Happily ever after for Queenstown library

Happily ever after for Queenstown library
The building’s exterior might not have changed much over the years, but the library has kept up with the times in its efforts to draw in readers through innovative new programmes.

Standing two storeys tall, the grey building on Margaret Drive looks old-fashioned with its bow-tie motif and lattice facade. But this venerable keeper of fairytales and stories of faraway lands has long been ahead of the times.

Queenstown Public Library - the oldest public library still standing in Singapore - became the first branch to be fully air-conditioned in 1978 and the first to computerise its loan system in 1987.

It also opened the first children's corner and was the first to offer free movie screenings.

Now, the 44-year-old library - which became the country's oldest after the original National Library building at Stamford Road was torn down - will be the first of 26 under the National Library Board (NLB) to be preserved.

Last month, it was gazetted for conservation under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Master Plan 2014, as part of the medium-term term physical development of Singapore.

"I'm happy it will still be here. It ties us to our memories, and that's the purpose of conserving a building," said retired Republic of Singapore Air Force officer Tommy Tan, 51, who lived in nearby Margaret Close as a boy.

Queenstown itself is no stranger to firsts. It was the nation's first satellite town - nearly 20,000 housing units were built there from 1952 to 1968.

A modern town centre developed in the 1960s and 1970s, across from the library building. The nation's first neighbourhood shopping centre and sports complex sprang up there.

And in 1970, Queenstown's new branch library was opened by then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, kicking off a movement to connect heartlanders to reading.

Built at a cost of S$595,000, it lent out more than 293,000 books and registered 12,600 users in its first year. The figures more than doubled over the first five years.

In the library's heyday, queues for borrowing and returning books snaked out the front door, and Saturday visitors had to squeeze in, said Mrs Kiang-Koh Lai Lin, a former NLB director of reading initiatives and a Queenstown librarian from 1980 to 1982.

Children loved the storytelling sessions and cosy corner created by Mrs Kiang-Koh, 63, who pestered a carpet firm for several months until it donated a carpet.

"We would get children who didn't enjoy reading to attend programmes like magic shows and then introduce books related to their hobbies," she said.

The building was at the centre of a hive of activity, with a bowling centre, cinemas and hawker food just a short walk away.

"We would say 'meet at the library' and decide what to do after that," said Mr Tan, who now visits it once a month with his wife and daughter, aged four.

But time has hushed the neighbourhood. The Cinema and Bowling Centre closed in 1999, though the building still stands. Next to the library, the former Queenstown Polyclinic and Dental Clinic is now a dormitory for workers.

Gone are the queues, thanks to automated loan machines.

Sunlight streaming in through giant glass windows illuminates books left open by children visiting with their parents or students seeking a quiet refuge.

Esther Lee, 11, cut a serene figure as she pored over work set by her mother, Mrs Hazel Lee, 36, who home-schools Esther and her three younger siblings.

"We get books related to the topic Mum is teaching," said Esther, who usually reads seven books a week. "I like the library as it's much quieter than other places."

Civil servant L.P. Lim, 35, who lives nearby, visited the library as a girl and still loves it. She said: "As the front doors slide open, I often feel a tingle of happiness - it's like being welcomed to a place where stories of Enid Blyton's treetop fairyland still exist."

Visitors appreciate the peaceful atmosphere, as shopping mall libraries tend to be more crowded.

"Other libraries are more central. This feels more exclusive," said retiree Koh Hock Chong, 63, who reads Chinese magazines there several times a week.

Not content to be a wallflower, the library has turned to programmes such as movie screenings to draw in more readers, said manager Michelle Kwok. It also holds gardening talks that tie in with its community garden, which is its special feature.

And the area could soon get livelier with the redevelopment of the nearby Tanglin Halt area. Some residents will move to five new housing projects, two of which are in front of the library.

Many visitors to the library go for their children's sake. Housewife Jyothi Abburu, 32, who was there recently with her two daughters and mother-in-law, said: "My younger girl especially likes the storytelling sessions."

Like the building itself, the storytelling tradition has stood the test of time. Mrs Kiang-Koh often runs into visitors who enjoyed storytime at the library as children.

"I'm very happy I'm around to see the next generation," she said. "Now, they bring their mothers and their own kids to the library."

This article was first published on July 25, 2014.
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