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".

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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.

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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]