end and Airey Neave MP was murdered. I was working in the Oriel Room at the time and heard the explosion. The older colleagues in the room knew instantly that it was the sound of a bomb, they remembered the sounds from the war.
When I joined the Library, my first job involved linking the different stages of EU legislation on a computer system shared with the Greater London Council. It was one of the first computers in the Library and was viewed with some suspicion by Members and staff. The rest of my job involved cutting up, indexing and filing newspaper cuttings. These were our main source of information about what was happening overseas. The ability to search online for press articles was a long way in the future then.
"I found it all, especially as a new member of staff, so interesting and exciting"
Worked for the Commons Library 1971–2010
I started working in the Library at the beginning of October 1971 in the International Affairs Section (IAS). We were then based in A Room of the Members' Library and elsewhere in the Palace. That month the work of the House (and the Library) was dominated by the six-day debate on the Motion: "That this House approves Her Majesty's Government's decision of principle to join the European Communities on the basis of the arrangements which have been negotiated."
This culminated in the historic vote on 28 October 1971 which paved the way for the Bill which became the European Communities Act 1972 and the UK joining the European Communities on 1 January 1973. The atmosphere in the House in October 1971, especially on the 28th, was tense (much was at stake and there was a degree of cross-party voting on the Motion).
The Library was very busy: preparing briefings, answering enquiries, making documents available and providing a place for Members to work and speak to staff, close to the Chamber. I found it all, especially as a new member of staff, so interesting and exciting.
I was told later that my post had come about in anticipation of membership of the European Communities. Initially IADS received Foreign Office translations of EC documents and then, after 1 January 1973, the full range of original English-language material. It was our job to organise and index this and to track the progress of EC legislation (all this before computers).
The vote on 28 October 1971 still seems such a historic event and one whose consequences are still very much with us as the UK seeks to leave the European Union. A few MPs who took part in the vote are still in the House (and several more are in the House of Lords).
"Probably the most important change for the Library was the gradual introduction of IT from the mid-1970s onwards. By the time I left it had totally changed our ways of working."
Worked for the Commons Library 1968–2004
Probably the most important change for the Library was the gradual introduction of IT from the mid-1970s onwards. The Library was a relatively early adopter (against a good deal of internal opposition) and by the time I left it had totally changed our ways of working. Members also changed a great deal and made new demands, with much more focus on constituency cases and difficult enquiries. They also acquired personal staff on a scale that changed how we worked with many of them.
My generation was lucky in that those of us who joined in the late 1960s and early 1970s were there before the technology arrived. We also had opportunities to get to know the Members and worked directly for them, rather than through their staff. To me, there is no doubt that technology vastly improved the scale and scope of what we could do. But there were disadvantages – such as the problems when it didn't work properly and the increased pressure to produce quick results.
I was personally lucky in that I spent the first twenty and last five years of my career based in the Palace. It is a truly wonderful building, even though it was also pretty inconvenient. The job could have its dull moments but the environment was never dull. Library staff gradually moved into various outbuildings with somewhat mixed results.
We never had a dress code as such but in the late 1960s there was an unwritten assumption that the female staff did not wear trousers to work. Trousers other than jeans had, however, arrived by the early 1970s and a colleague asked whether she could wear a trouser suit to work. After some pondering, she was permitted to wear a trouser suit on Fridays, which she did pretty regularly and there were successors. After a while, and when one or two women Members started wearing trousers, the Friday rule somehow disappeared.
There was also the saga of the hot pants worn by two of my colleagues in the early 1970s. As far as I know, nothing official was said but there were many gasps from all sides. On a different occasion, one of my colleagues working at the loans desk in the Oriel Room came in one hot day wearing a top with straps of the kind that was at that time not very common. Someone complained about her bare shoulders and she was told to wear a cardigan.
"MPs were coming into the Library beforehand, asking 'Where are the Falkland Islands?'"
Worked for the Commons Library 1972–2005
Just before the 1979 General Election campaign began, a bomb killed the Conservative politician Airey Neave (expected to become Northern Ireland Secretary in a Conservative Government) as he drove out of the underground car park. Sitting in the Members' Library, we heard the bomb go off, but it was some time before we knew where it was and who was the victim. Calls were coming in to the Library from MPs' wives who had heard the news but didn't know the identity of the Member involved. Everyone leaving the car park afterwards was stopped and questioned.
In 1982, Argentinian forces had invaded South Georgia and subsequently the Falklands. There was to be a Saturday debate in the House. Lord Carrington had resigned as Foreign Secretary, as had Humphrey Atkins (deputy Foreign Secretary in the Commons) and Richard Luce, the Foreign Office minister with responsibility for Latin America. At International Affairs we stayed late on the Friday evening, putting together material for Members. Then I was in the Chamber for the opening speeches in the Saturday debate by Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot. It was a very tense and sober atmosphere. MPs were coming into the Library beforehand, asking 'Where are the Falkland Islands?' and we had to obtain detailed maps from the Ministry of Defence. During the war, we hurried home every evening to hear the news, which was carefully controlled.
I was in the Chamber for Mrs Thatcher's last appearance in the House before her resignation as Prime Minister in 1990. The House was packed and it was a unique occasion. She began rather nervously until there was a humorous intervention from Dennis Skinner. After that she rallied and seemed to be quite enjoying the occasion. There was much waving of order papers on both sides of the House.
I was on early-morning duty in the Oriel Room on the day of her resignation. There was only one Member with me at the time, who received a message on his pager and exclaimed 'she's gone!'. The Conservative leadership campaign began very quickly and there were huddles of Conservative MPs in the corridors, being wooed by the campaign managers. I remember an Opposition frontbencher saying that they might as well go home, as no real business was going to be done during the campaign.
There was communal shock and grief throughout the House at the sudden death of John Smith in 1994. He was a popular Member, a fluent and amusing debater, and regarded as a possible future Prime Minister. I was in the Chamber for the very sincere tribute by John Major as Prime Minister and a very brave and moving speech by Margaret Beckett as acting Labour leader.