Beyond Covid-19: The new roles libraries can play

Enabled by technology, libraries and archives can do much more to be part of the community beyond being a repository of knowledge and history

Covid-19 has upended the global economy and the way we live, forcing companies and institutions to adapt to consumer behaviour in the post-pandemic world. Business as usual is no longer possible as more and more activities move offline to online. Libraries and archives, which have existed for thousands of years, serving as gateways to knowledge, history and culture, must adapt too.

As trusted repositories, these institutions held great collections and were the centres of knowledge and learning for scholars, intellectuals, scribes and the layman. In the last hundred years or so, libraries and archives have also become social levellers by making their collections freely available to the public.

But in this information age, this raison d'etre is being seriously challenged by the Internet. This is exacerbated by the proliferation of highly affordable modes of entertainment that compete for mindshare. To survive as national institutions, libraries and archives cannot take for granted their long-term relevance and, similar to many other businesses, have to reinvent themselves for the digital era.

This was the basis for the development of a Libraries and Archives Plan for the next several years. Work began before Covid-19. The National Library Board (NLB) began bouncing off ideas around three "hows" - how our role should evolve to help meet societal challenges, how we can better serve "digital by default" users, and how we can broaden our reach to groups such as working adults and seniors.

CHANGES IN FOUR DOMAINS

Our preliminary views are centred on balancing our attention and resources across four domains.

First, to move beyond reading to facilitate learning.

Traditionally, libraries have focused largely on promoting reading and early literacy. These continue to be important in laying a strong foundation for learning. But in an era of transformation and disruption, libraries must extend their role to support the pursuit of lifelong learning.

They can do so not only by curating materials such as books, articles, videos and podcasts, but also by organising programmes to introduce new technologies and fields of study to library-goers. Librarians can be learning stewards who open the eyes of our patrons to emerging trends and topics, and inspire and excite them to read and learn more. These ensure libraries will increase their relevance beyond young readers, to catering to working adults and seniors.

An immediate result of this focus on learning is that all our libraries will now be community nodes for the new Seniors Go Digital initiative, to help bridge the digital divide in society and support seniors in embracing digital technologies.

Second, to move beyond books to curating programmes.

Books will continue to be the mainstay of libraries. However, libraries must broaden their focus to facilitate and support the many different modes in which reading and learning take place. Also, learning takes place not only at the individual level, but also within groups and communities of like-minded individuals.

While some library-goers may reminisce about the pin-drop silence associated with libraries of the past, the introduction of programmes and learning communities have generated meaningful conversations and discourse in libraries, and reflect the increasing value attached to learning together.

These activities complement what individuals can do at their own pace - in a post-Covid-19 world, this would likely be a hybrid approach of physical and digital means - and will be a motivation for them to continue visiting our libraries.

The Jurong Regional Library. During the circuit breaker, the National Library Board (NLB) seized the opportunity to experiment and try out new ideas, and drew much encouragement from public responses. It helped sharpen NLB's thinking for the Librarie
The Jurong Regional Library. During the circuit breaker, the National Library Board (NLB) seized the opportunity to experiment and try out new ideas, and drew much encouragement from public responses. It helped sharpen NLB's thinking for the Libraries and Archives Plan (2021-2025), says the writer. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Increasingly, these programmes and activities are also streamed online to enable even more patrons to participate in them.

Third, to move beyond collecting to engagement with Singaporeans.

Collecting and preserving born-digital materials such as social media posts is significantly transforming our approach and thinking at the National Library and our archives. There are now opportunities to involve and engage members of the public to collect and preserve their memories together. This is the approach we have taken for the "Documenting Covid-19 in Singapore" project.

We will also step up efforts to bring our collections out to the public in an engaging and informative manner, in order to help Singaporeans form a stronger connection with our history and culture.

To do so, we will harness technologies, adopt innovative approaches and use our imagination to create meaningful experiences to help Singaporeans appreciate our diverse history and inform our identity as a nation.

Fourth, to move beyond physical to omni-channel modalities.

Building and enhancing our digital offerings is essential for NLB, especially to extend our reach to people who do not make use of library services. What is even more critical is to integrate these seamlessly with our physical collections and programmes offered at our facilities, and to increasingly personalise our services.

A General Paper teacher told us she managed to organise a reading list of "best thinkers" for her students, and most of the books were available in e-book format. "I told my students how lucky they were to have such a wonderful National Library (Board)," she wrote in an e-mail.

THE CIRCUIT BREAKER TEST

We will enhance the NLB mobile app to enable registrations for programmes, check how crowded our libraries are and offer personalised book recommendations based on past reading patterns. Ultimately, we want to make our services more citizen-centric and easily accessible.

These initial views were put to the test during the circuit breaker period, when we had no alternative but to focus solely on our digital offerings. We seized the opportunity to experiment and try out new ideas, and drew much encouragement from the positive public responses. These also helped us sharpen our thinking for the Libraries and Archives Plan (2021-2025).

Our libraries and archives will succeed only with public support and we count ourselves fortunate to have such a wide range of partners, supporters and volunteers, working together to co-create an inclusive community where knowledge is accessible to all.

While the full implications of Covid-19 on our libraries and archives are still unclear, we are certain that a major transformation is necessary for us to stay relevant and continue to serve our patrons well. In keeping with the spirit of community engagement, we welcome views and comments on our current plan and what more can be done as the library looks to transform itself for the future.

• Ng Cher Pong is the chief executive officer, National Library Board.

• Details of the Libraries and Archives Plan (2021-2025) are available at the website. E-mail address: LAP25@nlb.gov.sg.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2020, with the headline 'Beyond Covid-19: The new roles libraries can play'. Print Edition | Subscribe