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The National Library Reaching Out To The World

The National Library Reaching Out To The World

When the Raffles Library became the Raffles National Library in 1958, there was much work to be done. The once elite and colonial institution was now meant for a wider public, but who decides what books a library needs and how to get them? The staff of our budding Library did not hesitate to reach out to others for help.

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The basics – funds and qualified staff – were in short supply . And yet, with Singapore gaining self-governance in 1959, the public was increasingly aware of the role of a national library service in propelling the country ahead. One journalist feared that the lack of access to quality books would result in a lapse into "illiteracy, a regression neither the individual nor the country can afford.” In 1960, then-Library director Hedwig Anuar outlined ways the Library hoped to improve its services. Considering how most locals could not read in English, getting more books in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil was a top priority .

The Colombo Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and South East Asia, or the Colombo Plan for short , was the answer to many of the teething issues. The plan provided funds for books, technical expertise and exchange, and scholarships for training overseas. Priscilla Taylor, who became Director of the National Library in 1962, was sent as a library officer under this plan. She helped to arrange for many staff to be trained overseas and pressed for more financial assistance. In 1963, her stellar negotiating skills also helped to bring the first ever exhibit from the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to the Library!

But this was not enough. Soon, our librarians faced challenges that were unique to growing a library in Malaya, which well-to-do English-speaking countries could not always help with. For example, how should Malay names be sorted ? How should we catalogue a multi-lingual, multi-script collection and shelf it in a way that makes sense to library visitors? Mrs Anuar, who served again as director in 1965 after Ms Taylor left, discussed these issues and possible solutions in her article, ‘The provision of books in Malay, Chinese and Tamil in Raffles National Library’ .

Dealing with these issues helped local librarians grow in experience and expertise, and as the early years went by, the Library was keen to share and do even more. The Library shared booklists with other new libraries ; they also initiated translation efforts in order to provide more non-English children’s books by contacting publishers both local and abroad . Additionally, Mrs Anuar was sent to help the Malaysian government prepare a blueprint for the development of public libraries in 1968 .

Libraries and their contents were of great interest to commentators of the day. When the U.S. Information Service opened a free library here, an unnamed reporter had much to say . And when Yusof Ishak opened the National Library building at Stamford Road, he expressed hope that books would uplift the people . Sixty years on, perhaps the time is ripe to reflect on the development of our National Library and its role in society today.

By National Archives of Singapore. Published October 2018.

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