The Straits Times says

Keeping library books 'safe' for kids

The National Library Board's withdrawal of a series of books on religion and civilisation from its junior section was prompted by concerns that some parts could be inflammatory. The NLB said it would seek the views of the Library Consultative Panel, and it will also review its vetting process for potentially divisive and sensitive materials, as recommended by the Ministry of Communications and Information. The books produced by a Malaysian publisher had sat on library shelves for four years before the latest action was taken, following the posting of photos of some pages by a local reader.

In a controversial case in 2014, children's books featuring non-traditional families were withdrawn and one was even pulped - an ill-judged move which raised eyebrows, both locally and in foreign media. However, a general point accepted by many was that libraries have a duty to ensure books for younger readers are age-appropriate. Due to a lack of experience and judgment, they are more vulnerable to being influenced by potentially harmful content. In the latest instance, the harm feared was from messages that pitted one faith community against another, as well as photos of smiling children bearing machine guns and a Muslim boy wearing a suicide vest.

The 2014 controversy was sparked by a Facebook user, while the recent case arose from a tweet. Given the wide variety of opinions aired in social media, should libraries ensure that the content of children's books are not offensive to particular groups, or should it provide access to all sorts of content? Given its vision of "Readers for life, learning communities, knowledgeable nation", the NLB has to ensure diversity and depth, of course. At the same time, it has to take account of public feedback. For example, the name of a World War II exhibition at the Old Ford Factory was changed in February after people reacted strongly against NLB's choice of "Syonan Gallery".

Reactions might well be divided when it comes to content that is deemed unsuitable for children for moral or other reasons. But common ground must be found when it comes to acting against extreme content that might surface in books, as hardline groups and individuals have become adept at harnessing media tools to embed their insidious messages. Some will argue that the "freedom to read", espoused by purists, precludes any efforts by librarians to censor information. However, libraries must be alive to wide-ranging concerns like terror, and guard against materials that incite hatred and normalise violence as a means to fulfil subversive ends. Visuals embedded in pages, in particular, can leave a deep impression - like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's portrayal of children as executioners, some as young as four. Library book review processes must be able to sift out such objectionable content.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2017, with the headline 'Keeping library books 'safe' for kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe