The National Library system is one of the public institutions that Singaporeans can rightly be proud of. It has come a long way from the rustling card catalogues, musty shelves and rickety book buses I used to look forward to as a kid growing up in Circuit Road who couldn’t afford many books of my own. Today, our public library system is a well-used, well-loved, sophisticated network of millions of book titles and other knowledge resources catering to just about every subject of interest, for anyone in any walk of life. Its signed-up members number in the millions. Singaporeans borrow over 30 million books each year.
The National Library’s mission to provide access to knowledge and learning transcends socioeconomic boundaries. Through the decades, it has offered generations of Singaporeans a treasure trove of information, knowledge and pleasure that no one could plausibly acquire on their own — all for virtually nothing. You don’t have to have money or pass a National Exam to read a book, any book, by some of the finest authors in history, or to learn about aspects of the world that might otherwise be outside your daily sphere of awareness. You choose freely what to read, with help if you need it.
Gone are the days when librarians used to shush us up for talking in the aisles — today, considerate levels of conversation are welcome, and our libraries are full of life and activity. In more recent years, pursuing a mission to “make knowledge come alive, spark imagination and create possibilities”, the NLB has hosted a wide variety of public talks, discussions, ground-up reading groups, art exhibitions and diverse other events, including its visionary Read! Singapore programme. Together, these provide ongoing opportunities for learning, engagement and dialogue on a national scale.
In other words, our National Library system has been one of the most inclusive, accessible sites of civic discourse and learning in Singapore today. As with libraries elsewhere, it has shown what a well-resourced, civilised urban society cares about, cultivates and celebrates. It’s the sort of Singaporean institution I identify with, see as an unequivocal public good, and continue to support wholeheartedly, in cash and kind.
This is why, as a Read! Singapore author and Singaporean writer who is frequently called upon by the NLB as a resource person, and also as a concerned parent, I am disturbed by the recent withdrawal of two books from the Children’s section — made at the request of a member of the public, but without, it seems, any broader consultation or consideration of alternative measures.
I am concerned that the National Library is moving away from its mission of encouraging more (rather than less) engagement and learning. I am concerned that we are reducing opportunities for Singaporean readers and families to explore ideas and discover possibilities at their own discretion and pace. I am concerned that we have started down the slippery slope of seeing books not as conversations, reflections or observations, but as crude instruction manuals — or worse, advertorials — for particular kinds of thought or behaviour. This is a serious impoverishment of what books are and what knowledge means, and it can only harm our intellectual development and broader social discourse.
This is at odds with the spirit of the National Library I have grown up with, come to love and continue to support. The best thing any library can do to serve society is to be resolutely neutral in making accessible the world’s available knowledge. It should stay on mission and open possibilities, not close them.
Let us, readers and parents, decide what to read.