Three lessons to navigate minefield of clashing values

The National Library Board (NLB), embroiled in a recent controversy over books with homosexual content, has taken steps to improve the way it reviews its books.

One major move is that the team selecting books for its 25 public libraries and the team reviewing them will be different.

This is not clearly spelt out now, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said in Parliament yesterday. He believes segregating these responsibilities will "lead to greater public confidence in the review process".

He also highlighted two other changes the NLB is looking into.

One is the setting up of an external advisory panel to evaluate potentially controversial titles and the other is to consider options other than just destroying books deemed unsuitable.

The upcoming panel, he said, should represent a cross-section of society and include members from the literary community. But the final decision of keeping or withdrawing a title should still lie with the NLB, he added.

As for books withdrawn owing to controversial content, he said NLB will consider other options such as placing them in another section, or putting them up for sale or donation. NLB's current practice is to pulp books withdrawn for being worn and torn.

Last month, its decision to remove three children's titles with homosexual content, after it received some public complaints, and pulp them caused a major uproar. It subsequently reinstated two titles - And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express - but in the adult collection.

The saga led to a string of questions in Parliament from MPs.

In his 15-page reply, Dr Yaacob explained, among other things, how NLB selects and reviews books. Special care is taken for the children's section as many browse the shelves unsupervised, he added. He also said And Tango Makes Three, which features two male penguins raising a chick, was acquired in 2005. It went through an internal review in 2009 and was retained in the children's section. NLB was then under the leadership of Dr N. Varaprasad.

In making the 2009 decision, Dr Yaacob said "(NLB) was looking at perhaps the discussion at that point in time. Things have changed, a fresh pair of eyes took a look at the book again, there was feedback from the public, and (NLB) decided maybe it was not appropriate for us to have the book in the children's section".

Making such assessments is "not an exact science" and those doing so may have their own opinions, he added. In reviewing books, NLB takes into account community norms, he said. "It is not NLB's mandate to challenge or seek to change these norms."

Nominated MP Janice Koh asked if there was only one standard set of community norms NLB bases its policies on.

Dr Yaacob replied: "The norms will change over time and therefore we rely on government polls and feedback channels... and 'Meet the Customer' sessions NLB has held from time to time."

He also cited a 2013 Our Singapore Conversation study which shows 55 per cent of 4,000 people surveyed rejected same-sex marriage; 24 per cent were neutral and 21 per cent accepted it. Also, a government survey shows 52 per cent of 843 people polled feel books not in line with traditional family values should not be in public libraries' children's sections.

Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) noted that an Archie comic issue, banned from bookstores by the Media Development Authority (MDA) for depicting same-sex marriage, is available in Singapore's public libraries.

Dr Yaacob said the MDA's decision should not automatically determine NLB's position. The reason, he added, is that bookshops here "are open to all patrons and there are no age restrictions at the point of sale".

Public libraries, however, have different collections, and this gives it some flexibility to place some materials deemed unsuitable for one age group in another section, he said.

This article was first published on August 5, 2014.
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