Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The 3rd LAS conference: Kishore Mahbubani - (Part 4)

[From Part 3]

I didn't know Mr. Kishore Mahbubani has a website (www.mahbubani.net) until I'd searched for Internet references on him and his books.

He was the keynote speaker for Day-Two at the LAS conference.

His talk -- "Remaining Relevant in Tomorrow's World: How Libraries Can Serve the Young, Restless and Global Citizen".

With a title like that, and with his credentials, no wonder the room was packed.
Kishore Mahbubani, at the 3rd LAS conference

Dr N Varaprasad, Chief Executive of NLB, introduced him by sharing "three unique and unusual" things about Mr. Mahbubani:
  • The only President's Scholar from a neighbour school (Tanjong Katong Technical, if I didn't hear wrongly)
  • The only Sindhi in public service (The Sindhi people tend to go into businesses than government service)
  • He belongs to a small number of public servants who write about public policies while still in office
That's a pretty cool introduction.

Mr. Mahbubani started by sharing a personal story:

He was "fairly poor" while growing up. He remembered how he accompanied his mother to pick up the weekly welfare cheques.

He was the only one among his siblings who entered university. The main reason he was able to do so was because of the "Joo Chiat Public Library" (closed in June 1974).

"It's clear if Joo Chiat public library had not existed and I'd not gone for it, I wouldn't have been a President's Scholar. That's why I'm passionate about libraries and why you librarians should not give up the fight."

[Woah. You can pick up a tip or two on speaking effectively. A brief personal story with a hook, and hitting the mark with the 'fight' analogy.]

He continued that he sensed libraries faced a battle. "It's possible that libraries can be displaced by Internet," he says.

Mr. Mahbubani suggested that libraries relevance could be ensured if we serve these three main aims well:
  • The search for knowledge
  • The search for history
  • The search for meaning

It's something libraries can do best and are hard to replace, he says.

Search for knowledge
The biggest problem today is not about the lack of access to knowledge, but about information overload.

Mr. Mahbubani cited his personal example of how he failed in his attempts to understand Einstein's Theory of Relativity until he found Bertrand Russell's book, ABC of the Theory of Relativity

His point was that librarians can excel in identifying critical books that help explain the world better. The "sunrise mission for libraries", he suggested.

The search for history
He proposed that Asia was going through its own cultural renaissance, akin to what Europe experienced as it discovered its colourful past while coming out of the Dark Ages.

As new societies become affluent, they would want to reconnect with their past. That was one area where libraries should establish itself as a key player.

The search for meaning
"Some things never change," said Mr. Kishore Mahbubani.

Like the question: "Why are we living?"

Classical Literature was an important source, to him, on the meaning of life. He named two Russian novelists (one was Leo Tolstoy and I didn't catch the name of the other) whose works "changed his life" (though he didn't elaborate how).

Question: How do you persuade people to keep going back to books?
Mr. Mahbubani asked that question aloud, and responded by saying it's very easy to persuade children to read.

"Persuade mothers."

He felt that Singaporean parents could save themselves a significant about of money from paying private tuition if they started reading to their children, and making the child adopt a reading habit at a young age.

He said his own children have been admitted into "reasonably good universities" but they didn't have perfect SAT scores. He'd learned that majority of those who were rejected by Yale University had perfect SAT scores.

The difference (in being accepted or rejected) was not so much in academic achievements but in one's critical thinking skills.

He believed strongly that the cultivation of such a skill went hand in hand with the habit of reading (incidentally, that was one reason why his wife is an active volunteer for the KidsREAD programme, where volunteers would read to children from low-income families).

Librarians cannot be passive
Mr. Mahbubani recalled how "the librarian rarely engages in conversation with users" when he frequented the public library at Joo Chiat.

"Now, librarians cannot be passive."

He felt that librarians have to understand and help people go through "too much information".

He said a librarian's job scope was going to be more difficult. We would have to be equally good as our customers in using technology.

Books may survive. Or not.
He made this statement: "It is not yet certain whether books will survive".

He said editors of prominent newsprint publishers told him that the average age of their readers was around 45 to 50, and rising.

There is a need for libraries to find a balance between print and digital.

"If you deliver quality, they will read," said Mr. Mahbubani (which made me think of the Harry Potter series). He believed there will be a "flight towards Quality". Libraries have to identify and acquire Quality (content).

I took his point to mean that libraries should not be so hung up about content formats. Our focus should first be on acquiring content that readers would want.

Finally, he ended off by saying, "Don't worry, you are very much in a sunrise profession."

One participant (a NLB colleague, Gene) took up Mr. Mahbubani's point about "the war that libraries are engaged in" and wondered if libraries are fighting the wrong war if we emphasised too much on making content accessible -- a "war of access" -- which was a war that libraries could not hope to win compared to the lights of Google.

The same participant added that the next war librarians might have to fight was a "war of intelligence". On how we could make meaning out of those books. To be the Bertrand Russells.

Mr. Mahbubani responded that librarians have got to read. To understand the literature very well.

My Thinking Aloud: We need to be our own Champion
It was brilliant of LAS to have invited a person like Mr. Mahbubani to be a keynote speaker. I'm sure his speech gave hope to quite a few librarians -- a refreshing change from the pessimistic reality that librarians hear, and see, too often.

During Q&A, Ms. Sylvia Yap (Head, NUS Libraries) and Dr. Varaprasad both thanked Mr. Mahbubani for his support for libraries and librarians, and hoped that he would convey his passion for libraries to other senior government officials.

Which made me think: While we need champions and supporters like Mr. Mahbubani, we librarians also have to be our own champions.

Tell the world our names. Share about our profession. What keeps us going to work? What are we thinking about professionally?

If we librarians speak of the need to have champions of our own professions, we have to walk the talk as well.

It's important to have external champions. Especially people like Mr. Mahbubani.

But we cannot -- and should not -- just rely on others to champion our cause, no matter how distinguished these people may be.

If you're thinking, "Oh boy, once again Ivan is going to suggest that librarians should blog".

Yes, I am.

Blogging isn't the only medium to champion libraries and the work that librarians do.

But right now, I don't know of any other means or platform that's more efficient, inexpensive and more friendly than the blog medium.

Not all of us will have Mr. Kishore Mahbubani's eloquence and influence. Not all of us can publish books.

But we have to try to get our words and thoughts out.

The future of our profession -- our jobs -- may just depend on it.


  1. Useful insights into the ever evolving profession of librarianship. I also loved the way Mr. Mahbubani was introduced. Have to remember that tip :)

  2. Hi Ivan,

    I'm glad that you've posted this, Prof. Mahbubani's talk really captured the hearts of many librarians.

    I had actually posted a question on Librarians in Singapore Facebook, and I'm hoping for some feedback, maybe I should post it here.


  3. Hey Malar, go ahead and post it :) Or post at your blog and leave a link here. Cheers.

  4. My concern has been with the role of librarians in any setting for that matter, whether academic or public, it is important for librarians to be knowledgeable about the technologies, so that it would possible for them to interact with their users in that platform, doesn't it defeat the purpose or the role of a librarian, if all technologies are put in place, for user to explore and learn, and librarians are not joining their users in this platform to know what sort of research or work their users are engaging in?

  5. Hi,

    Thank you Ivan.

    I remember about ten years ago, there were thoughts about repositioning the role of librarians to 'information specialists' or 'information brokers'. I think this is exactly what Mr. Mahbubani suggested. We have to know what is the information needs of our users (research is needed). We have to be able to acquire the correct information packages so that they will be useful to our users (requirements of selectors). We (the front line staff) have to know our collection well so that we can match our products and services with the needs of users when interacting with them. We have to have a sound communication skills in order to know what actually users are asking. When these hardware and software are ready, then the dream will come true : a user talk to a librarian about what she wants and the librarian will go a find the books to the user (was it mentioned by Mr. Mahbubani?) In all, a good collection and helpful librarians will attract people to come to libraries. Then our business can continue.



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