New chapter for library

SINGAPORE - As fewer people here visit libraries, the National Library Board is coming up with more high-tech features to stay relevant and efficient.

From next year, you will be able to check out books just by scanning them with your smartphone and look up rare documents from the National Archives when you use the library catalogue online.

These are just some of the changes NLB has planned, says its chief executive officer Elaine Ng in an exclusive interview with Life!.

It is also gearing up for the much anticipated library@Orchard at the upcoming Orchard Gateway Mall, although no opening date has been set.

A new month-long reading festival in the middle of next year, as part of the annual reading initiative Read Singapore, is in the works too.

At a time when fewer people are visiting local libraries as more turn to the Internet to access library materials, promoting reading and interest in heritage resources is key.

Physical visits to the libraries dropped 22 per cent, from 36 million between April 2011 and March last year to 28 million in the last financial year.

But Ms Ng, 48, is unfazed, saying the numbers reflect only visits to established libraries and do not include people who make use of mobile library services or borrowing stations set up in community centres and schools.

"We've given many more ways for people to borrow books. It's not like the past, where people actually have to enter a library to read," she says.

The Library Board is so confident of its outreach programmes that it is working on new services such as the smartphone app to scan books and check them out without having to wait for a borrowing station.

The app will make life easier for regular library visitors such as Nanyang Polytechnic student Kim Cainday, 19, who visits a library up to four times a week to borrow books.

"I don't mind the machine they have now but the smartphone app will be convenient as I can avoid queues."

Reader Angie Ong, 40, is intrigued by the upcoming mid-year reading festival, which would allow her two sons, nine-year-old Adriel and six-year-old Abel, to meet Singapore authors who write for children.

"It would be great, provided they are authors of popular books," says the housewife, who currently goes to her nearest library at Bishan once a month, but says she would visit more often if there were more activities to interest her children.

A growing number of users also seem to prefer the convenience and instant availability of NLB's digital collection, which can be accessed from home using the smartphone app Overdrive since 2010.

Loans of e-books have almost doubled, with 8.2 million checked out between April last year and March this year, compared with 4.9 million borrowed between April 2011 and March last year.

Anderson Junior College student Sek Mun Pin, 17, is one user who read the Twilight series on his computer.

The teenager says he prefers physical books and visits local libraries at least once a week during the school holidays. However, physical copies of the five-volume vampire romance by Stephenie Meyer are consistently loaned out or on hold for other readers.

In response to the needs of such users, the library plans to expand the existing e-book collection of about 3.1 million copies, and also put up rare texts from the National Archives online.

A new OneSearch engine, still in the works, will replace the existing NLB SearchPlus feature next year.

While NLB SearchPlus allows users to search the library collections and other databases NLB subscribes to, OneSearch will also allow them to sift through the National Archives at the same time.

This is to help the growing number of users who prefer to do their own research rather than approach a librarian for help.

Last year, there were only 20,600 research inquiries made at local libraries, about half the number in the previous year.

But the library's online resources were accessed 63.4 million times, up 25 per cent from the 50.5 million times in 2011.

One concern in the Internet age is that younger users are "navigating the information super-highway without signs", says Ms Ng.

They might not be able to tell facts from hearsay and could be deceived by hoaxes or online misinformation.

For example, at the height of the haze in July, a blogger reposted an allegation that an official stockpile of N95 face masks would not be for public use, a rumour which went viral online.

Student Syahirah Mazlan, 15, is one user who studies regularly at her local library but never asks a librarian to help with research.

When her teacher tells her to look up Malay texts for a project, "I'll just go online myself", says the Secondary 4 student at Bishan Park Secondary School.

She uses Google, as many of her friends do, rather than search NLB databases, which she finds less convenient.

In response, the library refined its information literacy programme in October to help students learn how to look for data online.

The new campaign, titled Sure, which is short for "Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate", includes workshops in which students identify hoax websites.

Ms Ng says: "Today, where many people have a DIY culture and go find out things on their own, what we're doing as a library is giving people the tools and content they can use."

Another area the library is looking into is how to better showcase heritage and archival content.

National Library Board took over the National Archives from the National Heritage Board in November last year.

The Asian Film Archive and its collection of more than 1,600 films, formerly an independent non-profit institution, also came under the NLB umbrella last month.

The idea was to tap Library Board funding and other resources to help preserve and showcase cinematic gems, the board of directors said in a media statement.

Moving forward, Ms Ng says local libraries will hold screenings of Singapore films by local film-makers such as Boo Junfeng, Sherman Ong, Sanif Olek and K.Rajagopal.

The library's Read@School reading programme for schools will also introduce film-making and film appreciation modules for older students.

"A library is really a gateway to discovery, discovery about what's going on in the world today," says Ms Ng. "But it's also a gateway to learning about our past."


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