Public libraries, first set up in 1960, have had their role reviewed thrice following the establishment of the National Library Board, which is now marking its 20th anniversary. The Library 2000 and Library 2010 plans envisaged "a world-class library system" to connect national, regional and community libraries, as well as borderless libraries, so knowledge stored across the globe could be tapped. Such infrastructure is vital, of course. So are internal processes like seamless collection strategies, digital content services and a conducive operating culture. To improve its functioning, bureaucrats talk of "business process re-engineering" and such management concepts. But at the heart of a library is the mission of stoking a love of reading and learning for life - as acknowledged by the NLB - among Singaporeans from all social groups, particularly the young.
The "knowledgeable nation", that is part of the Library 2020 plan's slogan, is premised on a lively spirit of inquiry and pervasive application of different forms of knowledge that libraries can help to engender. Yet, despite considerable investments by the NLB over the years, one might wonder if younger Singaporeans are benefiting fully from the knowledge on tap. Even the brightest who vie for government scholarships betray "their ignorance on basic historical facts about Singapore"; the majority of them "do not score highly on creativity and imagination", and "only a few are knowledgeable about, or interested in, current and foreign affairs", noted Public Service Commission chairman Eddie Teo recently.
Such shortcomings can hardly be laid on the doorstep of libraries alone, of course, as schools, homes and social circles are also complicit. However, libraries have a crucial part to play in sparking a desire to seek all kinds of ideas and to acquire all kinds of literacies. The next-generation public libraries envisioned by Library 2020 are to be "social touch-points with enriched collections for learning and... bridges for interaction with arts and culture". Such an emphasis can help generate more intellectual and creative churn, as opposed to recommendations made by online stores and apps which offer more of the same suggestions, narrowing horizons and minds.
To draw a new generation, libraries should seek to be hubs of creative learning. That doesn't mean they should turn into reading cafes with sofas, bean bags and free Wi-Fi, as mooted in Britain. The library's role as a quiet place for reading and reflection is important, but it should evolve new roles, as noted by the Council on Library and Information Resources in the United States. To entrench its place in the community, one would want the young to see the library as less a staid repository of tomes and more a throbbing hub of open minds, connecting physically and digitally over a host of ideas and creative impulses.