At Rice, I spend a lot of my time bashing the government.
But today is opposite day, and I am going to sing the praises of the one government body which I would happily marry, BTO and #smallspaces: National Library Board.
Libraries Are Great
Singapore’s libraries deserve more love. I say this unreservedly and without the slightest trace of cynicism because without them, I would not know the meaning of ‘unreservedly’ or ‘cynicism’.
You see, once upon a time, when I was a cheena migrant with no money, no friends and no speak engrish, the library was my safe space. Without it, I don’t think I would have passed PSLE english or made it out of primary school without sniffing glue or setting fire to HDB dustbins … which I did for a while.
No joke. With two working parents, no siblings, no relatives, no gameboy or pokemon cards, or even just half a Beyblade, my childhood was so boring that it made NS seem like Universal Studios Singapore. Borders was still open back then, but my parents’ yet-meagre salaries could not afford all those horribly-expensive Horrible Histories.
But Library was there. Library kept me sane through the shitty years.
Every Sunday, my dad and I would make an odyssey to AMK town center. I would eat a McChicken and waste three dollars at Timezone before we made our way to the highlight of our weekend – The AMK Community Library.
There, I would spend the better part of the afternoon browsing through the children’s (non-fiction) section, a place which I knew more intimately than the contours of my own bedroom. One glance at the spines and I knew which books I had read and which had been missed. Some of the favourites, which I borrowed at least once every month, I would pounce upon and pluck from the shelf with the jealous possessiveness only children possess.
While my dad read his Chinese magazines and travel guides, I would agonise over which books to choose for the 4-book quota. Roman Soldiers or Crusades? Captain Underpants or UFO sightings? Should I pick an old favourite like the DK illustrated book on Pirates or wager my fortune on some teen lit by that woman who wrote Princess Diaries?
When the annual 8-book limit came, it was like Christmas for Agnostics. Who needs a glow-y tree when you can read about both Alexander The Great and The Bubonic Plague and Asiapac comics on Sun Tzu’s Art Of War?
But you shouldn’t need a sentimental connection to see the value in our public libraries. They are objectively excellent in a quiet, understated way. Not like certain government organisations who feel entitled to a full parade for farting in the right direction.
In almost all of the libraries from Chinatown to Woodlands, spaces are clean and tidy, with seats and power outlets aplenty. Although the quantity varies, there is no denying that our libraries have, on the whole, a collection that is pretty fucking impressive given how small our country is, and how averse we are to notions of ‘public welfare’.
AMK library, which is quite old and not very large, still boasts an impressive collection of everything from self-help and David Sedaris to crystal mysticism and Turgenev. Despite nearly twenty years of wandering in and out, it still manages to surprise me with interesting and underrated gems like this ‘recipe’ book:
Who else can teach you about the rise of Mussolini but also the best way to make a low-fat no-bake cheesecake?
10 points from Hufflepuff if you answered Kinokuniya. While Kino is certainly admirable as a commercial bookstore, it doesn’t hold a candle to the sheer variety and eccentricity of what our public libraries can offer.
Sure, the library doesn’t have 1000 copies of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ right this minute, but then again, neither does Kino stock the Best American Non-required Reading 2016 (required reading) or The Spectator Book of Wit, Humour & Mischief (meh). What it displays is motivated by commercial instincts, and sometimes real gems and curiosities slip through as a result.
Kino doesn’t offer you a seat either. Or the basic human right that is Wifi. The establishment is designed to display and sell. Libraries, on the other hand, invite you to loiter, stay and lay about, breathing in that thick serenity.
Imagine a secular monastery, or a Secret Garden in a city that claims to be a garden city but on most days, certainly doesn’t feel like one.
But even as I write this, I feel a sense of futility. The real question is: Who cares? Few people read books these days and fewer still read them at the library.
A PR professional from a leading agency once warned me against ‘being a writer’ because Singaporeans don’t read. She imagined a future where all human communication took the form of Instagram stories and FB videos, which are ‘more easily consumed’.
Funnily enough, I don’t disagree. With the siren call of social media taking up all of our attention, I imagine that it’s increasingly difficult to justify or defend the existence of libraries, however well-maintained. Why should we, the taxpayer, spend so much on what could very well be a white elephant?
To that I say: Sure, why not?
Demolish all the libraries and burn the books in a Bonfire of the Vanities. When the rubble is cleared, Capitaland can take over and everyone will be richer and happier with one more air-conditioned shopping mall with a Starbucks on the ground floor and a Uniqlo above (pun intended).
But seriously, don’t.
Because Singapore needs more public spaces, not less. With every inch of space on the island being monetised or squeezed for commercial gain, our libraries are more necessary than ever—as an oasis, a refuge from capitalism’s sound and fury, and as a place where communities may yet survive.
American sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls these locations ‘third places’, where people can spend time away from the home (‘first place’) and their work (‘second place’). He argues that such locales, be they barber shops or McDonalds or pubs, provide an important service to the community because they allow people of a community to hangout and build relationships, regardless of class, age or race.
In the long term, they are binding glue that keeps a society from falling apart at the seams.
Okay fine, nobody really ‘hangs out’ at the library, but they do fulfill Oldenburg’s criteria in other ways. Think about the aforementioned Starbucks outlet that is perpetually packed with people. Do you think everyone’s gathered there for the love of sewage-flavoured espresso?
I think not. Starbucks has customers not because they serve good coffee, but because the homely, casual atmosphere is a built-to-order third place, a cosy prefabricated ‘community’ of sorts amidst the cemetery of retail.
I would argue that libraries fulfil the same purpose, minus the financial and emotional costs of a bad latte. In fact, forget the books. Think of the students who mug there after school. Think of the seniors who line up outside before opening to read free newspapers in the quiet reading room. Think of talks and workshops and the office drones who half-work, half-surf-internet in air-conditioned comfort.
In short, it is the closest thing we have to a place outside our phones, and that’s something worth celebrating.
I think I’m supposed to write about how books enrich our imaginations or help us to think clearly in an age of fake news. They definitely do, but I can’t summon the necessary gravitas to make my case.
To me, it doesn’t really matter whether you go there to read books or blow aircon or stalk Instagram models on public Wifi. I’ve happily done all of those things myself. Very often I will visit just to fondle the spines, borrow 6 items, and then not read a single one because of laziness.
Most of the time, I’m just glad good libraries exist, in the same way that I’m glad Golden Mile Complex exists.
Even though I don’t technically need it, its mere presence, however remote, reminds you that this city is not just a playground for Crazy Rich Property Developers or tax-phobic MNCs, but a place inhabited by actual humans, who leave their marks on history and place.
That’s how I feel about libraries. Books are great and I do enjoy reading, but it’s the idea of a library that draws me back. Nothing fills me with a sense of calmness and well-being like stepping into a public library with its free books and bad coffee. It’s a reminder that some of the best things in life are indeed free.
Even if Rice fires me tomorrow, the library will still be there, a comforting presence of soft seats and hardbacks, a luxury for any and all. Bathed in the morning light, it is a small island of humanity and serenity on an island that rarely has time for either.