Libraries becoming critical common spaces: Iswaran

Singapore an exception to global trend of declining library usage, notes minister

A patron reads a book at Jurong Regional Library on Nov 11, 2016.
A patron reads a book at Jurong Regional Library on Nov 11, 2016.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Libraries have evolved beyond quiet sanctuaries and book repositories to become critical common spaces in society, said Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran.

From digital-ready programming to volunteers from all walks of life, including seniors and special-needs groups, libraries can be a model for a fruitful partnership between the community and the Government, he added.

Mr Iswaran was speaking during a visit yesterday to library@harbourfront, which marked its one-year anniversary at VivoCity mall.

The library, which he described as a "library spa" because of its relaxing atmosphere, has received more than 1.8 million visitors since it opened.

From January to November last year, its loans increased by 83 per cent and visitorship by 180 per cent, compared with a similar period at its previous location in Bukit Merah Central.

Mr Iswaran noted that Singapore is an exception to the global trend of declining library usage.

"Many public libraries overseas have closed down or shrunk, but that is not the case here in Singapore, and I think an important reason for that is the close engagement and partnership that we have between our libraries and the community."

This is in sync with the Singapore Together movement launched by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, he added.

"In our libraries, we see a meeting of minds between the community's desire to give back and contribute towards something greater, and a government that is keen to work closely with the community to build Singapore."

Mr Iswaran's visit coincided with the first external stakeholder engagement session for the Libraries and Archives Plan, which will outline strategies from 2021 to 2025 for the National Library Board (NLB).

The session is part of NLB's efforts to consult the community and various partners, including academics, social service agencies and heritage researchers.


The plan will be launched in September in tandem with NLB's 25th anniversary. Mr Iswaran said more details would be forthcoming later in the year.

He hailed the efforts of NLB's volunteers, who number close to 5,000 and are between four and 90 years old. On average, every public library is supported by almost 160 volunteers a year who give their time towards a range of activities.

These include giving talks, like the one by Singtel Group Digital Life human resources head Lau Yin Cheng, 49, who last September spoke on how library users could use emerging technologies to improve their work.

Another volunteer is Mr Goh Teng Chiew, 65, a semi-retired public service officer who helps fellow seniors get to grips with IT matters, such as connecting to the Wireless@SG network or navigating the NLB mobile app.

NLB's Externship Programme teaches volunteers with special needs to sort and shelve library materials. The two-year programme has had more than 80 graduates.

Mr Stephen Choon, 52, a job coach at the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds), said the programme helps his students, who are aged between 16 and 18, gain confidence in interacting with the public.

Although they encountered difficulties at first, such as understanding NLB's sequencing system, some have gone on to explore other interests such as storytelling.

Many volunteers were once the library's beneficiaries.

A decade ago, Jurong West Secondary School student Sofi Sofiyah Rahmat, 16, picked up a love for books through kidsRead, a nationwide programme to encourage children to read. Now, she is a kidsRead volunteer, and helps out at sessions and reads to children.

"I want to give back," she said. "I really, really loved kidsRead and I thought, why don't I try to spread this love to other kids?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2020, with the headline 'Libraries becoming critical common spaces: Iswaran'. Subscribe