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The House of Commons Library is a unique collection of more than 200,000 books, journals, maps and resources. Many of them can be loaned to Members of Parliament and their staff in connection with their parliamentary duties and it is both a library and a research and information service. Greg Howard, Library Loans Manager, describes some of the most unusual and interesting items held by the Library.
What’s among the Library’s oldest items?
The Commons Library was founded in 1818, and in 1830, published its first catalogue. The Library still has a copy of this; it shows the collection was selected largely on the same basis as it is now – featuring books predominantly about Parliament, politics, history and aspects of public administration.
Among the Library’s oldest items is an eighteenth-century edition of Survey of the cities of London and Westminster, borough of Southwark and parts adjacent, by John Stow, or, as it is more commonly known, Stow’s Survey of London. Stow was an English historian, who lived from 1524-5 until 1605. The Survey is his most famous work – it was first published in 1598 and has remained continuously in print ever since.
Not all the Library’s books are specifically about Parliament, or even politics. There is a large collection of biographies – particularly of politicians, but of other eminent figures too. One such is Samuel Pepys, remembered now principally as one of the greatest diarists. Pepys lived through some historic events - notably The Great Plague (1665) and The Great Fire (1666). The Library holds an eleven-volume set of his diaries, which was published during 1970-83. Another great collection is the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Known chiefly for her correspondence travelling the Ottoman Empire, Lady Montagu campaigned for the smallpox inoculation. Her writing challenged previously male-dominated accounts and misconceptions about the Ottoman Empire, particularly around women and their dress, habits, traditions and more. The Library also holds eight separate biographies of Nancy Astor, first elected in 1919, and the first female Member of the House of Commons to take her seat. Other politicians who feature prominently in the collection of biographies include Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
Breathalyser kits and Valentine’s cards
A large proportion of the collection is held in Members’ Library, in the Palace of Westminster, which was built in the years following a great fire which burned down the old Palace in 1834. However, a significant number of items are kept in other buildings around London and the rest of Britain. Among those in the Library are a collection of deposited papers. These are documents which have been placed in the Library by Government ministers or by the Speaker, often to supply a more detailed response to a parliamentary question, or to provide background information relating to a bill passing through Parliament. The first such document was placed in 1832 and concerned an investigation into the Rajah of Travancore’s debt payments. Since then, thousands of documents have been placed in this way, including a breathalyser kit, Valentines cards from other countries, correspondence concerning the medical condition of Senator Pinochet and correspondence between Jinnah, the first leader of Pakistan, and Gandhi. Documents received since 2007 are electronically available for anyone to view at www.parliament.uk/depositedpapers.
What are the Library’s most popular books?
Twice a year, the Library produces a list of the books which have been borrowed most frequently over the preceding six months. The Library’s most-borrowed book over the last few years (and probably many more before that) has been How Parliament works, by Robert Rogers and Rhodri Walters. This book, of which the Library has numerous copies, explains every aspect of Parliament’s work, internal protocols, membership and structures. Demand for the book generally peaks during the period immediately following a general election.
Another of the Library’s most-loaned books is Erskine May’s treatise of the law privileges proceedings and usage of Parliament. The Library holds copies of all the previous 24 editions, the first of which appeared in 1844. The book’s author, Thomas Erskine May, was appointed clerk of the House of Commons in 1871 and the book is widely regarded as the authority on parliamentary procedure and the constitution. The 25th edition, unlike the previous 24, is freely available for anyone to use online at erskinemay.parliament.uk.
The Library’s collection also contains more modern publications. Two of the most frequently borrowed books in recent months have been Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff and Fall out: a year of political mayhem, by Tim Shipman, based respectively on recent events in US and British politics.
The Library holds a significant collection of fiction – largely, but not exclusively, political fiction. These include the works of the classic authors, such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and the Brontes, but also politicians who successfully turned their hands to novel-writing. One such is Ellen Wilkinson, who served as an MP for nearly twenty years in the first half of the twentieth century and was the Minister for Education in the years immediately after the Second World War. She was the author of numerous books, one of which, The Division Bell Mystery (pictured above) was originally published in 1932, and has recently been reissued.
A valuable source of parliamentary history in an earlier era was The Gentleman’s Magazine, a monthly publication which was founded in 1731 by Warwickshire businessman Edward Cave. It began publishing reports of parliamentary debates in 1732; a risky undertaking during a period when it was illegal to publish any information pertaining to parliamentary debates. The writer Samuel Johnson was engaged to write the reports for three years from July 1741. The magazine continued publication uninterrupted for almost 200 years – the House of Commons Library has a complete run.
A cartoon collection
The Commons Library also has a large collection of political cartoons. The cartoon pictured was published in 1870 in Punch magazine. It shows Gladstone and Disraeli, who between them served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on six separate occasions during the later years of the 19th century, commenting unfavourably on the other’s latest book. In addition to their political careers, both were successful authors. Many of their writings are held by the Commons Library.
Profiles of MPs
For information about Members of Parliament from a certain period, Roth’s Parliamentary Profiles are an indispensable source. Their author, Andrew Roth was born in New York in 1919 and moved to London in 1950. The first volume of profiles was published in 1984, and they appeared regularly until 2005.
The Times obituary of the author stated: ‘For more than 50 years Andrew Roth produced a stream of unorthodox, often outrageous and sometimes near-libelous profiles of MPs.’ The profiles are sometimes very prescient. The 1988 profile of Betty Boothroyd MP reported that she is: “widely tipped to become Britain’s first-ever lady Speaker.” As predicted, Boothroyd was elected Speaker a few years later, after the 1992 General Election.
In addition to the books and other sources described in this article, the Library also publishes impartial research and analysis on policy areas, topical issues and major pieces of legislation. This can be viewed alongside statistical information, a range of articles and podcasts on numerous subjects at commonslibrary.parliament.uk.
Tours of the House of Commons Library are available on one Saturday a month. These can be combined with a full UK Parliament tour which includes the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Book online at: www.parliament.uk/visit.
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