The National Library Board did not anticipate the widespread dismay that greeted news that it had removed three children's books following complaints about their homosexual themes, chief executive Elaine Ng said yesterday.
She told The Sunday Times in an interview that she was saddened that several local writers have withdrawn from library-related events in protest. "I'm saddened by their disappointment in us. I would like to engage those who have worked with us for a long time and hope they will accept our outstretched hands in future," she said.
But the NLB is not changing its decision to keep the three books off the shelves. They will not be resold or donated as usually happens with discarded books, because of concern that they might be unsuitable for young children.
"I understand that this is an issue that people feel strongly about but please, please also look to all the good things NLB has done over the years," Ms Ng said. "NLB has done a lot over many years to build trust in the community and we want to continue working hard to build that trust and see what we can do to reclaim the trust of those who feel disappointed in us."
The NLB came under criticism after news broke last Tuesday that three books had been withdrawn and would be destroyed or "pulped". They are: And Tango Makes Three, based on the true story of two male penguins which hatched an egg in a New York zoo; The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption, featuring a lesbian couple among others; and Who's In My Family?: All About Our Families, which features various family structures.
The library has two copies of And Tango Makes Three and one of White Swan Express, and the books have not been destroyed yet. Ms Ng could not comment on the copies of Who's In My Family? which were removed earlier this year. Earlier reports said six children's titles were affected, but Ms Ng said yesterday there were only three.
The library's action sparked a storm of criticism online.
On Friday, playwright and novelist Ovidia Yu resigned from the steering committee of the Singapore Writers Festival, of which NLB is a partner. Then writers Gwee Li Sui, Adrian Tan, Prem Anand and Felix Cheong cancelled their panel to be held today at the Central Public Library as part of the Read! Singapore initiative. Dr Gwee also declined to speak at yesterday's National Schools Literature Festival.
The books were taken off shelves after at least one reader complained, leading many to question the library's review process and demand more transparency.
"It's unfortunate that it appears to be a knee-jerk reaction but we have an ongoing process of review," said Ms Ng. The NLB has a collection of five million books, acquires one million a year and reviews between 4,000 and 5,000 titles a year for suitability.
Ms Ng said information about the withdrawals could have been communicated better, and suggested a public dialogue "down the road". Asked why not hold it now, she replied: "Things are still fairly emotional."
Writer Cheong, 49, said last night: "The only way forward is for NLB to at least recognise that pulping books is irrational and unacceptable, that there are ways these books can still be saved and made available to parents who would like to borrow them."
Writer Tan, 48, would like a more transparent review process, saying: "It's important for NLB to assure the public that it will resist external pressure to ban books."
The NLB has not been without its supporters. One Facebook group, Singaporeans United For Family, has commended its action and claimed to have gathered more than 24,000 signatures of support as of yesterday.