Friday, October 29, 2004

Between the devil and the deep blue sea: Self-studying in the public library

The idiom "Between the devil and the deep blue sea" describes a situation where there are two equally unacceptable alternatives. Perhaps you are more familiar with this other idiom -- "Between a rock and a hard place". Public libraries in Singapore are really caught in a bind where the issue of self-studying is concerned.

Self-studying in Singapore's Public Libraries

The "self-studying" refers to a user occupying the table & chair for study purposes WITHOUT referencing library materials.

Singapore's public libraries are popular hangouts for students (predominently the 13 to 16 year olds). They'd flock to libraries to do their homework (often combined with social activities, like getting to know that guy or gal better) because libraries are air-conditioned, the ambience is excellent, and they're one of those few places where parents have less reasons to object when their kids say "I'm not coming straight home from school 'cos I'll be going to the library."

Ordinarily, there would be nothing wrong with this situation, where a person occupies the seat/ table to do their own research work, homework, class assignment etc. After all, libraries are no longer mere repositories of books. They are touted to be a place for life-long learning. And learning takes many different forms.

What's the problem?
Ok, here's the problem: At the other end, there are users who want a seat while they read the library book at leisure. Naturally, they'll complain about the lack of seats because the darn students have taken up all the seats. "I want to complain! The library should do something about these students who hog the tables and seats. I'm a taxpayer and yet I cannot find a seat in this library. Why isn't the library chasing these people away to let readers who have a REAL need to use the seats?"

"Wait a minute", an adult might say. "I have a right to use the library for self-studying too. I'm taking up the government's call to upgrade myself, so I've enrolled myself for classes. And I need a place like the library to study. I pay my taxes too, so I have a right to occupy the seat for my learning! I'm not doing my homework - I'm learning!"

A change in policy
Up till about a year ago, self-studying was strictly prohibited in public libraries and in the National (reference) Library. Priority was given to readers who were using library materials. However, the policy was somewhat relaxed recently (circa 2003), where self-studying was allowed within specific self-study hours. Kind of like a "Self-study Happy Hour" if you will. But the Reference Section was still strictly "no self-study".

So what's the problem this time?
Both groups still feel that there can be no compromise because they both have the right. It's really a turf issue; a scarcity of space. And maybe, just maybe, some people are just plain self-centered, caring only about their immediate need.

Library staffs are the ones caught in the cross-fire. When library staffs enforce the self-study rule (e.g. tell people to leave when they study outside the prescribed hours), that person gets unhappy at being chased away, as they don't really understand -- or refuse to accept -- the rationale for the policy. Library staff in turn gets a complaint for being "inflexible".

If library staffs were slightly more lenient in enforcing the rule, then the other group would complain that staffs are not doing their job.

Possible solutions - I've been considering the following:

#1 - Expand self-study hours during "Exam Periods"
Like this example from Hong Kong Central Library. In Singapore, we probably need to cater to Secondary Schools in particular. They are the main age group who self-study in the library. The older students in Junior Colleges, Polytechnics and Universities would have their own campuses. During the months leading to the exams, libraries could totally drop the no-study rule (the opposing group cannot complain, and have to accept this as part of the greater good for the country). Once the exams are over, the rules for restricted self-study hours are enforced. Students have to accept that self-study is strictly not allowed outside the prescribed hours. The library would have to get the media involved to help publicise the issue.

Or how about a public forum or debate on this issue? The Self-studiers Vs. The Readers. That might be interesting. At least it would bring the issue to the open and, more or less, allow the public to sort it out

#2 - Create Self-Study Only Rooms
There's something similar being done in Hong Kong public libraries. The room would be strictly out of bounds to users who are NOT self-studying. Or that you can use the room if it's not occupied but the person who self-study would have the priority right. Similarly, self-study would be strictly disallowed outside this room.

#3 - Self-study Allowed Spaces
A variation of #2, where we indicate which are the areas where self-studying is allowed. The difference is that instead of constructing enclosed rooms, we just demarcate spaces where self-studying is allowed and those that are strictly off limits -- kind of like pockets of self-study safe-havens.

Can the library afford to crave out such spaces? Some say that we cannot. I think we can. Afterall, people already sit themselves anywhere, and we are just marking out the boundaries clearly. If restaurants can have Smoking and Non-smoking sections, why can't libraries have Self-Study and Non-Self-study sections?

#4 - A combination of ideas #1, #2 and/ or #3
Hmm. It gets complicated... Probably not such a good idea. The policy must be something that's intuitively fair, so it's got to be simple.

#5 - Take one side, any side

The idea is that if we take no action, or if we try to act as peacemakers, we'd fail anyway and find ourselves tormented by the devil AND still drown in the deep sea. So just choose a side.

BUT, this is actually the worse idea of all. Think about it: (1) If we take the side of students, we ostracise the adults. And students don't borrow books; they just use the space for self-study. No loans = No funding for libraries. (2) If we take the side of adults, we'll ostracise the students. They get peeved and won't come back to libraries in their adult years. Again, poor loans = less funding.

Which means the library cannot afford to just do nothing, and we have to play the peacemaker to ensure an equitable compromise is achieved.

Earlier, I wrote that most people who self-study are students. However, I suspect this would change in the years to come because more adults would be taking up long-distance courses, part-time courses etc.

I don't have the statistics right now, but I'd wager that the percentage growth in the adult education industry is significant. The number of paperchasers will increase, and so will the demand for spaces for self-study. Singapore's public libraries are seen as one of the prime institutions for self-learning, so the library would have to act now in anticipation of potential problems.

Ok, so what would you do?

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Access to Information & Libraries: It's never free to begin with

I’ve been pondering about a post by Oogaoogachukka, about the library shifting from a contributor of public good to the model where economics dictate. One line goes: "‘Democracy’ of information is eroding. You’ve got to pay for information that you want."

I'd argue that libraries were never free in the first place. The Library of Alexandria of antiquity wasn't meant to be freely accessible to everyone. I could even argue that the reason for setting up the Library of Alexandria was far from altruistic reasons; it was a way of accruing information and knowledge, so that knowledge could be used as a leverage to conquer more land and obtain greater riches.

Public Libraries are a relatively recent feature in the library landscape. I'd read somewhere that Andrew Carnegie set up the public library as a way to make up for the fact that he used child labour. Ok, so give the man a break. Labour laws weren't that stringent in those days, and that Carnegie didn't have to donate money to set up the library (I salute him for doing so). Still, one could argue that the first Public Library was built upon Carnegie’s wealth, which was built upon the sweat and tears of working-children, and hence it isn’t free – merely paid indirectly.

We may not charge for most public library services, but it’s not free. There’s a difference.

Public Libraries are funded by taxpayer’s money. In countries (like the US) where local residents vote on how their local tax revenue is allocated, some have chosen to reduce or eliminate their local public library service. Between filling up that pothole on the road and buying a book, some prefer to maintain their roads.

Life is about making choices – economics is the means by which our choices are measured.

In the final analysis, I suspect that the issue of information access would boil down to what they say about choices in Engineering - Good, cheap, fast: Choose any two.

You want it to be good and fast? Then it won't be cheap.
Want it fast and cheap? Then be prepared to accept a lower quality.
You get the picture.