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?


  1. Methinks that the public worldwide considers libraries the appropriate place for self-study. To re-educate the public would require high expenditure in terms of publicity materials and staff time. Moreover, given the worldwide media image of libraries as places for the public to study, I doubt whether any publicity drive can be more than partially successful.
    Given the problems of changing behaviour, it would probably be easier for the government to assign the library system the job of providing self-study space for the public. I would suggest open-air rooms with tables and chairs next and not within libraries. As an added service, perhaps local newspapers could be provided as well as brochure racks and bulletin boards for community and government organisations to put up literature.

  2. Makes a lot of sense to me. As the saying goes, "If we can't beat them, then join them".

    But immediately after I posted the blog, some colleagues told me they still felt libraries should NOT allow self-study at all, as providing study places for students ought to be the purview of the Ministry of Education (MOE).

    However, I think the problem with getting MOE involved is that (1) it becomes a MOE-related thing, which students might automatically find it a turn off, and (2) if students are already choosing to do their studying in places other than their schools, doesn't that also say something?

    Libraries in US offer "Homework Help", which isn't odd at all. So it shouldn't be odd that Singapore public libraries offer self-study facilities too.

  3. Good thoughts, Ivan. But students aren't dumb either. If you try to restrict the self-studiers, all they'll do is just grab a book from your shelves and claim that they're reading, much like those who hang out at macdonalds a whole day with only a cup of golden-arched coke in front of them to prove that they are legitimate customers.
    Another possible option to think about that is less "draconian" than outright restriction (we don't need more rules) is to use furniture that discourage self-studying. Armchairs maybe?

  4. Oh yeah I have this post entitled Studying in the (Ngee Ann Poly) Library. Not entirely related with your post, but I thought some rambling librarians might be interested. I hang out at the Ngee Ann library a lot, so I'm likely to post some thoughts on it in the future.

  5. Thanks, Ivan for another good thoughts. I always find it very amusing when someone from the public uses this Achilles' heel: 'I am a taxpayer, I have the right...' to get what they want. A crazy thought came to my mind: we should be like a beach where you bring your own chairs or tables; no more hogging of seats. We can then also have a little shop selling chairs and tables. That's entrepreneurial in the library! Back to reality, there are assumptions needed to be clarified: is self-studying/doing homework not a means to learning? If it's not, then NLB should not have relaxed its policy as our vision and mission is to expand the nation's learning capacities. But if it is (which I believe is), the real issue is not on taking sides, but how we can strike a balance in meeting the need of those who visit the library for the materials and those who come for self-study/doing homework? I like your proposed solution #2. It's within our ability and perhaps a slightly bigger space for the taxplayers? It's fair enough. As for #1, there'll be an impact on staffing and an increase in cost. So need more funding? How to get more funding? It may not just be loans that only count...what do we value ultimately?

  6. Very interesting. I was a student when NLB clamped down completely on the self-studiers and I remember feeling a bit disgruntled. I think self-studying is alright as long as the students aren't being a nuisance. People need to be more gracious and accepting of each other. A combination of self-study hours and designated areas (rather than rooms) may work.

  7. Came across this post when I am Googling for a place to study in Singapore - I am an adult doing part-time graduate studies, and it has been a horrid experience trying to find a place outside campus to study. I do not even have a reading table at home, and I stay far away from campus, plus the university librarys operating hours caters to full-time undergraduates than working adults like me. Sigh.

  8. prissy3:15 pm

    being a student myself, i find it extremely frustrating to note that there's a lack of places offering a place to study. i mean like 24 hrs. the reason is that i find my house not a conducive place to study because of all the distractions and thus, go to the lib to study but i hate that it closes so early, like 9pm. i was thinking, perhaps, the government would open the library 24 hours or extend the closing time to 2 or 3 am and provide feeder buses outside these lib during the months leading to exam periods? like june/nov. it would be seriously helpful. besides, i often find the space in the library under utilized. obviously there are so much more space in the library that can contain much more tables and chairs. but nope. another time that i fail to understand that is, why are there no 24 hours bookstore, study places catering to students? singaporeans are known to be night owls but i lament the fact that there aren't much 24 hours outlets to visit after 12am. of course people might say that it isn't profitable to open a place for students to study, then how about a coffeeplace/study booth, like charge a fee of $6 for 3 hours of a booth and some snacks and drinks. it isn't too expensive and afforable for students and there's defintely a market for it.

  9. Hi Prissy, in my experience, it's the cost. It's not just "opening up the library 24 hours". There's costs for staffing, utilities, security, maintenance. Well, maybe one day some students might want to take this idea up as a project. It'll be interesting to see how the costs are worked out and whether there's any innovative workarounds. BTW Prissy, if there are 24 hr outlets to visit, wouldn't that be in competition with 24hr study places? LOL. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Good luck with your studies.


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