What’s the National Library’s Role in Society?

July 16, 2014 / Opinion / 1 Comment

Of all public resources the Singapore government affords its citizens, the institution I have the most reverence for is the national library. Every year, when the tax man knocks on my door, I happily give a share of my earnings knowing that someone in Singapore is becoming smarter and wiser because of it.

Singapore’s national library is truly one of the best national libraries I’ve ever experienced. It’s got all sorts of books on esoteric topics, free access to academic journals and even a respectable e-book collection for iPad-toting yuppies like me.

So it was extremely disheartening for me to find out that it withdrew 3 children’s books related homosexuality.

I’m not going to comment on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the conservative or liberal public. How one perceives moral values depends one’s own priorities and values.

What I want to discuss about is the role of the library in society. Call me an idealist if you like but I believe the library’s role is to be the champion for information and inspire people’s life-long pursuit for knowledge and wisdom. It’s not too far from how the library perceives itself — at least, according to its annual report.

While schools provide the basic skills necessary to survive, I believe it is the library’s role to provide the information necessary for life-long learners to thrive.

And what differentiates those who thrive from those who merely survive is knowledge and wisdom. Exposure to wide array of knowledge allows one to discover different points of views. It is only when we are confronted by different and opposing views that we gain the ability to expand our minds and improve the quality of our thoughts.

So by removing books that segments of society disagree with, the library is effectively narrowing the breadth of knowledge that we can have access to. By “sheltering” us from views that differ from our own, we are robbed of the opportunity to broaden and strengthen our own perceptions, convictions and beliefs. We are robbed of the opportunity to learn, discuss and empathize with different thoughts, ideas and people. And as a consequence, we are robbed of our right to grow and mature into wise and knowledgeable human beings.

This greatly, greatly infuriates and saddens me.

I want to live in a world where everyone is given the opportunity to grow and challenge themselves so they can be the best version of themselves possible.

I want to live in the world where our children can be better, smarter and wiser than we could ever hope to be so that they won’t repeat the mistakes our ancestors have made and the ones we are making now.

But that could never happen if we don’t even provide the basic opportunity to confront ideas that are different from ours. That could never happen if we don’t trust our children and citizens enough to allow them to decide how they want to deal with the sinful, evil Other.

Of course, it is the parent’s prerogative how they want to raise their child. It is also up to the individual how he or she wants to lead her life. But it is society’s collective responsibility (via its national library) to make sure that resources are made available, so that people from all walks of life with all sorts of beliefs can learn and grow as how they see fit.

So the next time I pay my taxes, I will do so with a heavy heart. The institution that I once believed was the beacon of knowledge and wisdom is now robbing our society from the very thing it was supposed to promote instead.