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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996
Planning the Library of the Future - The Singapore Experience
Julie S Sabaratnam
Director, Digital Library Cluster and Information Services
Singapore National Computer Board
Consultant (Digital Library Services & Systems Review)
Singapore National Library Board
INFORMATION, A CRITICAL RESOURCE
Countries and businesses today compete based on information, knowledge and know-how. In the U.S, for instance, the services sector which is dominated by knowledge work account for more than 70% of all employment, and 74% of the value-added in U.S. Gross Domestic Product. In today's world, information, not land, labour or capital, become the critical economic resource. Information
plays a key part in wealth generation. Intellect, intelligence and ideas give businesses and nations the competitive edge. Information and knowledge will affect the work of all organisations. Even a small nation like Singapore realise the importance of information. Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong highlighted the importance of knowledge and information in his 1993 National Day Message
to his people. He reinforced that "The future, belongs to countries whose people make the most productive use of information, knowledge and technology. These are now the key factors for economic success, not natural resources."
THE INFORMATION RESOURCE
Information has continued to grow and multiply at an exponential rate. Islands and pools of information are being created and generated by people and businesses. The sudden growth of Internet in the last one to two years have added to the amount of information that become readily available to users. More and more people are creating their own Web Pages that allow for information to be dissemin
ated. Bulletin boards, discussion groups and databases are being made available via the Internet. Community networks are also sprouting -- the National Public Telecomputing Network , in the US is the fourth largest online service in the world. These networks allow users to search and retrieve information and communicate directly with experts and peers in the fields of interest. Even coffee s
hops operate Cyber Cafes that provide facilities for people to explore the Internet and hence access information. Almost every country has plugged onto the Internet. Virtual communities have formed and they are making an impact on the way we work and operate or function.
THE INFORMATION CHAOS
"Water, water, everywhere... not a drop to drink" said Coleridge in the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. We are swimming in seas of information and users often complain that they are starved of knowledge. Why ? Well, when we are swimming in the sea, we cannot drink the water no matter how thirsty we get, as it may not be pure, it could be too salty etc. Sea water will not quench or nourish us. Si
milarly, users have access to huge databases of information but cannot use it. The Internet, for instance, has given individuals the unprecedented access to information and we are flooded with a variety of information sources and often drown in it. It makes it difficult for users to sieve the relevant information. After a while people stop using these sources or fast foods of information as th
ey find it difficult to differentiate between the facts and "factoids" . They are lost in the maze of information sources as they do not know how to select the best and most authoritative sources. They need assistance in navigating through the maze.
NEW WORK ENVIRONMENT
Today's workforce is buried in a deluge of information caused by the exponential growth of information. Customers become more demanding and have a variety of choices. For example, in the past, people depend on libraries, librarians and online databases. Today, this paradigm may not hold. Technological developments impact the way we work. Companies and individuals have and continue to invest
in technology which will enhance their capabilities. They learn to use IT, exploit IT, and have at their disposal reservoirs of information, often for free. Work in the Year 2000 will be redefined. Workers depend on information and with the technological advances often tend to be self-sufficient.
THE CHANGING ROLE OF LIBRARIES
Given the rapid growth of information, information sources, technological advances and changing user demands, libraries and librarians need to respond quickly and position themselves to provide a useful and relevant service. Libraries need to anticipate, innovate and excel in whatever we do. Allow me to share an example from history. In 1968, if anyone was asked who would dominate the w
atch industry in the nineties, the answer would have been Switzerland. The Swiss had dominated the watch industry for 60 years and were constantly improving on the watches they produced. By 1968, they had more than 65% of the market share and more than 80% of profits. In 1980, their market share collapsed to less than 10% and profit margins to less than 20%. They were dethroned because somethi
ng profound took place -- mechanical mechanism was making way for electronic technology. The Swiss overlooked the wonders of the new quartz technology but Seiko of Japan capitalised on it. Today, the Japanese have gained 33% of market share. It was a Swiss research institute that invented the quartz technology but the Swiss watch manufacturers rejected it. They said "it could never be the wat
ch of the future". So confident were the manufacturers that they let the researchers showcase what they deemed a useless invention at the World Watch Congress. Seiko took one look and the rest was history. How can we avoid this mistake?
The Swiss watch example illustrates the importance of discovering paradigms for success. We need to be alert and respond to changes promptly and positively in order to maintain the lead and play a relevant role. We must constantly review the business we are in and always look ahead, anticipate changes, innovate and provide excellent services and products. Libraries have been a little slow at
exploiting the Internet to their advantage. In fact coffee houses in the U.S. and U.K. were among the first to offer their diners free access to Internet. It was much later that libraries introduced Internet to the users. The Internet has increased accessibility to information sources and there is a growing reliance and over dependence on free information on the Internet. People may be making
use of factoids rather than facts. Libraries must look at how they can continue to help users as we have always done in the past and also look at new opportunities that will add value to the user and ensure that users continue to get the right information at the right time in the right form.
PLANNING FOR THE LIBRARY OF THE FUTURE
Here, I would like to draw on the Singapore experience to show how the Government took the lead to ensure that Libraries are transformed to meet the challenges of the information society. In 1992, the Minister for Information and the Arts, BG(NS) George Yeo formed the Library 2000 Review Committee to review the approach to building new Public Libraries. The Government felt that with changing
lifestyles, higher expectations and the growing dominance of technology, simply replicating existing branch libraries in new towns may no longer be the best way to cater to the diverse needs of the community. The high level Committee, comprising of senior executives from a cross section of economic sectors, academia, and Government, were tasked with drawing up a master plan for developing librar
y services over the next ten to fifteen years to support national development.
Singapore is an island-city-state of about 646 sq m, with no natural resources. Singapore's success, thus, becomes very much dependent on her people. The Government, in the Next Lap, articulated the need to develop her only resource, the people. To maintain her competitive edge, Singapore's response to the emerging knowledge economy, information explosion and rapid knowledge obsolescence is to
be a learning nation. Singapore's long-term competitiveness depends on the nation's capacity to learn faster and apply knowledge better than other countries. Lifelong learning and re-skilling our people are not choices. They are necessary for Singapore to remain competitive in the global economy.
THE LIBRARY 2000 VISION
The Library 2000 Review Committee envisioned that libraries can play a vital part in supporting Singapore's vision to be a learning nation. Libraries will be positioned as one of the key pillars of the national infrastructure to expand the nation's capacity to learn. Libraries will not only cater to the variegated needs of the population and specific needs of different economic sectors but will
also serve as nuclei for the development of culture and heritage. The ultimate aim must be to enable and encourage people to read and absorb more information.
The Library 2000 Vision is one that "continuously expands the nation's capacity to learn through a national network of libraries and information resource centres providing services and learning opportunities to support the advancement of Singapore." The Committee has recommended six strategic thrusts that will help transform library services and turn vision to reality. These str
ategies considered national aspirations, people's rising expectations and changing lifestyles, technological advances and best practices in the field. The Committee also identified three key enablers that will help turn vision into reality.
SUMMARY OF THE SIX STRATEGIC THRUSTS
The six thrusts will help in refining the existing library system to better serve the total needs of Singaporeans. These include:
- a. Develop an Adaptive Public Library System
cater to the varied needs of different segments of users. To ensure use, reach and relevance, emphasis will be placed on developing :
- A Network of National Libraries
A National Reference Library will be established to serve as the library of last resort and to support the needs of the general population. It will be supported by a network of specialised libraries such as the established Medical and Law Libraries of the National University of Singapore.
- A Three-tier Public Library System
The Public Library system will be reconfigured to ensure reach and accessibility and to offer a high level of service to the general populace. To achieve this, a three-tier library system comprising of regional, community and neighbourhood libraries will be introduced. An autonomous management structure was recommended for the Regional Libraries which will offer a full range of collecti
ons and services to cater to the community and business needs of the region. Smaller Community Libraries will function as Township Libraries, serving the general needs of the residents of that town. The Neighbourhood Libraries, to be located at void decks of public housing estates and in community centres, will bring library services to the doorstep of children and aged. Library d
evelopment will be aligned to the national concept plan for the physical development of Singapore and this will influence the location of libraries.
- Academic and School Libraries
The academic and school libraries will be developed further to support the teaching and learning needs of faculty and students. Emphasis will be placed in inculcating information search skills and nurturing research and reading habits. These skills will prepare our people to continue acquiring new knowledge after they leave school. Their collections will include more information resources in
the newer non-print media and to provide access to those available through networks.
- Special Libraries
Specialised libraries will also be developed to support the growing needs of various economic and social sectors. A Central Business Library linked to various providers of information will serve the needs of the business community. It will provide value-added services tailored to the needs of businesses such as alerts, translation, and information research and analysis. To further supp
ort this, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) Library will be enhanced and expanded to serve as an information hub for Southeast Asian information. It will continue to acquire materials in both the indigenous languages and English and place greater emphasis on providing value-added services. A database of Southeast Asian information to support research needs of locals and oth
ers will be provided. Similarly, to boost the promotion and appreciation of the arts in Singapore, an Arts Library with emphasis on Singapore, regional and ethnic arts will be established. The Arts Library will play the dual role of meeting the cultural needs of the public and catering to the research needs of academic and research communities in Singapore and the region. It will help nu
rture aesthetic and creative talent for competitive products and services.
- b. Establish A Network of Borderless Libraries
As Mason predicted in 1985, accessibility to information rather than extensiveness of collections has become a key measure of a library's performance. Through computer networking, it is now possible for consumers to draw from external sources of information that were hitherto was not possible. All publicly funded libraries in Singapore will be linked to form a network of borderless libraries t
o facilitate easy and timely access to relevant information. Users and librarians will be able to access a variety of information databases from their homes, offices and libraries. Libraries must move from "just-in-case" collections to "just-in-time" services. Since the network will allow more users to access information, higher returns on government investment in libraries is expected.
- c. Develop A Coordinated National Collection Strategy
With advent of technology and growth in electronic information resources, it is becoming impossible for all libraries to collect all information. The responsibility has to be distributed to help optimise returns on investment in libraries. A national collection policy will be defined and a strategy set in place to ensure that the collections of the various libraries and those available through
networks will collectively satisfy Singapore's needs. This will ensure maximum coverage at a national level and minimise duplication.
- d. Ensure Quality Service through Market Orientation
Customers are becoming more demanding. Library users have access to more leisure choices and hence expect higher level of service. The challenge is to entice a large segment of the population who are not public library users to use the libraries and their facilities as part of their lifelong journey of learning. To draw the crowds back to the library and to create new demand, libraries will
need to adopt a new market orientation and introduce quality services. Libraries will need to provide services and products to satisfy the constantly changing needs of users. The libraries of the future must provide a stimulating environment making the visit to the library an enriching experience. Library staff will be trained to be more customer-oriented and to provide quality service. Libr
aries can learn from the successful "merchandising" practices of retail traders. The libraries of tomorrow should facilitate more browsing through more attractive displays and layout just as the modern day book shops and include facilities like cafes to cater for the users' peripheral needs.
- e. Establish Symbiotic Linkages with Business and Community
Libraries will need to establish a close partnership and involve other organisations and communities in shaping and developing libraries. Business and community leaders should be appointed to the local library boards to provide guidance and advice. Community Libraries should become part of a cultural, educational, community and commercial complex instead of being built as standalone library bu
ildings. In this way, library activities will become integrated to the lifestyle of the community. This will encourage children to read in the library while their parents shop.
- f. Support Global Knowledge Arbitrage
Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew elaborated on the knowledge arbitrage process at the Second World Entrepreneurs Convention in Hong Kong in 1993. He highlighted how ethnic entrepreneurs have successfully made use of their specialised local knowledge, much of which is often culture bound, in doing business. By arbitraging between different levels of knowledge, these ethnic businessmen
become knowledge traders and derive economic gain by closing knowledge gaps. Singapore's multi-cultural background and geographical proximity are favourable factors which would enhance her role in the knowledge arbitrage process. Our libraries should thus be positioned to support Singapore's role in global knowledge arbitrage. Libraries, including the proposed Central Business Library, should
develop their capabilities to gather, analyse, distil, collate and make available useful information from different cultures. As much of the information may be available only in native languages, the libraries should both proactively and on an on-demand basis translate articles for dissemination to the business community and develop a database of pertinent information.
SUMMARY OF KEY ENABLERS
The Committee has also identified the following three key enablers for the successful implementation of the strategic thrusts:
- a. Human Resource
It is the people who make the difference to any system and hence the need to identify and develop high calibre staff. They will ensure the best collection and maximise the potential of technologies, facilities, locations, and partnerships to provide the best service. There is, thus, a compelling need for a systematic and deliberate planning process to develop not just the collection and servic
es, but more importantly the human resource. Training, staff shortage, career prospects and remuneration need to be addressed. The roles of library staff are changing. They are moving away from the traditional tasks of cataloguing and classification to more value-added services such as information searching, analyses and dissemination. They are acting as mediators between users and technolog
y by assisting them to tap the vast amount of information in digital form. Existing librarians need to be reskilled and their job functions redefined. In Singapore, the current postgraduate and certificate/diploma programmes at the Nanyang Technological University and Temasek Polytechnic, respectively, will be fine-tuned to train sufficient numbers of new wave librarians and library technicians
to meet the needs of this decade. International talent may be absorbed to inject new ideas into the library fraternity and help alleviate the skills and personnel shortage. Scholarships may be offered to enhance not only the prestige of the profession but to create a core group of top calibre leaders to lead the implementation of Library 2000 in the years to come.
- b. Technology
Technology will be exploited to help improve business operations, access and quality of services. The convergence of media, computers and communications will offer new opportunities for the provider and user of information. It will affect the way we manage and distribute information. The future is in technologies that promote and enhance accessibility and retrievability. Among these are inte
lligent agents and retrieval tools that will help in sieving out the relevant information and presenting them in more manageable portions. These tools can help sieve out the facts from the factoids. Automation in libraries will be expedited to enable them to plug into the electronic world of information.
- c. Organisational Leadership
The Committee recommended the setting up of a statutory board to spearhead the implementation of the Library 2000 recommendations. The new library board should be flexibly restructured and given the support and tools to do the work effectively. A team of high calibre staff with executive and professional leadership has to be set in place to lead the transformation of the current library servic
e and to implement the Library 2000 vision.
REALISING THE LIBRARY 2000 VISION
The Library 2000 Review Committee's recommendations are articulated in its Report -- The Library 2000 : Investing in a Learning Nation -- this was endorsed by the Government in march 1994 and released in April 1994. Several developments has since taken place. These include :
A New Government Agency
The Government set up the National Library Board in September 1995 to spearhead the implementation of the Library 2000 Vision. The Chairman of the Board is Dr Tan Chin Nam, Managing Director of the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board. Dr Tan had led the mammoth Library 2000 study as Chairman of the Library 2000 Review Committee. The Board has presented its 5 year strategy to the government and
is awaiting approval for funding. The main function of the NLB is to develop national and public library services in Singapore and to spearhead collaboration with other government agencies to promote resource sharing and access to information. The Board will also play the lead role in developing a national manpower plan for library and information services professionals. Emphasis will be place
d on identifying the type of staff required, the skills and training needs, as well as reviewing the schemes of service. Greater emphasis will be placed in encouraging and promoting use of library and information services. Programmes initiated will support and ensure that the diverse information needs of the population are better satisfied. This will continue to be done through the cultivation
of reading habits, development of information skills as well as the provision of information in both electronic and print media such as books, periodicals and audio-visual materials.
Proposal for a National Reference & Information Service
The National Library Services come directly under the purview of the NLB. So far, greater emphasis was placed in developing public library services to create a reading nation and support literacy efforts. A review of the existing reference services was carried out and a proposal to establish a National Reference and Information Service (NRIS) was endorsed by the NLB Board. The NRIS will serve
the growing demand for information to support the learning needs of the population -- be it for personal or professional development -- and also that of the business and research community. The NRIS will comprise of the National Library, a Singapore Resource Library and a Multimedia Information Centre. These libraries will network and establish links with other specialised agencies and librari
es to offer total National Library Services (NLS). A Reference Point will be set up to entertain enquiries from the users. The collection will be developed and more electronic information services will be offered. The NLS will commence providing value-added services to target user communities and expand this over time. Emphasis will also be placed on staff training and development. Existing
staff will be trained in new skills and others recruited to supplement the scarce resources.
Phased Implementation Approach
A realistic implementation strategy will be adopted. A phased implementation strategy with a philosophy of rapid prototyping will be adopted. This will allow for experimentation and only the successful ideas will be extracted and implemented on a larger scale. It will also allow decision makers to gauge user reaction to new services and test price sensitivity. Examples of concepts that have
been prototyped include :
Tampines Regional Library
The Regional Library concept was first prototyped at Tampines. Here, we introduced a number of new services and tried out new approaches to enticing users. Displays were more attractive. IT was extensively exploited to improve access, and make services more convenient for the user. Self-service kiosks and home delivery services were introduced. More electronic and multimedia based informatio
n services were made available. It is being managed by a Steering Committee comprising of business and community leaders and the grassroots.
Jurong West Community Library
This is a prototype of a community library in a commercial complex. Here, we are trying out the concept of co-locating libraries at commercial complexes instead of standalone buildings. Again, users are being introduced to new services such as Internet access, multimedia-based information services and self-check machines.
Children's Community Libraries
A number of these have been introduced across Singapore. They serve as Neighbourhood Libraries but cater to the young. These are located near homes and serve a target area.
Led by Business and Community
The Library 2000 Review Committee strongly recommended that organisations with a strong emotional impulse should spearhead the introduction of new services to target groups of users. This is because being in the business, they would understand their environment and the needs of their sectors, and hence can plan to serve its user base in a more responsive manner. Local community organisations sho
uld take the lead in running the neighbourhood libraries with professional assistance and funding subsidies from the government. Examples of such initiatives are :
Digital Library Initiatives
The National Computer Board has set up a team to create a network of borderless libraries. It works closely with lead user agencies like the National Library Board and National Science and Technology Board to bring information to the people. It has initiated a number of projects. The projects will focus initially on making the library catalogues and content available to the users. Relevant lo
cal and international libraries and information providers will be linked to provide a basic suite of services and to facilitate electronic access to information. The then National Library had also launched NL.Line which allows users to access the Nation/Public Libraries' catalogue and make requests, reservations, enquiries and be kept informed of new titles etc.
These developments show that Singapore is making headways to turn the Library 2000 vision into reality and Singaporeans will be soon be able to enjoy the benefits of tomorrow's library today!
Emphasis will also be placed in developing the skills in both Library and Information Professionals and also users. For the profession, we need to move away from traditional operating philosophy and look at the new roles we can play. For instance, we can help organise electronic information sources by creating Information Maps, help in Web Publishing, play a greater role in teaching users to na
vigate and search for information. Librarians must need to learn to write for the electronic media -- this skill comes in useful when packaging and disseminating information electronically. It si very different from writing for print media. Users thus need to be trained and information search skills inculcated to ensure they are equipped with the right skills. Librarians can also teach users
to evaluate sources of information and understand the value of information.
Library 2000 is Singapore's plan to respond to changes and to provide a more relevant and effective information service. Library 2000 will provide Singaporeans with access to the right information at the right time and in the right form. Similarly, libraries and librarians worldwide need to respond to the challenges of the 21st century. We need to lay the foundation to serve the consumers of t
omorrow. We need to plug ourselves into the information superhighway and exploit the relevant technologies to make information available to the user in a fast and reliable manner. We need to think borderless and remove all boundaries and barriers to information flow and sharing. Through networking and foresight, we will be able to manage the massive information explosion and get the right info
rmation at the right time. To reiterate, we need to anticipate, innovate and excel in whatever we do. Most people see the future as a place that robs them of the security, breaking promises, changing rules, and causing all sorts of trouble. And yet it is in the future where our greatest leverage is. You can and should shape your future and if you don't, someone else will do. Let's lea
rn from the Swiss watch industry.
- Library 2000 : Investing in a Learning Nation. Report of the Library 2000 Review Committee. Singapore : Ministry of Information and Arts, 1994.
- A Vision of an Intelligent Island : IT2000 Report. Singapore : National Computer Board, 1992.
- Library of the Future by Bruce Shuman. Englewood, CO : Libraries Unlimited, 1989.
- Future Work by Charles D Winslow and William L Bramer. New York, NY : Andersen Consulting, 1994.