Saturday, June 26, 2004

How I came to be a Librarian

Back then, like many of my peers with freshly minted university degrees, I wondered what I wanted as a job or career. I knew a commercial setting was out, as I didn't want to work my buns off for some boss who'd profit more than me from my sweat and tears (might I have been influenced by the Radical Organisational Theorists in my Organisational Theory course?).

I did not yearn for a condominium or car, or for expensive and exotic holidays (I still don't). Somehow I felt my only option then was to be a teacher or social worker. If I had to work my buns off, I'd rather it be for society.

A friend then mentioned in passing, "Why don't you work in a library, since you love to read?" Hmm, why not indeed, I thought. I've always been a regular library user. Besides, how much work was there being a librarian? (Famous last words. How little I knew then!)

Prophetically, there was an ad in the papers the very next day. The National Library Board was hiring fresh graduates for Librarian posts. I remember going to the Career Fair and asking questions at the NLB booth. I must have submitted my application to NLB on the spot. (Incidentally, I'd also stopped by National Archives and was told in not too subtle terms that I didn't have the qualifications to be a curator.)

On that same day after the Career Fair, I stopped by my regular public library and asked the librarian at the information desk what a librarian's job entailed (see, I was that serious about the job). That same librarian became my direct colleague later. She said when I asked her that question, she thought I was trying to be funny. Back then, it wasn't everyday that a guy expressed interest in being a librarian, she said.

The interview at the NLB corporate HQ went well. I was in top-form with the first round panelists. Then I was asked to wait while they verified my documents. Half hour later, I was told to go for the second round of interview with the Chief Executive, Dr. Chistopher Chia (as I write this, he has since left and have been the new MDA boss for about 26 days already). Had a good session with Dr. Chia and then came the surprise -- I was offered the job there and then and told how much I would be paid.

I tell people that I must have had a silly grin at that moment, because Dr. Chia remarked affiably, "Why, never received so much money in your life before ah?"

To my peers who started in the private sector, the NLB starting salary was no big deal since it followed the standard Civil Service salary range for graduates. Nevertheless, it was a big deal to me. The most money I'd ever earned then was about $900 a month from giving tuition to three students, which paid for my degree course and daily expenses, plus some savings left over (I'm extremely frugal).

I should mention that when I was offered the job there and then, my first thought was why an organisation was so desperate as to make me commit on the spot? The books never said that would happen! Was there something wrong with the NLB?

I had a chance to ask Dr. Chia about this before he left NLB for MDA. He laughed and said it was because the NLB was being efficient and didn't want to waste anybody's time. Well it sure was efficient and it did a heck of a job in boosting my sense of self-worth!

Eight years later, I'm still working for the NLB, although increasingly I'd like to think that I'm really working FOR the people of Singapore THROUGH the NLB. I have lots of reasons to be happy with my job. Met my wife while working for the library, learned quite a bit of everything, met some really great colleagues and bosses.

But I've often wondered about my initial decision of not working in the private sector -- Did I genuinely not mind working my buns off in order to contribute back to society? Or was it borne out of my fear of instability, i.e. private sector job relatively less stable compared to a government job.

Yes, I wanted a more stable job, so that could be a reason for my avoiding the private sector. A low self-esteem could be another -- I thought I wouldn't be good enough to compete. Also, I probably wanted to avoid the private sector dog-eat-dog, backstabbing office politicking that I heard so often.

But looking back, I can honestly say that I'd really wanted to find a job that allowed me to give back to society. I really don't mind working my buns off for a meaningful job (earning obscene amounts of money isn't meaningful to me).

And the NLB job isn't an "iron-ricebowl", I can tell you for sure. There is less tolerance for non-performance (althogh we're still very patient towards giving non-performers time to improve). There is friendly and healthy competition. There's the inevitable office politics (I learnt that "office politics" isn't all bad).

I did not consciously set out to be a Librarian when I applied for the job some eight years ago. What I wanted to do was to work IN a library, not necessarily to be a Librarian.

Didn't know what being a librarian meant then. Now I think I do.

Over the years, I guess I've grown with the job, and I'd like to think the job grew with me as well. There's still lots to learn. More mistakes to make and more failures to experience. But what doesn't kill you will make you stronger. There are much more opportunities for success and job satisfaction.

tag: ,


  1. Hey lucky man (and luckier NLB)! You were there with the right icons at the right time. I was rejected once by NLB; and negotiations suffered an unexplanable miscarriage when my path crossed with NLB again not too long ago.

    I remembered very clearly what I said to a top brass at an interview with another entity, when asked if I like to read. I shot an answer I regretted til tis day "I have no time to read". The panel rolled their eyes but I got the job.

  2. Anonymous1:19 am

    U inspire me...Shall i become a librarian too???

  3. Anonymous10:28 am

    Thanks for your tale. As an Australian Librarian, I enjoyed reading your story and especially your enthusiasm. I have only been to Singapore once for work, I loved it and would love to return before too long. All the best, Jane.

  4. " I have lots of reasons to be happy with my job. Met my wife while working for the library,..."

    Such a world... I also met my spouse while working at a library!

  5. Anonymous12:07 am

    your message has inspired me so much. -- "contribute to the society" -- "work out library services for disabled" -- I have a very similar thoughts. Of all ur message has ensured me about something important. thank you.

  6. Thank you for sharing so openly and frankly this article.

  7. Anonymous6:05 am

    Thanks a million for sharing your job experiences. I am a Librarian and will really love to learn about the profession and new trends around the world, can you for a start tell me a little about librarianship and community development in Singapore?
    I work with Covenant University Library, Canaan Land, Ota, Nigeria.I can send my e-mail if you don't mind to request for it.

  8. Hi Anonymous, you might want to join the Librarians-In-Singapore mailing list and introduce yourself there. The members there would gladly share what you'd like to know about libraries and librarianship in Singapore. Cheers.

  9. Hi! This comes really late..I was net-surfing and came across your blog. I'm actually planning to go into youth librarianship in Singapore, and am starting my MSc program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign next semester. I got quite excited reading your post! You're right--it's not everyday you see people wanting to be librarians, but it would be a job I'll fall in love with again everyday =)

  10. Good for you, Yi. Good luck!

  11. Anonymous1:37 am

    hello Mr.Ivan,
    your blog is really good one and it showed that you are enjoy your work as a librarian.. ur responsibility towards the society is commendable!!:)
    Am a student in my under graduation level ( final yr) interested in becoming a librarian..:) i wish to know the scope of this field( Msc in Information studies) in the future and the pay scale too..(plz dont mistake coz i need this profession that helps me to pay back my education loans too) ...
    thank you in advance..:)

  12. Hi anonymous, glad that you've interest in the profession. May I recommend you join the librarians-in-singapore group, introduce yourself there, search the archives to get a sense what's been discussed, and then don't feel shy to ask questions. About pay scale, all I can say is that starting pays are consistent with the starting pay scales for most govt-related positions that accept fresh grads. :)

  13. Anonymous1:50 am

    thank you for the quick reply... it is really encouraging.:)

  14. Anonymous9:45 am

    Hello! I was inspired by your message. Being a librarian for 12 years, I really can say, I deserved to be one.

    Im planning a trip to your country early next year, hope to meet you at NLB. God bless!

  15. Thank you for sharing the inspiring experience of becoming a librarian! :) I am quite interested in the job, however i'm holding a graduate degree in engineering which is nothing related to information studies. Do you think it is possible for me to enter this job field?

  16. Hello danping, depending on the need and available positions, libraries in Singapore do accept non-library or IS degrees as entry level jobs. The NLB does. You can find out more from looking up the career pages at the respective websites.

  17. Anonymous3:00 pm

    I have heard horror stories about librarian jobs. Your are telling a different story. I am a science graduate from NUS. I am quite interested in the job, but is there any age limit to join the library. Do you think it is possible to ENTER this job at any age. Do they pay enough to survive on this earth.

    1. Hi Anonymous,I feel it's about job-fit. Someone's perfect job is another person's reason for quitting. Skills, competencies, any other value that you can bring to the job -- they are the primary considerations rather than age. Generally speaking, I think the expectations are different/ higher for older job applicants Vs fresh graduates. Also depends on asking salary and the available position. As for whether the pay is enough, well it has to be at some level right? Otherwise, no one would take up this job or most librarians have to moonlight.

  18. Anonymous6:39 pm

    Does qualification and experience count for a job-fit at Singapore. What experience and specialisation do they consider for librarianship similar to yours - young adult librarian.

  19. Anonymous3:18 pm

    Hello, i'm interested in becoming a librarian because i love to read too lols, just wanna ask, is it possible for a diploma holder in design (nothing related to a librarian's job i know XD) to be employed as a librarian? And what are the job scopes of a normal librarian, like those i see sitting at the information counters, what are some other things they have to do?
    Thanks in advance :)


Join the conversation. Leave a comment :)