Rethink of library use is overdue

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 21, 2014 

I angle my cellphone camera over the barcode of a fantasy novel, waiting for the new National Library Board mobile app to register so I can check out the book.

The app on trial until the end of this month is one of several schemes to make libraries relevant to readers, even as statistics show that fewer people are stepping into library buildings these days.

But if we want people to make better use of libraries, are such high-tech apps really the right direction to take?

Reading between the lines of the Singapore Cultural Statistics 2013 report, fewer people are visiting libraries while more are moving online. The statistics tell the tale: Eight million fewer visits were made in person to libraries between April 2012 and March last year, compared with the financial year before that.

Meanwhile, loans of e-books from the library almost doubled, with 8.2 million checked out the last financial year, compared with 4.9 million the year before that.

The figures might not worry those who think of libraries as warehouses of books. They do worry those who know that libraries are also about teaching users to think as well as sift information and judge its accuracy.

Librarians are meant to be experts at finding and presenting reliable information, but research and reference inquiries at libraries went down by 45 per cent in 2012, compared with 2011.

I did a quick and unscientific check of my own recently. Of 12 teens I encountered doing their homework at a local library, 11 said they had never asked a librarian for help with research. Nor had they accessed the library's online databases of journals and other information.

So how were they writing their essays on literature?

Google, of course, using their smartphones to access just the information they thought they needed, leaving more time for talking to or WhatsApp-ing friends.

At that point, I almost enlisted their help in saving the Pacific North-west tree octopus. Access the famous website and one is treated to an eye-opening ensemble of videos and articles about an unusual amphibious species. The tree octopus of North America is in grave danger of extinction as loggers decimate its rainforest habitat and fashionistas seek to use its tentacles as ornamental accessories. "In 1935, we banned the harvest of the tree octopus. However, the numbers have never really returned to the levels which we saw before the turn of the century," says an "expert" in one video.

Another equally endangered species mentioned on the website is the sasquatch, which provides a clue as to why this website is commonly used in tests of Internet literacy. In 2008, 34 out of 35 teenagers The Straits Times asked to assess the website decided that it was truthful and scientific, instead of a well-concocted hoax.

I wonder what a similar test would reveal now about teenagers and adults subjected to the same blitz of purportedly authentic information. I predict the results would prove us deeply unfit to separate fact from fiction, especially when a known provider of scientific documentaries, the Discovery Channel, chooses to air videos which are pure fiction.

The channels' recent "mockumentaries" include the two-year-old Mermaids: The Body Found, which claims to present evidence of aquatic humanoids, last year's Mermaids: The New Evidence, and Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, which claims that a prehistoric killing machine still roams the deep ocean, chomping on whales and fishing boats.

While these are extreme examples, the fact of the matter is that information will always be somewhat corrupted during transmission. Perhaps a journalist keen to be the first to tweet breaking news will report that an explosion in a bakery was due to a gas leak, rather than the terror attack it turned out to be in the 2010 bombing of a popular eatery in Pune, India.

It is up to the receiver of this information to decide what to believe and how much to believe - and we are sorely lacking guidance in how to safely and scientifically do so.

The National Library Board is making a start with its National Information Literacy Programme. The official website has articles and tips on how to look for information online and how to assess the validity of this information: check the source, understand the context, cross-check and seek different angles on the same story.

Elsewhere, little blue tags on books such as the fantasy novel I checked out ask me whether I can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. (The unicorn character in the text was a helpful clue.)

Offering this sort of information is but a third of the battle and it misses a crucial point: Users are bombarded by visual input every second. What we need are tutors, personal, one-on-one or one-on10 interactions to show us how to navigate the flood of data.

We need more initiatives like The Arts House-supported Sing Lit 101 series, in which writer and critic Gwee Li Sui last year helped a packed hall understand the nuances in Singapore poetry and appreciate how a few phrases can pack in worlds of emotion and sensuality.

We need people invested in words and their meaning - perhaps educators, perhaps writers or journalists or editors - to talk to people young and old about how important it is to choose the right word or phrase and point out how naming an incidence of street mayhem "the Little India riot" versus "the Race Course Road riot" - the local media chose the former - could instantly lead to racial bias.

While high-tech apps and welldesigned websites might attract a few eyeballs, what we need are voices and a physical guiding hand to keep attention trained on the facts and aware enough to mould the facts into meaning.

Libraries have more to do than merely show off information in pretty covers. Librarians must dare us to open these covers as well as help us dive in and experience new worlds.

Such use of our libraries is overdue.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 21, 2014

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