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65th IFLA Council and General


Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999

Sabah State Library: reaching out to the print handicapped

Vui Yin Wong
Sabah State Library


Sabah: A brief Introduction

Sabah, one of the 13 states that makes up Malaysia is traditionally known as The Land below the Wind. Recognized as one last tropical rainforest of the world, the lush green forest and unique flora and fauna in Sabah make it both a nature lover and botanist haven. Covering an area of 73,600 square kilometers, Sabah sits on the northern tip of the Borneo Island, surrounded by the South China Sea on the West, the Sulu Sea in the north and the Celebes Sea in the east. The most prominent and well known landmark of Sabah is none other than the majestic Mt. Kinabalu. Geographically young, Mt Kinabalu at 4,094 meters is the highest peak in the Croaker range is said to be growing at a rate of 0.3cm per year. Mt Kinabalu covers an area of 700 square kilometers and believed to contain between 5,000 to 6,000 species of vascular plants, one of the six highest global diversity centres of the world, with more than 5,000 species per 10,000 square kilometers. Geographically situated south of the Philippines, Sabah is just outside the typhoon belt which blights the Philippines. Thus the name The Land below the Wind.

The population is as diversified as it natural resources with at least 40 ethnic groups speaking over 50 languages and 90 dialects. The largest ethnic group being the Kadazandusun, a political term encompassing both the Kadazan and Dusun. The rest includes Bajau, Murut and the largest non-indigenous Chinese population. To date the Sabah population attributed only 10 percent of the total national population at 2.1 million.

Kota Kinabalu is the administrative, financial and economic centre of the state where most of the government departments, banks and business activities are centered. Situated at the heart of Kota Kinabalu lies the Sabah State Library.

Sabah State Library

Forty-six years ago in 1953, the Information department created a small library section to look into collecting published materials in then Jesselton town. From that initial small section, it became a state government department in 1972. Today the Sabah State Library is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Social Development and Consumer Affairs, formerly known as the Ministry of Social service, Sabah. Being a government department it receives its funding solely from the State government although since 1992, the Federal government has been giving an annual grant to the library as well as providing funding for construction of new library building projects. From its humble beginning, Sabah State Library has undergoing tremendous change and development. Today it has one of the most developed library system in the country.

To date the Sabah State Library network consists of the headquarters library in Kota Kinabalu, three regional, 18 branch, 12 Mobile and 37 Village libraries strategically located in major towns and villages throughout Sabah. The regional libraries are located in large towns while branches are located at smaller urban town centers at the various districts and Village libraries are found at remote villages. The mobile libraries visit schools and villages along bituminous roads that are away from the towns. The Sabah State Library is still expanding with new library buildings being constructed and new services being planned.

With a literacy rate that is much lower than the national average, the Sabah state government realizes the important role library plays in eradicating illiteracy. Based on a 10-year development plan, funds were channeled for the construction of new library buildings to ensure the communities are able to enjoy the full range of library facilities found throughout the state. Since 1993, a total of seven such libraries were built costing the state government a total of RM 47 million. Some of these libraries are in small town such as in Sipitang where the library is only 16,000 square feet. The biggest so far is situated in the interior town of Keningau with a floor area is 60,000 square feet. The construction of a new headquarters library and another branch library fully funded by the Federal government in Lahad Datu is in progress.

Beside the physical development, the Sabah State Library also became the first public library in the country to computerize when in 1988 it installed the Urica Library system now called with the Acquisitions, cataloguing, Reference Enquiry, Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC) and Circulation modules. The system has been renamed Spydus and the installation has been extended to Sandakan, Tawau and Penampang.

The Sabah State Library employs the most number of qualified librarian in Sabah and only the National Library of Malaysia employs more librarian in the country.

Library services to the Blind

Although the Sabah State Library was established as a government machinery for 27 years, basically to provide library and information service to the people of Sabah, the types of service provided are the conventional loan of books, general reference and extension services. In the earlier years, the focus was on school children. It was felt that emphasis should be given to young children. The nation was faced with the problem where very few people read and it was felt that a young developing nation like Malaysia should have a population that read ferociously on all subjects, not only pertaining to science and technology but on other matters like philosophy and literature. Where else other than the public library where unlimited library resources are freely available for members of the public. With these efforts the government hoped to raise at least a new generation of readers and library users.

The shift in focus came in August 1996 where the Minister of Social services, Sabah (The name of the Ministry has since changed to the Ministry of Community Development and Consumer Affairs) launched the service of the Visually Impaired Persons (VIP) in the headquarters library. It was felt that the time has come for the Sabah State Library to move into another aspect of library service that is totally new in line with the caring society concept.

Before the launch of this new service, one person who played a paramount role in getting the SSL interested in starting this service was none other than Mr. Hiroshi Kawamura, the then chairman of the IFLA Section of Libraries for the Blind. That was in November 1993. Then the Japan Braille Library donated a set of computer to the library and at the same time donated another set with Braille Embosser to the Sabah Society for the Blind. The Sabah Secretaries Association donated a voice synthesizer to further compliment the other equipment in the library. In November 1995 the library purchased "Arkinstone Reading Machine, which can scan printed materials and read in a human-like robotic voice. This equipment is truly a break through as those who come to use this equipment could "read" whatever documents or books without involving a third party. The purchased of the Alpha Vision CCTV for those with low vision completed the emsemble.

In 1997 and 1998 the Sabah State Library together with the National Council for the Blind, Malaysia and Japan Braille Library with funds provided by the FORCE Foundation organised two international workshops on Computerised braille production. Participants were donated the Duxbury braille translator together with the Index printer after the workshop. The Sabah State Library received four additional Duxbury translator as a result and these are kept in the Sandakan and Tawau regional libraries.

This new service is provided free to individuals who have a visual or physical disability that limits the use of regular print materials.

Besides the service in the headquarters library, this special service is also offered in Sandakan and Tawau Regional Library. We are in the planning stage of implementing this service in our third regional library in Keningau.

Membership to the service is free although users are required to register with the library. Anyone who is blind or has low vision could become a member. Once they become member, they can enjoy all the services provided. This would include the large print books, books on cassettes and use all the equipment in the library during library opening hours. If they do not know how to operate the equipment, our staff at the Multi media library will be able to assist them. The opening hours are very accommodating. 0n weekdays the library for twelve hours from 9.00 in the morning until 9.00 at night. 0n Saturday the library opens from 9.00 in the morning until 5.00 in the early evening. The opening time for Sundays is from 9.00 until 1.00 o'clock in the afternoon. The library also provide bulk loan facilities to the special school in Tuaran. Very soon Internet service for the Visually Impaired will be available. This is done with the cooperation of the Sabah society of the Blind. The library will provide the Computer with Internet facility while the Sabah Society for the Blind will provide the JAWS screen reader. This equipment will enable those who are blind to access the Internet. The possibility of accessing the Internet by the blind will be a real information and technological break through.

This is in line with the library's policy of providing equal access to information to all its users irrespective of race, creed or religion. In this instance, whether they could see or otherwise. The VIP service is dedicated to disseminating up-to-date information about access to computing and information technology for persons with disabilities.

Mail bag service

The branch library in Penampang house and run the Mail Bag service. Currently there are 43 registered users. This service enable registered users to request and receive audio cassettes through the mail. Return of materials are also through the mail. This special service is provided with the co-operation of the Pos Malaysia where neither the library nor the users have to pay postage for the items sent. This service is available state wide. We are also planning to update our mail bag service users profile to keep up dated on their latest interests so we could meet their changing needs.

S.K. Pendidikan Khas, Pekan Tuaran

This is a special school for the blind and visually impaired children ranging from the age of 7 to 14 years old. This school only provides primary education. In 1999, the total student population is only 21, only half the full capacity. With 12 teachers, four of who are trained specially to teach blind and visually impaired students; this is the only school in Sabah catering for the blind and or visually impaired students. There is a pilot project started in 1999 where 5 visually impaired students were incorporated into the normal secondary school in a near by Tuaran Secondary school, S.M. K. Badin. These students student study with sighted students. There is no secondary schools in Sabah catering for the visually impaired. Previously, students had to go to Peninsular Malaysia to pursue their secondary education.

The S.K. Pendidikan Khas, Pekan Tuaran was started in 1983 with an initial enrollment of 3 students and supported by 2 resource persons. A year later, it moved to a small resource centre in Tuaran where the present building is located. It is a fully residential school where all meals are provided and have separate sleeping quarters for boys and girls. They follow the normal primary school syllabus but also have personal hygiene lessons where these students are taught to be independent. Students come from all over Sabah. The number of students is very low. Parents of blind children are very protective and are reluctant to send their children to a residential school, thus unknowingly are depriving them of an education and a chance to make a living and live independently later in life. The stigma of not having a normal child is also encouraging parents not to send these children to school. The blind child would be kept at home and looked after by the mother or an aunt or a close member of the family.

The state government has to be more aggressive in reaching out to parents who have children who are blind or have low vision. Parents should be educated and informed on the matter. They should also be made aware of the availability of education for children who are blind or have low vision. On the other hand the schools should have "open house" where parents of students can come to visit and parents who have not sent their child could see for themselves the facilities which are available and the environment their child will be living and studying in, meet with and talk to the staff and also other parents in the schools. This hopefully will dispel any misconception and fear they might have that their child will not be properly looked after when they enroll in this school.

The role of the library

The government has over the years tried to be sensitive to the needs of the whole population. With the concept of a caring society, one of the needs of the physically handicapped was addressed when the law regarding access to public buildings were reviewed to incorporate ramps at the entrance and interiors of the building to allow free and easy wheel chair access. Other friendly user features include toilets and telephone facilities in public buildings that could be used by the physically handicapped without difficulty and assistance. The library can assist the government in many areas. Individuals who could not use the standard printed media are also entitled to a high quality, free public library service with access to all information, books and materials perceived as useful. The role played by Sabah State Library is just the beginning. The potential and possibilities are endless. The library needs to bring its collection and services closer to the blind and print disabled library users across Sabah. There is an enormous amount of information gap between the sighted and those who are blind. And the top priority of the library is to bridge this gap.

The current mobile library service includes the monthly visit to the schools in Pekan Tuaran and also the visit to Taman Cahaya in Sandakan by the Sandakan Regional Library. However, due to conflict of schedules and other problems, the Pekan Tuaran school visit the Sabah State Library instead. Programmes organised during these visit would start with story telling sessions and ends with the use of CD-ROM , computer or any of the equipment available in the Multi media library.

This service is targeted to specific members of the community to enable them to fill leisure hours, continue studies or just keep in touch with the world.

FORCE Foundation

In April 1999, the director of the Foundation Mr Matthijs Balfort met with the Sabah State Library to discuss cooperation to find means and ways to further meet the needs of the print handicapped in Sabah in particular as well as those in the Asia region in general. This is in line with the aim of FORCE Foundation which is" to provide support - in the broadest sense - to organizations linked to International federation Library Association (IFLA) and which are concerned with the provision of appropriate media and information to any persons who need them due to visual or other handicap." The result of the meeting was the setting up of the FORCE Foundation Secretariat - Asia region. The following are the terms and reference of the Secretariat:-

Activities of F(o)RCE Foundation includes the following:-

  1. Set up a centre to collect information on the work of libraries for the blind, and distribute this information in various forms to the target group.
  2. Organise regional workshops.
  3. Set up regional knowledge centres in certain countries to provide training and support to those and neighbouring countries.
  4. To set up one centre each in the following region: French-speaking Africa, English-speaking Africa, Latin America and Asian.
  5. Set up interlibrary loan
  6. Offer assistance, upon request to set up or improve on existing library facilities, including training.

Terms of Reference of the secretariat :-

  1. To function as the F(o)RCE Foundation administrative and training centre in the Asia region.

  2. To execute training programmes that has been approved by the F(o)RCE Foundation.

  3. To plan, coordinate, organize and conduct training sessions in the Asia region.

  4. To identify potential participants in the Asia region for training to be conducted in the Secretariat.

  5. To provide follow up technical support and monitor the progress and development of participants that have attended training workshops in the Secretariat.

  6. To maintain and safe keep all equipment belonging to the Secretariat.

  7. To report to the F(o)RCE Foundation all matters pertaining to the activities of the Secretariat.

  8. To submit an annual budget / activity list / annual report to the F(o)RCE Foundation.

  9. To produce Braille and spoken book for the Asia region.

With the establishment of the secretariat or expert centre, the production of materials for the print handicapped as well as training for personnel directly involved in the provision of these materials are trained. Each year the Foundation would source experts and organize workshops or follow-up workshops in the expert centres.

This is a smart partnership between the Sabah State Library and the Force Foundation. The Sabah State Library is very fortunate to be working with an organisation that reflect commitment and sincerity towards improving and bridging the information gap between the sighted and blind Library users.

Limitation of materials

The dearth of materials for the blind and those in the low vision category is a paramount problem for the library. Many of the materials are sources from outside the country. When these materials are acquired by the library, they are in the English language. The choice is also rather limited. Most of the materials are fiction titles although more non-fiction titles are being made available. Materials that are available are either in the form of talking books and music which includes popular, contemporary as well as traditional or folk music. The number of non fiction titles are also very limited compared to the print media. Another problem is the fact that supplier of such materials are also scarce.

We look forward to locally produced titles that are in Malay rather than English. More users will be able to borrow these items if they are in Malay. Malay is widely spoken and understood by a very high percentage of the population. Locally produced materials would also mean our users could easily identify with the contents of the materials. There is no cultural elements that is alien or deem unsuitable for our users. Another factor would be cost. It would mean cheaper materials and that would mean more materials could be acquired for the benefits of our users.

At present the collection is limited to only audio cassettes are available for loan in the library. There is also a collection of large print books but they are in the English language. The cassettes collection is a combination of fiction and non fiction titles which includes contemporary music audio cassettes, from local as well as international artistes.

With the purchase of CD writer, the library could produce quality in house materials that have longer life span as compare to the conventional audio cassette tapes.

What the library is planning is the introduction of recorded newspapers in the three major languages. The challenge here is to ensure the currency of the materials so that these recordings get to our intended target group before the materials are out of date. The availability of people reading the news articles are also crucial for the success of this programme.

Information on local government or policies pertaining to consumer affairs should be made available either in braille , large print or other format to all, especially the blind and visually impaired persons.

Descriptive video is another source which the library should seriously consider. Not many visually impaired or blind people go to the movies and thus left out of the magic world of movies which is a big part of the everyday life of those sighted. Descriptive videos will enable those blinds and visually-impaired access to popular feature films, classic movies as well as documentaries. The descriptive videos incorporate audio narration that describes action, settings, gestures and other visual elements. The narration is seamlessly applied to the movie soundtrack and in no way interfere with the film's natural dialog.

Limitation of Resources


There are currently over 35 professional librarians employed by the Sabah State Library . Unfortunately none of these professionals are trained to cater for the blind or visually - impaired.


In future the library plan to provide the necessary playback equipment to its registered users as long as it is required by the user and the equipment is being used on a regular basis. Alternatively, the necessary equipment could be loan to users on a request basis. This will mean a considerable amount of money will be allocated for the purchase of equipment.


The mobile library service for the print handicapped in Sabah is still in its infancy stage. In terms of resources, equipment and manpower, there is still plenty of room for improvement. The dearth of resources and the scope of resources is still minimal. More attention on locally produced, high quality materials needs to be concentrated. In conferences such as this, where experts from agencies who are directly or indirectly responsible for the administration or formulation of policies that will affect the provision of information to those print handicapped, attention to the particular or individual unique needs of each agencies or country could be addressed. As for the Sabah State Library, the only way to proceed is upward. With the setting up of the Force Foundation secretariat, the role of the library possibilities is endless. As we approach the new millenium, with improved telecommunications and information transfer that is unprecedented, let us strive to at least make sure that those who are print handicapped are provided with equal opportunity to access such information.


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