NLB guided by ‘community norms’

NLB guided by ‘community norms’

Its approach is to reflect, not challenge, norms: Minister

THE National Library Board (NLB) was guided by community norms when it withdrew three children's titles about alternative families, Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said yesterday, the first minister to comment on the controversy. Public libraries serve the community and it is right for them to consider community norms, he wrote in a post on Facebook.

"The prevailing norms, which the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans accept, support teaching children about conventional families, but not about alternative, non-traditional families, which is what the books in question are about," he added. Dr Yaacob, whose ministry oversees the library board, said the approach is one shared by "all public agencies dealing with the education and care of young Singaporeans".

Like elsewhere, there is "considerable effort" by some here to shift these norms, and an "equally strong pushback", he added. "Societies are never static, and will change over time. But NLB's approach is to reflect existing social norms, and not to challenge or seek to change them," he said.

News of the removal of the titles, which included And Tango Makes Three, a tale about a male penguin couple, had sparked an outcry online, with critics asking if the NLB acted on the complaints of a small group.

But Dr Yaacob said this was not based on one complaint and NLB has a "process where its officers carefully consider such feedback" before deciding.

The removal pertained only to the children's section in public libraries, he said. The library board does not decide what children can or cannot read - this is for parents to do, he added. "Rather, NLB has to decide what books should be made readily available to children, who are sometimes unsupervised, in the children's section of our public libraries."

The Straits Times reported this week that NLB had removed at least six children's titles. The books featured same-sex couples and sex education.

MP Zaqy Mohamad, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Communications and Information, said library users, who often hope NLB brings in new titles quickly and offers a wide selection, "should be prepared for small errors to occur, and that books which breach any guidelines can be withdrawn". News of the books' removal has been picked up by the international media, including The Washington Post and Time magazine.

Social media has been abuzz, with some Twitter users using a #FreeMyLibrary hashtag. Some Facebook users changed their profile picture to one of two adult penguins and a baby one.

Writer and mother Jolene Tan, 31, who is organising a reading event of children's books at the National Library Building atrium tomorrow, says about 300 people have indicated on Facebook they will take part. "Many of us do find those (removed) books useful and of value," she said.

Others in favour of the removal are fighting back with petitions. Facebook group Singaporeans United for Family has published an open letter to commend NLB's move. The group claimed it had gathered over 23,000 signatures as of last evening.

Mother of two, Ms Kate Tan, 26, said she will not allow her children to read such books. "I don't want them to be exposed to such issues at such a young age. I hope our libraries won't have such children's books anymore."

But Ms Elizabeth Li, in her 30s and a mother of three young children, said the removed titles "provide a valid opportunity for parents to discuss certain issues, rather than sweep them under the carpet". 

This article was first published on July 12, 2014.
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