Why It Matters

Libraries key in a digital age

Figures from the National Library Board have shown a decline in borrowing over the past five years. The number of physical items checked out fell by more than 15 per cent, to about 32 million last year, and this was not fully offset by a rise in e-book use.

This trend could have unfortunate implications for the functional and cultural literacy of Singapore society, especially as it may reflect a growing tendency to consume information in smaller chunks - and not just among the young.

A recent National Institute of Education (NIE) study found that teachers here "go for piecemeal or bite-sized information", said its principal investigator Rhoda Myra Garces-Bacsal, adding that respondents' hectic lives may incline them towards reading material such as magazines and blogs.

She found that they also preferred information "neatly packaged in click-baits or sound bites" - but this inclination could bode ill for the ability to critically analyse information, especially online.

Last November, then US President Barack Obama said in the wake of his country's presidential election: "If we are not serious about facts and what is true and what is not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can't discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems."

Another issue is ensuring that public libraries continue to provide access to knowledge for those who may not be able to get it elsewhere.

"Singaporeans are more affluent and can buy books," NIE assistant professor Loh Chin Ee said. "However, the library serves an important function of providing more books to all Singaporeans."

Her research also found students who visit libraries more often are more likely to own more books at home. "This is often the result of having reading parents who are able to help them learn to read," she said. "My own concern... is how we can help students from non-reading homes access books."

In a digital age, it appears local libraries have an even bigger role in ensuring an educated populace.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2017, with the headline 'Libraries key in a digital age'. Print Edition | Subscribe