Monday, December 27, 2004

Reading Vs Computer Games: Thinking out of the (X)box

Christmas came and went. Xbox was pretty hot this year, or so it seemed to me. Past few weeks, while shopping at various locations, I noticed that adults were snapping up Xboxes where they were being sold. Not surprising, considering that Xbox testing stations seem to be in every corner of Singapore (bet the marketing people's motto was "To be even more pervasive than Starbucks").

Computer retail shops seemed to be doing good business, with adults and kids buying PC games too. That made me wonder to what extent was Reading for Leisure (i.e. borrowing from public libraries) affected by Computer Gaming.

It's a given that those two activties compete for our time. I'm repeating the obvious here: If you are a voracious reader, chances are that you'd spend time a significant amount of your personal time reading -- at the expense of other activities that you could do (say, playing on your computer or Xbox, if you own one). The reverse is also true -- if you are a fervent computer gamer who spend at least 4 hours trying to outrace, outgun, outbuild or outwit whatever that has been programmed, then you'll have less time to read (assuming you do that in the first place).

The computer games are getting more fantastic. I'm sure part of the growing appeal is due to Multiplayer options that come along with most games nowadays, where players go online and interact with other online players. To get a taste of the numbers, try (the developers of Halo & Halo2). As of this post, there were 331,315 unique players in the last 24 hours, with 848,268 matches logged. It may not seem like much when we think about the total number of Xbox gamers, but how likely would we have 300,000 readers going online to discuss about the same book in 24 hours? And that's only for Halo2. There are many more Multiplayer servers out there.

Generally speaking, that's not very encouraging if you're in the business of selling books or lending books. The young are picking up computer gaming at a much faster rate than which they pick up the book-reading habit.

My wife had a quirky idea on how to reverse that trend. Her idea was to design computers and gaming consoles such that they were not powered by plugging them into the electrical outlet. Instead, the user would have to first get on a stationary exercise bike (or equivalent exercise equipment) and pedal. Kinetic energy would be converted into electrical energy which was stored for use by the computer/ game console. Simply speaking, in order to play computer games, you've got to work for it first. The less you exercise, the less you would be able to play the computer game. The health benefits are apparent.

I said my wife had a quirky idea. I didn't say it was practical or realistic.

Even if game consoles were built like that, would that make more people take up reading? That's a different issue altogether. I won't even kid myself to say that I have an answer to that.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The death knell for libraries? I don't think so!

On Nov 15, 2004, OCLC and Yahoo! officially launched a toolbar that provides "one-click access to Open WorldCat as well as Yahoo! Search's Web search engine." Here's the press release.

As I understand it:
1) OCLC basically made library catalogue records (US public libraries) searchable by a web search engine. When a user searches on the web, the catalogue record is displayed like how a website search result is displayed. At first glance, you'd think it's a URL link to a website.

2) When user clicks on that result link, it brings user to narrow the search to a particular library. The key thing is that the user sees a typical web search engine page, rather than the typical OPAC search page with lots of options and boxes. Users don't necessarily know they are now searching a library OPAC record.

3) The search then brings them to a library record, showing the book cover, synopsis, loan status and library location (depending on the library system I think).

When I last heard the OCLC president, Jay Jordan, talk about this in May '04, he said they were negotiating with a "search engine company" to market this service. I guess that was Yahoo. I have not tried this new toolbar. Last time I tried the "beta" was in May '04, but I think it works the same.

I see this as another step closer in making libraries relevant in the Internet era. Who said libraries won't be relevant anymore? I like this excerpt from this Information Today Inc. article:
"The co-branded toolbar ... ...empowers users ... to seamlessly search for information that is available in offline databases." A Yahoo! representative clarified that they consider "stacks of books" as "offline databases."

The toolbar is available for download at

Monday, November 01, 2004

Not-so-Scary-Halloween: What's the point?

My wife and I chanced upon a poster, displayed in a shopping centre, for a "Not-so-Scary-Halloween". Seemed a bit odd to organise a Halloween party that is "not-so-scary". It's like organising a "Not-so-Merry-Christmas" or "Not-so-Happy-Birthday".

The event was for kids aged 4 to 12. Perhaps the organisers decided to offer a watered down programme to encourage parents to sign up their kids for the event -- a kind of assurance that the kids wouldn't be unduly scared out of their wits and hence suffer psychological harm later in life.

I learnt that Halloween falls on 31 Oct, which is the eve of All Saints' Day. They are somehow related. This web article titled The true origin of Hallowe'en from News Shopper seems pretty reliable.

Maybe my wife and I are insensitive to the feelings of parents. Perhaps we've lagged behind the times. But still, a "Not-so-Scary Halloween"? Clearly the event referred to the commercialised version of Halloween. That's like missing the entire point of celebrating (the commercial version of) Halloween, isn't it?

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.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Differentiating the Public Service Librarian

At a recent manager's meeting, I shared excerpts from The Cluetrain Manifesto with my colleagues (yes, we do book talks among managers too). In the presentation, I suggested how NLB's Public Library Service (as opposed to the Reference Service) could position us as "Your Friendly Neighbourhood Librarian".

I have fond memories of those lazy Saturday afternoons (much younger then), when there was no school, no homework. While waiting for my father to come home with lunch, my siblings and I would watch The Electric Company. On some episodes, they featured "Spidy", i.e. a guy in a Spider-man costume (with same Spider-man powers but who never ever talks!), a catchy theme song, and the catchphrase "Your friendly neighbourhood Spider-man". Their version of Spider-man was this silent superhero who goes around saving the day, and whom the residents in the neighbourhood know they can rely on.

Perhaps that influenced me when I suggested PLS librarians should position us like that (not the silent part though). Right now, both the Reference Service librarians and Public Service librarians handle enquiries. The former aims to serve more specialised research-based needs, while the latter caters more to the general public. The National Reference collection is also more specialised while public libraries cater to Fiction readers and general non-fiction, i.e. more leisure-based reading needs.

However, such differences are not very clear to our users. I think most people know that the National Reference collection is not for loan, while Public Library collection is for loan. Beyond that, they don't really know the difference.

To cut a long rambling short, the crux of this blog is: (1) Why do we need to differentiate the Public Service Librarian, and (2) How do we do it?

Why? Because Identity is important, no matter what people say. It's a natural human response to want to know where we fit in a complex world. And having an identity leads to a greater sense of pride in our work.

As to How the PLS librarians can become the "Friendly Neighbourhood Librarian", I personally draw much the ideas from Book.

We should go out there and engage potential users in the forums, chatrooms etc. As I wrote in my other blog:"... the presence that librarians project can no longer be the “Thou knoweth more than you-eth” attitude. To connect with our average information-customer, we need to show them that we’re as human as they are; as fallible, and there’s nothing to be fear from us."

In providing our service, be it answering reference enquiries or Readers' Advisory, or checking a reader's loan record, PLS librarians can distinguish themselves by engaging in conversations with the reader. In a real conversation, we don't go "Dear Mr Lee, with regards to your enquiry..." but we say things like "Hi Mr Lee, that's a most interesting question. It's something new to me but I've checked with my colleagues and...". Our tone (written or verbal) should be informal, approachable, human.

Maybe, just maybe, the kids in the neighbourhood will hum a song to the tune of "Your Friendly Neighbourhood Librarian".

[Tag: , ]

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Lifelong Learning Awards 2004

While speaking to a mediacorp executive recently, for a collaborative programme between Mediacorp Newsradio and NLB, I was encouraged to nominate someone for the Lifelong Learning Award 2004. I replied that I could only think of a retired person who might fit the bill, but not sure if that person was qualified. She said to submit the nomination, which I did. This was what I wrote:
My father retired maybe 8 years ago. He has had heart surgery before but he's still quite active for his age. For past 3 years or so, he's been volunteering at the Ang Mo Kio Community Centre, taking care of the CC garden daily, arranging the layout, repotting etc. He also interacts with the residents, who donate plants or ask for cuttings. Apart from the CC garden, he also helped the neighbours on the floor of his HDB unit set up plant stands.

To me, it was a total surprise that he did all that, since he's never been trained in horticulture and before his retirement and he’d never shown any interest in plants before. But now, he's learnt how to create his own fertilizer mix, transplant new plants, repotting etc.

He does it by experimentation, by asking people, and a few weeks back, he asked if there were relevant books from the library. Hearing him talk about the garden, you’d think he’s been doing it for a living.

My father would he’d be surprised if someone says he’s a Lifelong Learner. He took up gardening perhaps as a way to pass time, and didn’t consciously set out to be a ‘Lifelong Learner’.

But that’s what I think lifelong learning is about – he didn't do it because he had to, but because he wants to – and not even ‘consciously’ in that sense. It's quite mundane and just a way of life.
The nomination exercise started on 30 August 2004. Closing date is 24 September 2004, 6pm Singapore time. Nominations can be made online.


Saturday, September 11, 2004

Role the library plays: Books in my Boat

Discovered yet another Asian Liblogarian - olkgal. I read her blog on What role is the library supposed to play? Olkgal asks if the library is becoming an education institution, and whether it can become a learning centre. I posted a comment, which I'll repeat here:
I'm thinking of the public library, which in its essence, still has a very straight-forward role. It's to let the Ordinary Joes & Janes like me experience the world without having to physically travel (how many countries can I travel in my lifetime?). To allow me to learn from Harvard professors without having to enroll in Harvard (what are the chances of me getting enrolled?) To allow me a glimpse into the thoughts of the Lee Kuan Yews, Margaret Thatchers, of people long gone. To buy me that little time, to escape into the a fantasy world where I can forget my worldly worries as long as I keep turning the pages.
A poem just came into my head -- I'm calling it:
Books In My Boat
Read to me, my love
Open up my eyes

As I row our boat
Gently down this stream

Merrily, merrily
Passing through

This Dream
Which we call Life
Ivan Chew, Sept 11, 2004


Monday, September 06, 2004

My next job could depend on my blog!

Just discovered that my blog post on Professionalism is an Attitude, not a Definition has been listed on

What is more interesting is the article titled Interviewing: Beware Blogging Blunders. Apparently, my next job could very well depend on what I blog!

I wrote to my bosses about the above. See, I'm trying to make a case to get my colleagues to blog, and naturally, I have to get buy-in from my bosses.

So far, three of my peers have responded and have started their own blogs (I'm not exactly betting the farm that my bosses would start). Anyway, my take on blogging has come a long way. I used to think they are a waste of time, but now I realise that the usefulness of blogging, like everything else, depends on what you use it for.

If I could, I'd make every NLB librarian maintain a blog. I believe the blog would be a window to their professional minds. We could learn more about what each of us is thinking. It could be library-related, or it might not. It could be about books read. It could be about something we heard read and we'd like to share. It could be about our thoughts on our profession, our customers.

It's not easy writing for a blog (that is, to write something intelligent). It takes time and effort. But that way, it makes us THINK. To write well, we librarians have to read more, and read widely. It would give us that "presence" on the web, and allow other people to know what librarianship is about. Librarians tend to complain that we are not appreciated for what we do. People are often surprised when I tell them that the minimal professional qualification in NLB right now is the MSc in Information Studies (Singapore does not have a degree course).

So rather than continue to lament the fact that people don't know what we do, why not blog? Start a blog, submit the URL to various search engines and directories. Then read, think and write. Let the world know what you do.


Sunday, September 05, 2004

Innovation, Creativity, Love and Identity

Shel and I were having a email discussion about the creativity in Singapore. He said he was fundamentally impressed with Singapore during his 5-day visit a few weeks ago, but from what he's seen and heard, he was not too sure about how innovative and creative Singapore really was. Network World has published his opinion piece on Singapore. He has also posted more of such opinions in his blog.

Singapore has focused more on adapting and adopting the innovations from elsewhere well, explained Shel via email. It was innovative from that perspective. As he saw it, RFID and color-coding in libraries was innovative but only in application--not by creativity. He suggested that I put up a blog post to say that I took issue with him.

Thing is, I don't have any issue with his observations because they are true. It just depends on how strict we want to define "creativity", "innovation" and "inventiveness".

It's true that Singapore aspires to be innovative. We want to be "World-class". We want to benchmark ourselves so that there is a basis for judging our progress. Many Singaporeans would agree that we are not there yet. I can tell you that some people (like me), working in a government agency, get a bit embarrassed when the Powers That Be say that "Singapore is first in" 'blah blah', or that we have a "world class" 'blah blah'.

I'm proud of Singapore's achievements, but just uncomfortable trying to say "we are there" and can compete with the Big Boys. As a Singaporean, I'd say our government has been too successful and effective in meeting the needs and wants of the general population. We are simply the victims of our own success.

When Singapore gained independence in 1965 (after being booted out of the Malaya Federation), even our political leaders admitted that Singapore was a "political joke". So they had to adopt a very paternalistic approach in shaping Singapore. It could be said that there was little room for individual-experimentation and failure was not an option. Now that we are comfortable and safe, Singaporeans naturally tend to be risk adverse. And perhaps because Singapore is so small geographically, successes and failures are magnified.

"Necessity is the mother of invention". Younger Singaporeans don't have enough reasons or crisis or hardship to invent things. But these past years, we've had our fair share -- the Asian Financial Crisis, outbreak of SARS, real threats of terrorism on home soil. So we are learning and waking up, but perhaps not fast enough.

Shel also observed that our local bands sound like something off MTV. While looking for indigenous art and cultural products, he couldn't find any (though there were plenty from the region). Again, he's right. That's because we don't have an exclusive and unique Singapore Identity -- yet.

Our local music sound like something off MTV because MTV is what we think is hip and happening. Singaporeans seem to think that everything overseas is better than homegrown. Music, fashion and even accents (yes, many try to speak in US twang). I know because I was like that. Now I'm more confortable with our local accent, our working styles and mindsets.

I was at the NUS Cultural Centre the other night for a 1-hour show on "Electronic Music meets Poetry Slam". The university students formed a club to create and experiment with electronic music, and they combined their talents with a poetry performance. Creativity in action.

Of course one could argue that what they've done is nothing unique. It's all very westernised (Poetry Slam originated in the US -- Chicago. It was created by a truck driver. In Singapore, I think someone like that who invents a new artform would be hailed as a National Treasure). The NUS poets tended to speak with a westernised accent. The music is very western and European. But my enjoyment isn't any less because of that.

BTW, the ELMlab is not a University credit course. They are an extra-curricular activity and their members were there because of interest. Check out their music. They also wrote that "If you want to pursue a career in Electronic Music, you should be warned that the audience (or market) in Singapore and South-East Asia is still pretty small. So don't quit your day job yet." This also illustrates why Singapore seems to lack in creativity. Our mindset is very localised. We don't see possibilities beyond our shores, and/ or are not willing to take that risk to try.

The more I think about it, the more I feel all this have less to do with innovation or creativity but more an issue with a Singaporean Identity in a globalised world.

Singapore can and should benchmark with Silicon Valley (recognised for technology innovation) and San Francisco Bay area (acknowledged as the global center for arts, books, photography and music). But let's be realistic and not beat ourselves up just because we are not like them yet. I mean, it's ok to compare an apple with an orange to get a sense of the difference, but an apple cannot hope to be exactly like an orange, even after enough time has lapsed.

I'm not advocating that we drop all efforts to try to invent the Next Big Thing in whatever industry. What I'm saying is that while we strive to reach that kind of sophistication, we should not forget to "have fun" while doing it.

Where "innovation" is concerned, I feel that Singapore is going through a natural phase of our development. I remember reading that South Korea, in the 80s, were known more for copying the designs invented by other people. But today, they are big players in consumer electronic products.

I also take heart with Shel's comments that there is an upside to our seemingly lack of creativity. He shared that much of America's great innovation was a response to suffering. He explained that:
American Jazz and Blues would not resonate with blue notes without the century of cultural abuse suffered by Afro-Americans... The American Blues writer David Bromberg once sang the advice: 'You've got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.' I imagine you also have to be really pissed off to play heavy metal or perhaps overly opiated to write "Alice in Wonderland", or weird enough to develop a system code called Linux that exists mostly because people want to put Microsoft out of business.

Singapore needs time to find our self-confidence to celebrate what we are different. We lack that confidence to really shout to the world, "This is uniquely Singapore!". Heck, we don't even dare tell it to ourselves. We think we don't have a unique Singaporean-culture, so we adopt the ways of others.

There is no timeframe for developing a National Identity. What I feel deeply is that the more we try to look, the more elusive it will be. Trying to seek the Singaporean Identify is like what they say about "Happiness" -- that it is not an objective but an outcome. If we try to seek happiness, we'd never find it. But if we live our lives honestly and to the best of our true abilities, then it's happiness that we inevitably achieve.

When I was younger, someone told me that one cannot find or seek love. The more one looks, the more elusive it is. So Singapore's constant strive for innovation and creativity will never have an end-state, because it's the process and incremental outcomes that matters.

I wrote to Shel that Singapore would not have been able to reach where it is today if her citizens weren't creative, and only relied on top-down government directives. But people can get too comfortable, become risk-adverse and not that gung-ho to try new things. That is slowly changing. I hope more people get to read and hear honest comments like Shel's. Singaporeans need to know what we've done right, so that we continue doing it. More important, we need to know what we're not so good at, so that we wake from our complacency.

Incidentally, I attended a 3-hour Flash Animation introductory workshop, as part of a MICA led "Innovation Fiesta". A week later, I obtained a (legal) copy of Flash and now I've my first Flash movie on the web. Creativity in application, but creativity none the less.

Shel says that if he ever get back to Singapore, he'd like me to take him on a tour to show Singapore's innovation. Well, I'd be happy to give Shel a tour anytime. Showing him the innovative part is just an aside. Anyway, I think trying to arrange for an "Innovation Tour" would be difficult because from what I see, the innovativeness and creativity Singaporeans display is something more subtle.

Plus I can't bring him into the NTU or NTU labs. What I do plan to bring him is to the HDB heartlands -- the hawker centres, the food stalls. First, have a good time. See how we live, eat and play. Then we "worry" about innovation and creativity.

[Tag:, ]

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Remembering 9-11

The 3rd anniversary of the Sept 11 tragedy is coming up. Here’s an experiment that my colleagues are trying out – using blogs to promote library services and resources.

Inevitably, working on that blog made me think about the attack. I was in Japan when the tragedy happened (part of the Singapore contingent for the 28th Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Programme -- SSEAYP). I was with my friends and we noticed many people huddled around TV sets. The mood was subdued. On TV, I saw two buildings on fire. The commentary was in Japanese (in a bland sort of way) and so were the captions. I didn't understand a word. Was it some kind of movie? I didn’t recognise the World Trade Center. Only later did someone tell us "some terrorists crashed a plane into a building in the US". And I remember my subsequent thought was that "the world has changed".

Perhaps in another 2 years and beyond, I'd like to be able to tell myself that, "Yes, the world has changed since 9-11, and it's for the better."

[Tag: the September project 2005]

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Mental Models, Taxonomies & Windows of Weltanschuuangs

[Note: "Weltanschauung" is the correct spelling, not "Weltanschuuang". Thanks to Yee Fuang for pointing it out. But I've decided to leave it, misspellings, warts and all - Ivan. 26 Aug 04]

Just read a blog post by Yee Fuang, the latest addition to my list of 'Asian Liblogarians'. She's thinking about Mental Models. Her blog got me thinking too -- seems that libraries have not truly explored what hypertext and Internet-technology-in-general can really do to make the organisation of information more personalised. Take for instance the way librarians build a "librarian's mental model of a book", i.e. what we call 'Biblographic Access Points' -- Title, Author, Subject, Publisher, ISBN etc. Users have no choice but to conform to what we decide are the access points to information.

I have a feeling that most libraries, in building taxonomies, are doing what the Chinese say, "Change soup but not the medicine", i.e. we may be doing things to same way.

Some people have suggested that with today's technology, we should allow users to build their own Access Points to information. I came across an excellent blog on this but can't remember where is it (damn!). Anyway, it sounds logical, doesn't it? We each have different "mental models" in how we make sense of information and the world at large. Libraries should build "information taxonomies", but allow end-users to search for information the way they see it, according to their 'Weltangschuuangs' (i.e. world-views).

Let's use the term "Relationships" as an example:
Women = "Long term" + "Companionship" + "Marriage"
Men = "How to score, big time"*
(*hey, come on it's true ain't it?)

So should any librarian wonder why people are turning away from libraries and plunging into the Internet? Could it be that the appeal of the Internet is that there is no 'right' way to seek information? That no one will notice that you are not searching for it the 'correct way'?

Speaking of 'correctness', I have to qualify that I don't really know what I'm talking about when it comes to "Taxonomies" and "Mental Models". So flame me, correct me, teach me :)

Oops -- a 'Tangential Thought' moment here (i.e. where I digress and ramble):
(1) Perhaps that's why I'm hooked on blogs. It doesn't matter that I'm reading someone's biased view of politics, or a teenager expressing his/ her angst. It all adds to my understanding of how other people view the world, a "Window to their Weltangschuuangs", their Mental Models of things that matter to them.

(2) The word "Taxonomy" is defined as the "scientific process of classifying living things". Hmm... 'Information' as a 'Living Organism'? I'm sure there's an article out there about this.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Writing Reviews: What are we really afraid of?

Here's an interesting blog by Michael McGrorty on "Reviewing Books". It's informative and subtly funny too (like many of the blogs I like). A statement in the 5th para caught my attention: "You don’t find a lot of enthusiasm these days among librarians for writing reviews." It struck a chord because I thought this problem existing only in NLB. Now I know we are not alone.

Michael suggests that writing reviews is "a lost art, gone to the same musty resting place as the card catalog and the Silence Rule." I think for NLB, it's not permanently lost. It was probably side-tracked for a while.

NLB probably needs to do what it has been doing so well for the past 8 years: Re-inventing.

The card catalog hasn't really gone away. It's now online and we're better off because of it. Silence is still part of library etiquette but since we know we can't stop every single person from talking, NLB created a Quiet Reading Room for the upgraded libraries (where readers would help us enforce the Quiet Reading rule). So it's the same for the "lost art" of writing book reviews. NLB has to reinvent it.

Mind you I'm no expert in writing reviews. My problem is that when I'm conscious of what I have to write, I feel pressured and tend to spend days refining the draft. Frankly, it's tiring work and I end up dreading to write. So that's why I started Raw Notes, where I could deliberately write anything I want and not feel pressurised into conforming to the requirements of "good reviews".

I want to make my "notes" (not reviews) personal. Forget about being correct and objective etc. It's ok for the occasional typo and grammatical mistake. I just want to enjoy writing and reflecting on what I've read. So far, the experiment is working for me. I've never been so productive where writing is concerned. And I find that there's a ripple effect - the more I enjoy commenting on the stuff I read, the more stuff I find myself reading, and widely too.

Be Personal . Be 'Incorrect'.
Blog it. Flame it.
Be Unafraid.

That's my suggestion for reinventing the way we write and publish book reviews. I'm sure my more creative colleagues will have more brilliant ideas.

Michael has a few suggestions worth noting (comments in [ ] are my own):
* If you have a ‘new books’ section post the review near there, in close proximity to the book. [Makes sense to me!]

* Don’t hesitate to tack copies up at the ends of the stacks where the book would be found. [I like this. That's where readers would need the reviews. Brilliant ideas are often simple ones. ]

* A nice trick is to tuck in a copy inside the book itself, or to hang one from the shelf where the book rests, just like the bookstores do. [Did I mention that brilliant ideas are often simple ones? Micheal, I couldn't have said it better.]

* Put a copy at the reference desk so that the staff can pore over it in those few moments when there isn’t a rush of people to serve. [Yes, don't forget that internal customers are customers too. And if yet another customer asks the "Where's the toilet?" question, point it out but also hand them the review and say, "Here's something to keep you occupied. And feel free to recycle."]

* Be sure to send a copy to the editor of your local paper, especially if you live in a small town. You might end up writing a review column for the paper. [And make a career out of it... it's not as far fetched as it sounds. Singapore is pretty small. In many ways, we are a small town. ]

* Some libraries have book reviewing circles which function very much like book clubs, with the obvious exception that the members produce reviews of the book they’ve all read. This is a great idea if you can coordinate the activity so as to make the review coincide with new releases. Another project you might undertake is to put together a staff-patron reviewing group.
[Sounds like a lot of work, but I read somewhere that if something is easy to do, it's probably not worth doing.]

* But if you end up soldiering on alone in your task, don’t feel bad. A true reviewer establishes a relationship with a book that is unmatched by anybody other than its writer. You have that, and your understanding, for compensation. [I think that's why librarians don't want to write anymore. The fear of not being read at all is worse that being criticised. I learnt in my IRC days that being ignored is infinitely worse than being flamed.]

This last point is important. Now I'm getting really philosophical here - the key is to not worry about it. I know from my experience that the less I worry about writing, the better my writing seems to be - at least to me anyway. And that's ok, because I should write for myself first. I'm often my worse critic.

Even if someone says "Ivan, your review sucks", I'd say "At least you're reading it. Thanks for your time. BTW, you might want to look up books on "Improving your EQ". I can recommend you some really great titles!"

My PLS librarian colleagues are re-discovering the joys (and pains) of writing reviews. Their work is improving everyday. Right now, they've a regular column in The Straits Times, Singapore's main English broadsheet. The reviews are on books relating to Personal Finance. In recent months, we've since received requests from one or two publications asking us for reviews. And a few authors have asked our folks to review their books. My colleagues are complaining about different things now - they say they have no time to write (or read, in order to write). It's a problem, but a good problem.

I don't know how my librarian colleagues would react to Michael McGrorty's article. I sent them the URL and I hope they read it. Doesn't matter if they don't agree with Michael's suggestions on promoting books using reviews. I do hope they find comfort that they're not alone in being hesitant about writing reviews.

Times like this I reflect on Yoda's Words of Wisdom: "Do, or do not. There is no try."

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Beyond Gimmicks: Tablet PC trial in Crescent Girls’ Secondary

CNA (31 Jul 04) reports that 300 students from Crescent Girls' Secondary "will no longer need to lug heavy textbooks to school". The trial to use Tablet PCs started some 4 weeks ago, allowing students to have "lessons on the move - in the class, in the garden or even at home". I'm thinking of the movie Dead Poet's Society, where Robin Williams threw away the textbooks and conducted classes under a tree.

The report also says that with the Tablet PCs, students can "learn anywhere, any place and any time, transforming the way students learn in school." The students seem to find it a boon. One student said they can do their “homework, projects and everything" - I'm betting the "everything" refers to IRC and Blogging as well (which is not necessarily a bad thing).

Several thoughts upon reading the CNA report:

Thought #1 - Technology is both the key Enabler and Disabler.
While the potential benefits of equipment like the Tablet PC are vast, there are also the accompanying problems. Consider this scenario:

Teacher: "Ok Class, please boot up your Tablet and open up the document I emailed last night."
Student1: "Teacher, my battery has gone flat."
Teacher: "I thought I reminded you all to charge your battery before coming out to the field? Ok, you sit with Ling over there."
Student2: "Teacher, my Tablet crashed!"
Teacher: "Where is your backup? No backup? I thought I'd reminded you all about saving your work every 5 minutes?"
Student2: "But Mrs Wu said that we only need to save every 10minutes..."
Student3: (Close to tears) "Sir, I dropped my Tablet! My mother is going to cane me!"
[15 minutes later]
Teacher: "OK OK, those who need to share the Tablet PC, please do so. We have to get to the lesson proper. Now everyone will... William and Boon Keng! What are you doing?"
Student4 & 5: (In unison) "Nothing Sir!"
Teacher: "What nothing?! What is this? You two are doing IRC when you should be paying attention!?"
Student4: "But Sir, I was just asking Boon Keng how to copy and paste the document into my blog."
Teacher: "... I... I don't care. You have to pay attention. No one is allowed to do anything else. If you are not paying attention, you won't know what is going on."
Student6: "Teacher! Michael is assessing the Mediacorp website!"
Student7: "I am not! This is the Discovery Channel lah, stupid!"
Student6: "You then stupid! You smell too!"
Student8: "Yah teacher, it's very hot out here. I want to go back to the computer lab. Here no aircon."
Teacher: "That's it! I give up!!! I am going to tell Principal Tang that this class will stick with books and remain in class for the rest of the year! Why did they try this experiment anyway? I told them it wouldn't work, but Noooooo, they wouldn't listen..."

The above is just tongue-in-cheek. But some of the problems are already happenning in classes that have used computers during lesson time. I'm no anti-technologist. My point for the ramble is that with everything in this world, every Plus has a Minus, a Yin & Yang, Light & Dark.

We learn in basic physics that "For every action, there is a equal and opposite reaction". For such experiments to be successful, schools need to anticipate and pre-empt those potential Negatives. Not all would be eliminated. The thing is to ensure there are more Positives than Negatives at the end of the day. BTW, here’s an interesting blog by Shel on the issue of power supply.

Thought #2 – What’s are the REAL critical success factors?
It's clear to me that students love this because it's gimmicky. The real test will come when the novelty aspect wears off. Then it's just another piece of machine. I've not used a Tablet PC but I understand that one key feature is that it accepts handwritten notes. My experience with a Palm PDA is that while handwritten input (as opposed to keyboard) is convenient, the handwriting recognition isn't as fast as input via keyboard, or writing by hand on paper.

So content and teaching methods will be the real critical success factors. Teachers need to modify their teaching strategies to really benefit from the technology. Otherwise, the benefits from using IT will not be very significant. I'm not alone in this view, which brings me to Thought#3.

Thought #3 – What were the lessons learnt from the 1999 eduPAD experiment?
Prior to the Crescent Girls' experiement, there was a similar trial by Dunman Secondary School - EduPAD - in Sept 1999. Unlike the Tablet PC, which was a commercial product, the eduPAD was a customised device targeted specifically for schools for use in teaching and learning.

It was supposed to bridge the gap between a low-cost Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and the notebook or desktop computer. It too, was all about “learning anytime, anywhere”. The idea was to “shrink text books to the size of postage stamp sized chips, which students can then slot into the EduPAD, enabling them to review textbooks page by page whilst studying at home.

This was an ambitious R&D project, involving the (1) Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) which mooted the idea for the eduPAD and provided pedagogical support; (2) Kent Ridge Digital Labs (KRDL) which offered the technological expertise for the software; (3) CET which designed the hardware; (4) local publishers to contribute to the content; (5) the school who provided the users (teachers and students).

In mid 2000, I spoke to some folks from CET, as well as one or two teachers from Dunearn High. My personal take on the trial was that the proverbial Achilles Heel in the project was CONTENT. The hardware was great for its time – it allowed the ability to store worksheets, assignments and handwritten notes, and access the Internet. But without content, the effectiveness of the trial was limited.

I also suspect (but did not verified) that the project did not really have any significant impact on exam results. Although this may not have been a goal of the project, it would still be the ultimate benchmark by most teachers and parents. With loaded teaching assignments, not all teachers would welcome the R&D nature of such trials. On top of that, they have to think of different teaching approaches in addition to their existing workload with other classes not in the trial.

Parents might also ask, “How has this improved my child’s exam grades? If I have to pay extra for the gadget, I’d rather go back to using textbooks and the tried-and-tested ways of classroom-based teaching.”

Singaporeans are a pragmatic lot when it comes to exams. Indeed, the title of the NIE/ NTU study is also telling, for it says “Perceived Benefits of eduPAD in Enhancing Learning”. The benefits of IT applications in schools have yet to be rigorously measured.

The findings from a NIE/ NTU study (2001)- Perceived Benefits of eduPAD in Enhancing Learning - concluded that the “introduction of electronic devices per se into the classroom would not bring improvement in teaching and learning automatically. Teachers and students need to modify their teaching/learning strategies and make full use of the opportunities provided by such a device to do things otherwise not possible." I also notice the paper was careful to say "perceived benefits".

Thought #4 – Why do want to do this at all?
The recurrent theme for such IT experiments in schools is that it will eliminate the need for school bags and textbooks (this was the same thing they said about digital content replacing books and libraries at least 10 years ago, and that hasn't happened).

Other espoused objectives include:
  • “… bringing a new dimension to the growing popularity and importance of distance learning education" Alberta Canada
  • "Preparation of the youth to be able to succeed in the information society of the 21st century" Slovak Republic
  • “… for engaged learning, the deepening of school-business collaboration and, most broadly, the nurturing of a culture of innovation and enterprise across the education system.” Singapore

My thinking is, perhaps, shallower - the key question ought to be: "How will the Tablet PC - or equivalent - make a student a better person in the broad sense of the word?"

Thought #5 – But try we must!
To quote the MOE Minister's 1999 press release:
“What the school or classroom of the future will look like is still very much anybody's guess. What we can say is that it is unlikely to settle on any one model. More probable, a variety of models will emerge, responding to different needs and learning aptitudes and leveraging on different technologies and resources.”

So Singapore will have to continue to try, to learn from successes and failures. And try again.
Why am I so interested in such projecys? Simple answer:
Libraries => Used for learning & research => Taking notes => How can libraries anticipate and support future trends?

Tablet PCs and/ or its application in education:

For a broad discussion on the applications of Tablet PC, with comments from Bill Gates (Microsoft), Chiaki Itoh (Fujitsu), Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard), Atsutoshi Nishida (Toshiba), Kazuhiko Kobayashi (NEC), Stan Shih (Acer), and James Chu (ViewSonic) - Tablet PC Launch Press Conference - New York, Nov 2002.

The NIE/ NTU findings on an evaluation of a proto-type hand-held electronic device - Perceived Benefits of eduPAD in Enhancing Learning
From the abstract:
"... At the end of the trial period through a survey and focus group interviews the benefits of this innovative device as perceived by the teachers and students were determined. Both the teachers and students expressed a positive attitude towards the use of an electronic device to enhance teaching and learning. However, they also pointed out that the barrier to the use of eduPAD device in the classrooms resulted mainly from technical problems, such as slow speed of loading and accessing time to the Internet. The students also said that the instructional approaches used in eduPAD classrooms were largely the same as those found in traditional classroom. The findings suggest that introduction of electronic devices per se into the classroom would not bring improvement in teaching and learning automatically. Teachers and students need to modify their teaching/learning strategies and make full use of the opportunities provided by such a device to do things otherwise not possible."

For current product and industry developments on Tablet PCs - Table PC News (from Tablet PC Magazine).

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Open-letter to my front-line staff

(Otherwise known as “Rantings of a Branch Manager” - I seem to be prone to ranting these days. It's getting addictive. As with my previous open-letter, the tone of this letter may be exaggerated, but not by much. )

Dear colleagues,

This letter took me 5 hours to think, draft and finally send.

Yesterday I was talking to a few managers and they say how their staff was concerned about being transferred to other branches, due to the pending re-organisation. So I thought to email you some highlights of the new organisation structure (as much information as I knew anyway).

But I kept thinking about it the whole of it last night and came to the conclusion that the re-organisation was not the real staff concerns. I woke at 6am on my off-day, thought through some points the managers mentioned, and so instead of telling you about the new divisional structure, let me address these 5 points:

1) Longer distance to new work location
2) Getting new colleagues who are “not as good as those at my previous branch”
3) Loss of status at my new branch
4) Not being able to fit in at new branch
5) Personal issues

#1 - Longer distance to new work location
Distance to work is a fact. But this is Singapore - a small red dot. Personally, I hate to wake early. But got no choice, so to get more sleep, I just have to pay more and take taxi. In life, we all have to make a choice, right?

So you say, "You are a manager and you earn more. For a lowly front-line staff like me, every cent counts." My response would be, "We're paid for our responsibilities and accountabilities. And if you already think you are 'lowly', then you have to question your own sense of self-worth. As for increase in living expenses, we all have to manage our finances as best we can."

Let me be very blunt – If you have been in the same branch for donkey-years and have not been moved, either you have been so critical to the branch that you cannot be replaced, or that you nobody in the organisation wants you.

Distance to work has always been the first issue that staff mention when asked to transfer. But I think it’s not the real reason why you are worried.

#2 - Getting new colleagues who are “not as good as those at my previous branch”
We cannot choose who we want to work with. We are not paid to be good friends. The first consideration is to ask if we do our job competently. Maybe the other branch staff would feel that we are not as good as them. So we must prove ourselves first.

If you feel your new branch has certain practices that are not so good, it’s your job to alert the colleagues and manager to suggest change. How you go about convincing your new colleagues, you have to use your people skills. If your people skills are terrible, then the fault is with you.

I think there are 3 things we can TRY to change - our environment, the people around us, and ourselves. If it turns out that ALL the staff in your new branch (from top to bottom of the org structure) are "lousy", then you’d better ask for transfer or resign. It could just be a bad fit between yourself and the rest; it may not be that you are a bad person (although it can be, too).

#3 - Loss of status at my new branch
Some of us may feel that we’d be losing all that we've built up at our current branch - our goodwill, trust and authority. If we move to new branch, then we have to start from scratch. We have no “power”.

As mentioned in #2, so long we prove yourself, know how to mix around and talk to new colleagues, we should be readily accepted. Don't worry - if you're good, you'll find some way to thrive. There aren't that many staff in each branch these days. The organisation is flat. It is very easy to spot talented people. Also easy to spot not-so-good staff.

#4 - Not being able to fit in at new branch – don’t gel with new colleagues
Please see earlier points in #2 & #3. Also, there are many books on how to build up our people skills. Discussion with your manager for training courses.

#5 - Personal Issues
We are all unique individuals and have our unique set of problems. All I can say about this is that we each have to find our own solutions.

In life, for every Plus, there is a Minus. We cannot have our cake and eat it. If you know of a work location that is near my home, where every single staff is excellent and highly motivated, where the customers are very polite, please let me know where is this perfect place. I'd like to transfer there.

If we have some personal problems, talking to fellow colleagues may help. Sometimes, if we open-up and genuinely share with them, we'd be surprised at the responses. Of course, if all we do is complain, then we're basically wasting everybody’s time.

So dear colleagues, if you’ve read this far, then I thank you. The above points may or may not be relevant to you.

Don't know if I've made you angrier or happier. Hope I was of some help. I just thought you should know what I'm thinking about.

Yours Sincerely,
The Rambling Librarian/ Manager

From the
2nd Library Leadership Institute course

Vision + Skills + Incentives + Resources + Action Plans = Desired Results

[x] + Skills + Incentives + Resources + Action Plans = Confusion/ Conflict
Vision + [x] + Incentives + Resources + Action Plans = Performance Anxiety
Vision + Skills + [x] + Resources + Action Plans = Backsliding
Vision + Skills + Incentives + [x] + Action Plans = Frustration/ Anger
Vision + Skills + Incentives + Resources + [x] = False Starts/ No results

People resist change because of what they think they stand to lose.
E.g. control, choice, competencies, self-worth.

Friday, July 30, 2004

Open-letter to my PLS librarian colleagues

(Otherwise known as “Rantings of a PLS Librarian Hyped on Caffeine.”)
 * Every blogger seems to write an open-letter sooner or later. The tone of this letter may be exaggerated, but not by much.

Dear PLS librarian,

Let’s call a cow a cow: Many of us in PLS think that we are the poorer professional cousins to our colleagues in Reference and Technical Services. The crux of the matter is this – we often derive our self-worth from the things we do. And with that, we think handling irate readers and pointing directions to toilets are demeaning. 

In PLS, there are the inevitable Self-Important-People (SIP) who sap so much of our time and energy dealing with their endless complaints (many of them are simply using us as an outlet for their vehemence against the government and society at large).

We cannot control what these SIP say or do. But we can control how we react. The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote: "Don't burn a blanket because of one flea! Don't waste a day on trivial irritation, some gnat's headache."

When we talk about offering bigger and better services and information products, I’ve heard many of us say that we are not ready. I wonder what is it that we are “not ready”? For failure? We are always ready for that. It seems that we procrastinate because we are not ready for the possibility of success.

Librarians have the notion that “top management” must initiate projects and give direction. Who is “top management”? What can they do for us? Why can't we give them directions for a change?

Many of us expect to be given money, time, and staff in order for things to happen. We proclaim that no budget equals no initiative. But is this just a convenient excuse for inaction? When one is in danger of dying of thirst, one does not wait for a well to be dug.

Many of us claim that we don’t have time to read or write; to hone our professional skills. Yes, there are many things that tie us down like administrative duties. But I say we show them the money first. Let’s simply write what we can, and if we’re good enough, they will be compelled to give us money, time and more staff to do even more. But first, we need to start writing. And to write well, we need to read. A lot.

I know we tend to be introverts & thinned-skinned – which is a liability as a large part of the job requires us to aggressively sell our products. What we “sell” is exactly like Insurance. It’s something which benefits people, but they don’t instantly see its value. The value of our work may not be evident til much much later, and even then, perhaps only cherished by its absence.

But unlike Insurance Agents, we in the public service do not have huge financial rewards and bonuses to entice us to work. Each of us has to delve down deep into our insides and ask why we are in this line of work.

What is the VISION for the team, we ask? We don't think we all know the BIG PICTURE and DIRECTION. But hey, if the direction is not there, what is stopping us from creating it? Some of us actually prefer situations where directions are not clear. It means we get to define what we want to do.

Bosses need to set examples too. If they expect librarians to write and read and share, why not start from them and cascade downwards? Seriously, if bosses themselves say they have no time, then should they be surprised that staff down the line also say they have no time?

And why stop there? Why not have our board of directors to form Book clubs? Get them to get other Movers & Shakers in Singapore to also read. Do what our Thai counterparts have managed to do – get their Prime Minister to read a story on national radio.

Not all of us have that same philosophical outlook nor equal levels of “mental stamina”. Not all have the staying power to see results in long term. 

How do we get comfortable with failing and trying again? That which doesn’t kill us, will only make us stronger. And if we have to perish professionally, then let’s go down with guns blazing. What have we to lose?

I’m convinced that our Public Library Service is on the edge of a quiet revolution – there will be no fanfare, no high-powered government-initiated commissions and report like Library 2000. In fact, I think it has already started. We are at a professional crossroad where we must, simply, make a choice.

Not least, let's consider what legacy we would like to leave behind. Here’s something out of a passage in "Transforming the Organization" by Francis J. Gouillart & James N. Kelly (1995):
"It's a hundred years later and you've been in your grave for years. So let's talk about the legacy you left. What? You've never heard of Martin Van Buren or James Monroe? They were American presidents, but almost no one remembers anything about them. Now, why should anyone care that you created the best customer service in the cosmetics industry?"
So adapting that, let’s fill in the following blanks: 
Why should we invest so much time and effort in ________?
Because by doing so, at the end of _________ years, our customers & users will be able to say _________.

Yours Sincerely,
The Rambling Librarian

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Blogs - a social media phenomenon

At 2 am this morning, I read an email from Shel inviting me to login to one of the BlogonEvent webcast, in which he was moderating. I didn't read his mail in time, so by the time I logged in, his session was over. I managed to listen in to something else, and what follows are some points and thoughts, as far as my sleep-deprived mind could understand:

  • People who visit specific blogs tend to look for specific content. On the other hand, with a blog being what it is, the blogger may tend to post varied types of content. I think most bloggers want to be read (otherwise, why publish?) . Hence, it would be in the blogger's interest to be focused on what they blog, akin to carving out one's own specific content-niche market in the Blogosphere. Perhaps it's time that I drop the "rambling" from my blog URL.
  • The "Web", in future context, will be perceived as something very different from today's definition. The closest analogy I can think of to explain this statement is to use the term "Cavalry" in the US Armed Forces context, i.e. from horses to helicopters to tanks. They still call these divisions "Cavalry" but the technology has changed.
  • Discussion of how search engines were not able to make sense of the contextual content on a HTML page (e.g. combination of graphics and text). Unlike human beings, who can quickly place information in context, search engines cannot (at present). I thought this sounds a lot like what libraries are trying to resolve by developing "metadata" and "taxonomies".
  • Media companies are now looking at blogs as the next big thing to market products to specific niches. Who's to say libraries can't promote content in a similar way?

I'm beginning to piece together many terms and concepts I've heard in the last 2 or 3 years, like RSS, syndication, XML feeds etc. They're all making more sense to me now, though I clearly have much more to learn and assimilate.

Dr. Anthony Ferguson (of HKU) emailed me that some of his staff is developing something called power blogging to handle their "conference & professional development opportunity information". Sure sounds exciting. I hope Tony continues to keep me posted on this.

I learnt that within NLB, there was some discussion about using blog tools some 2 years back. For some reason it didn't take off beyond the preliminary discussion stage (as far as I know). I think now NLB can't afford not to. Librarians would agree that libraries have a social function to fulfill. If blogging is the current social media phenomenon, then all the more libraries should take a longer and harder look at the Blogosphere.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Little ado about Blogs - Part 1

Ever since Shel's post on Blogging comes to Singapore, I've been thinking a lot about blogs. Initially I felt pretty smart after commenting his post, where I posted examples to back my argument that blogging already came to Singapore.

My smugness was quickly snuffed, in a nice way of course.

I'm glad I was corrected. It forced me to look around and ask. I conducted an informal survey among colleagues and acquaintances. I'm still in the midst of compiling their responses but one thing's pretty consistent. Where blogs are concerned, it's true that Singaporeans don't really care about blogs. Relative to the rest of the Blogosphere, the number of blogs by Singaporeans is insignificant.

The general consensus (among my respondents) is that most know blogs as "personal web diaries" but beyond that, there isn't much interest about blogs. Blogs aren't seen as productive or "legitimate" tools for work or personal development. Most of my respondents, in my very unscientific and informal study, seemed to care little about blogs indeed.

More on the survey results later.

So thank you, Shel, for correcting me. I'm seeing possibilities now, when all I used to see was a myopic and blinkered view of the Blogosphere.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Liblogarians, Nairarbils & nIrVANa

I asked my new friends* if they knew of any Blogs by Asian librarians, or librarians from Asia, for that matter.
[* A great bunch of people - hailing from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Fiji - librarians whom I met during the HKUL Leadership Institute 2004]

Not unexpectedly, there do not seem to be many. There are quite a few librarians and library professionals in the Blogosphere. Just doesn't seem to be many (or any) from Asia.

A few days later, out of the blue (or whatever colour the Internet might be), I received an email with the subject header "liblogarian". The email address was legitimate and so was the name, just that I didn't know who that person was. To add to the mystery, the email merely contained a link to a blog.

Since the terrorists have not yet invented email-explosives (now that's a scary thought!), I clicked without hesitation (ok, maybe a tiny tiny wee bit) and was brought to a blog, whose stated goal was to expire after one thousand, [nine hundred] and ninety-seven posts.

BINGO! I've met my first Asian Liblogarian!

I'd wished I'd thought of this very cool term, "Liblogarian" - a combination of "Librarian" and "Blogger". But I didn't. Kudos to Gah Gah.

Clearly, Gah Gah has a penchant for cool (or in IRC-speak, "kewl") names and catchy terminologies. Well, Gah Gah, you're "Nairarbil**" no longer (someone include the word in the dictionary please!)
[**Quote: Nairarbil - a backward librarian, librarian spelt backward]

BTW, a fellow librarian from Wuhan University Library very kindly shared that a Blog was 'Bo ke' or 'Wang Luo Ri Ji' in Mandarin. The former (sounds like "Broker") was a direct phonetic translation of the English 'Blog'. The latter was a four-character combination to mean "Internet Diary", i.e. "Wang Luo" = Internet; "Ri Ji" = Diary.

I think there will be more Asian Liblogarians. Dr. Anthony Ferguson (of Hong Kong University Libraries) emailed me that he'd recently looked into Blogs and referred the idea to their collection development librarians, who do a lot of liaison work with the faculty. He thought that a Science Library Materials blog might be a good idea.

I think so too.

It's my hope that librarians and library professionals in Asia would have an active and productive presence on the Internet or Blogosphere. An Asian Liblogarians Blogosphere that is inclusive in all sense of the word... (there's the language barrier to overcome, but well, that's fodder for another Blog post).

When that day comes, I'd really be in nIrVANa***.
[*** A nickname from Gah Gah, which is a play on my name, "Ivan". Is Gah Gah a wordsmith or what? :) ]

So readers & fellow bloggers, if you know of weblogs written by Liblogarians in Asia, I'd appreciate if you could drop me an email. I'll include it in the list of Liblograrians in Asia (see my list of links on the right).

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Professionalism is an attitude, not a definition

Homo sapiens (the male variety) must be hardwired to be obsessive about things that are new. Only my second day as a Blogger and I’ve spent hours (it’s 5am as I post this) crafting articles which probably no one will read. Still…

Just read Shel's latest blog, "The Digital Media Island Hub", which he'd based on his recent trip to Singapore. Compared to his posts and others he’s linked on his Blog, I realised my recent posts were no different from the typical Blogger I had complained to Shel earlier – the ones whose Blogs show nothing but the “About Me” kind of postings, and who are basically using the Blog as an outlet for their verbal diarrhea.

So I’ve decided to post this piece about Professionalism in Librarianship.

I know of some librarians, posted in public libraries, who tend to feel that their work (perhaps an ultimate reflection of themselves) is not as “professional” as their peers in Reference or Technical Services (i.e. acquisitions, selection & cataloguing). Over the years, many have opted to become reference librarians or to work in acquisitions and cataloguing.

Those public librarians possibly felt that way because much of the work in our public libraries inevitably centered on day-to-day operational issues: circulation matters, customer complaints, demanding readers, and rigid work schedules (in adherence to operating hours).

To top it off, groused the librarians, most readers would ask mundane enquiries like “Where’s the toilet?” when REAL librarians should be dealing with REAL reference or research enquires (i.e. something more intellectually challenging).

The Oxford Dictionary (4th ed.) on my BESTA CD-75 defines a “Professional” as (1) “Of or belonging to a profession”; (2) “Having or showing the skills of a professional”. Then I looked up “Profession” and it says, “Paid occupation, esp. one that requires advanced education and training, e.g. architecture, law or medicine”

Personally I’d disagree with the above definitions. My thesis is simple: Professionalism is a question of HOW you do things, rather than WHAT you do.

If a person employed to clean the toilet shows the right attitude and display the correct actions regarding hygiene and even customer care (ensuring toilet rolls are replenished, polite and courteous, taking pride in the work, sharing good practices with co-workers etc.), then that person is a professional in my book. A librarian with a PhD, who thinks answering directional enquiries is beneath his or status, isn’t.

Some of my colleagues might argue that it’s not that the librarians think they are too good for mundane questions. The complaint was about the lack of opportunities to act professionally. Then I say, “If opportunity does not come knocking, we just have to create our own opportunities”.

What is to stop the librarian from engaging the reader? Even for readers who simply want to know if they have an overdue book, we could attempt to make small talk with the reader, e.g. “Mr. Tan, I noticed your book by John Grisham. Are you aware that his latest novel is out on shelf?” Doing so might lead to an actual full-fledge reference enquiry or Readers’ Advisory. At the very least, we let the reader know you are there to help.

Ok, I don’t mean to preach (I have a tendency to do that, besides rambling). Yes, I may have oversimplified the issue but my main point is that professionalism isn’t so much to do with training or specialisation. It all boils down to attitude. If we don’t deal with the 'attitude' aspect, then all else is moot.


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: ,

Friday, June 25, 2004

About Me

Updated info will be posted at the About Me page.

The below is an archive. Last updated: 1 Apr 2010.

I tell people I love to read, though what I really love are the ideas I get from reading. Tend to favour War stories, Sci Fi and Fantasy -- a combination if possible.

In June of 2004, I started this blog ( after a blogger took issue with my remarks that "blogs were platforms for verbal diarrhea". I decided I didn'’t know what I was talking about. I plunged into the Blogosphere to educate myself.

It proved to be so (my ignorance; not about blogging).

My other blogs/ podcast/ etc:

Now I have six nine blogs (um, you count them yourself), one podcast and a bunch of other stuff. In March 2007, I started a social experiment to understand how wikis work.

At 10, I told a teacher my life's ambition was to become an artist. At 19, I got friends to teach me the guitar, so that I could impress the girls. During National Service, I played rhythm and lead guitar in an amateur band. The girls still weren't impressed.

My guitars were collecting dust and the paints were drying out -- until I discovered blogs and the Mac. I taught myself to play the piano after being amazed at my wife's playing. I'm a self-proclaimed amateur poet. I maintain an online amateur poetry circle.

A librarian by training (job title says "Senior Manager"). I've a MSc. (Information Studies) from NTU. My dissertation is titled Public library services for wheelchair-bound young people in Singapore (see also, DLIST reference). I was thinking of doing a PhD. but plans are put on hold indefinitely. A "Dr" title would be really nice, but it would be for the wrong reason.

Some people ask my why I became a librarian. Long story (but quite an uncomplicated one) -- you might want to read my posts here and here (I've also compiled an FAQ on "Being A Librarian").

I've been employed by the National Library Board since 1996. My passion is in Public Librarianship. Main professional interest is in library services for People with Disabilities (here's our advocacy blog).

I started out as a librarian in a public library, back in the days when we still stamped on books to issue and return them. An auto-return bookdrop was something you read only in SciFi (today, we can't do without them).

Along the way, I've worked on digital library projects, then assigned to manage a public library in a shopping mall, and then a standalone library, and later a regional library.

From 2005 to 2009, I was given the opportunity to serve as the Information Officer in the IFLA Standing Committee for Libraries for Children and Young Adults Section. I took on the role, not quite knowing what to expect. By the end of it all, I was glad and humbled by the experience. I learned a few things about putting an international newsletter together, working with librarians from different countries and backgrounds. And most of all, some became real friends.

My current job is to manage and develop the Children, Adults & Young People services, looking into collection, programmes and services.

Since that first post in 2004, I'm even more convinced that blog’s and online social media can promote and advance librarianship. I try to share what I know, like how to start a new blog (I'm by no means the expert, and that's the beauty of it -- we don't always have to be experts to share what we know). Librarians now how have more ways to connect people to people through conversations and ideas. We just have to try them out.

I love to read because I love learning about new ideas. And old ones as well. Thanks to blogs, I'm reading and learning a whole lot more.

I can be contacted at

What's in a name?

I've heard of Blogs but only learnt more about them in last 2 days. If I've anyone to thank for giving me the impetus, it was an American I met a week ago while assisting in a library tour for a group of foreign IT journalists/ writers. He goes by the name of Shel Israel. If you work in the IT industry, chances are that you'd know who he is. He's kinda famous, I gather -- anyone whose name turns up in the top 5 Google search results IS famous in my book : )

60mins ago, I was lying in bed with the dog at my feet. My wife was already sound asleep. Suddenly I had this urge to go forth and create a blog of my own. I'm shy by nature. Sharing my thoughts to the world at large is a bit unsettling, to say the least.

But perhaps I've become thick-skinned over the years and I'm not as introverted as I thought I was. It could be my subconscious reflecting on recent correspondences with Shel -- he suggests Blogs would be the Next Big Thing.

So 60mins later, I have a blog of my own.
"60mins!", you say?

See, I have this thing about names, as in, I want to get it right. Shakespeare wrote, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet". I tell myself I can't smell a Blog.

233 words later (excluding this paragraph), I still have not written anything about being librarian or related to librarianship. At least I got the "rambling" and "incidental*" parts right.

*Incidental = small & relatively unimportant (Oxford Dictionary)