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)

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

My Technorati Tags

[Updated: 09 Apr 2006]