What is the role of our public libraries? Following the removal of two seemingly innocuous children’s books and a strange clarification by the National Library Board about “adhering” to a”pro-family” stance, I decided to examine the charters of some of the world’s greatest public libraries. Since Singapore Inc likes to benchmark.
The New York Public Library calls itself “an essential provider of free books, information, ideas, and education for all New Yorkers”. The British Library defines itself as “a world-class cultural and intellectual resource” and “custodian of the nation’s written and spoken heritage.” On the other side of the globe, China’s National Public Library takes on similarly patriotic aims, declaring its mission as “enriching our country’s soft power.”
I tried searching for our National Library Board’s charter. I couldn’t find it (leave me a message if you do). No wonder their clarification was so half-hearted. You have to read in between the lines, but it’s there:
“Five million books”
Translated: we don’t really want to do this, but we have to be seen as toeing the line. So how? Check borrowing record. Aiyah, no one borrow lah, what’s the fuss. Okay, take out… (my own interpretation of events)
The world’s greatest libraries are cultural institutions, not cultural police. They are institutions for public learning and enquiry that serve men of all stripes and colours. Most importantly, they defend freedom: freedom of access for all users, and freedom of information without bias or discrimination.
There are many good reasons why the NLB should not get involved in “cultural policing.” Where does the buck stop? Why stop at protecting our children? Don’t our teenagers need to be protected? Our library has various sections devoted to assorted human sins, including an entire collection on recreational drugs. Want to research the intoxicating effects of methamphetamine, or learn how to cook ice in your own kitchen? Visit the library!
Just imagine: if we took out every book that offended someone in Singapore (5 million books in its collection, remember?), what would be left? I suspect this would be the only book left standing–remember our primary school moral education classes?
I love our National Library. I even called it a “national treasure” in an earlier blog post. I’ve spent hours there in between the stacks. I love their reference library; the accessibility of their collection online; I even love their friendly and book-nerd librarians.
I will give NLB the benefit of the doubt. I do suspect that the librarian involved had no clue about the guile and calculation behind the so-called “pro-family” letter, and that said letter would never have come to light had the complainant not trumpeted his success online. (There is another point to be made here about the misappropriation of “pro-family” by our dear government, but that’s a debate for another day). Somehow, I feel sorry that they’ve gotten enmeshed in the sights of daft bible (or Koran) toting movements.
Our public libraries are a valuable resource that should remain above race, politics and religion. Their primary goal should be to provide the Singaporean public with access to the widest possible range of reading materials, not to pander to demands from specific audiences. Getting involved in cultural wars should be the farthest from its responsibilities.