Focus on boosting reading, not book borrowing

The accessibility of e-books makes reading effortless, making trips to libraries and bookstores unnecessary.
The accessibility of e-books makes reading effortless, making trips to libraries and bookstores unnecessary.PHOTO: ST FILE

I am not optimistic about the National Library Board's (NLB) latest effort to boost reading ("Get three books for free - if you promise to read"; yesterday).

First, the fact that fewer people are borrowing books is not necessarily a sign that people are reading less.

Given the popularity of e-readers and e-book apps on smartphones, I have noticed that many people who do not usually read are actually now reading more.

With books pushed to their devices, it is a lot easier to access them. The accessibility makes reading effortless, making trips to libraries and bookstores unnecessary.

The decrease in library borrowings, the closure of bookstores globally, the reduction in the sale of print media, and the deterioration of the quality of annual book fairs are signs of our times. We cannot ignore the changes around us.

E-readers and e-book apps are also often priced way lower than print books. Furthermore, the proliferation of free e-books, which are easily downloadable, has turned many infrequent readers into frequent ones.

In addition, with these devices being able to store hundreds of titles, there is no need to heave around heavy tomes.

Second, giving away free books does not guarantee that the books will be read.

Singaporeans tend to clamour after free giveaways. The worst-case scenario is that the public will end up as book collectors with impressive decorative shelves of books at home, rather than book readers.

The NLB must keep up with the times. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, it must first question and re-examine its raison d'etre - does it exist to increase borrowing or to encourage reading? It must then be creative in executing its mission.

The good news is that book clubs all over the world still seem to thrive. Events such as mass reading days and public recitations of book passages are still quite popular in some libraries all over the world.

Libraries showing off rare books and holding exhibitions centring on renowned authors, inviting authors to talk about their books, inviting readers to co-write books with authors, and operating mobile libraries are efforts that are not new but could be increased and more widely publicised.

In addition, inviting corporations or foundations to sponsor our own book prizes, collaborating with schools and even placing books for loan at coffee chains are just some ideas off the top of my head.

Organising these events frequently enough will put books and reading into people's collective consciousness, and they will genuinely get to love books and enjoy reading them eventually.

Michael Loh Toon Seng (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2016, with the headline 'Focus on boosting reading, not book borrowing'. Print Edition | Subscribe