The Library: A World Beyond Borders

Where else can knowledge, horizons and imaginations expand but in a public library. Local author O Thiam Chin shares how the community resource hub can pull people together and create a better society.

Local author O Thiam Chin finds inspiration for his writing in the library.

I was made aware of an “Up There” and a “Down Here” when, as a child of eight or nine years old in the mid 80s, I first visited the Ang Mo Kio Public Library.

Ang Mo Kio Public Library. Photo credit: National Library Singapore

There at my neighbourhood library, “Up There” was where the adults went to read and pore over thick books, while “Down Here” was where children like us roamed and discovered our own worlds, between the pages of the books that lined the rows of shelves. It was “Down Here” that I discovered my budding love of reading, where my imagination took root and later, a place where my life began as a writer.

Even at that tender age, in my mind, “Up There” represented class and culture and all its attendant values, where knowledge, erudition and education were held in high esteem, possessed by a select few. “Down Here”, on the other hand, was the domain of working class folks with their values of hard work and diligence, where perhaps the pursuit of knowledge was held secondary to the immediate calls of duty and labour.

As a child, there were already markers in my mind about the kinds and levels of knowledge in the world — one suited for pleasure and entertainment and escape from the daily drudgery, the other for broadening one’s horizons so as to rise up in life.

My creative anchor

For a good part of my 20s, the Central Public Library at Victoria Street was where I first started writing. For five days a week, you would find me bending over a book or my laptop, alternating between reading and writing for hours at a stretch. Whenever I felt stuck or uninspired while writing, I would look up and draw strength from the writers whose works filled the shelves around me and took heart in the knowledge that the act of writing is something shared between us, a common bond. It was only fitting then that the Central Public Library was where my short story collection, Never Been Better, was launched in 2009.

My Treehouse at Central Public Library. Photo credit: National Library Singapore

I have visited other public libraries in many cities around the world — New York, Chicago, Iowa, Tokyo and Taipei — and have seen how each has built up their own niche and focus, each catering, uniquely and specifically, to the needs of the communities they are located in. While these libraries may boast a larger, more extensive collection of books, a pedigreed history or a grander façade and architecture, our Central Public Library continues to remain a touchstone — the benchmark by which I measured the other libraries against. Not least because the vastness, easy accessibility and up-to-the-minute range and quality of its resources are world-class. Here, readers can get their hands on the latest reads, including books that address the most current and pressing of issues. Besides its extensive catalogue of resources, what I appreciate is how any branch of knowledge and information is available not just via the library’s physical multimedia booths, audiobooks, CDs and DVDs, but also its online and mobile/app platforms, allowing me to find what I need through an immediate source.

Changing times, changing tastes

Indeed, with the internet and social media integrated into our lives, whatever we want to know is a simple click away. In keeping with the times, our library has reinvented itself to offer people new, exciting experiences in their demand for knowledge.

While physical books are still the mainstay, the library has grown beyond a brick and mortar depository to become so much more. It is today a thriving hub where infinite types and forms of information are curated, presented and shared — think arts exhibitions, a talk by writers or experts from different fields, or a multi-visual showcase.

The library has also broadened its reach into, and bond with, the community through book clubs, storytelling sessions, and creative reading initiatives like Book Bugs, that aim to help younger readers cultivate the habit of reading through a fun game of card collecting and swopping. In fact, thanks to this, my young nephews and nieces have become avid readers, always asking me to take them to the library, and there’s nothing that heartens me more than to see them pick up a book and read, eager to learn and discover.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is also refreshing to see how our library has become a cool lifestyle hangout, with modern amenities like cafés or reading zones for different types of readers, enticing people to linger in its hip environs. Even now, the library remains relevant, a heart that revitalises the community through ways never thought possible just a decade ago.

For me, the Ang Mo Kio Public Library — the cornerstone of my growth as a reader and writer — remains a constant even now. It helps that it is also conveniently located near where I live, so I frequent it often. Bishan Public Library is my other favourite refuge — I enjoy its airy interior, where natural light brightens the space through floor-to-ceiling glass walls, adding to the pleasure of browsing and reading.

Humanity’s haven

“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library,” Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, and in a way, the public library has always been a sort of paradise for me, one I get to enter at my own leisure, to learn new things and find my own tribe of readers.

Which brings me to the question: What does the future hold for public libraries? I would like to think they will continue to thrive as they have now, not only as the depositories of knowledge, but as the busy networks of a hive, one that draws all kinds of seekers and learners, the old and the young, the curious and the inquisitive, in their quest for personal fulfilment and betterment.

In the words of poet T.S. Eliot: “The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”

About the Author
O Thiam Chin, 40, is the author of five collections of short fiction: Free-Falling Man, Never Been Better, Under The Sun, The Rest Of Your Life and Everything That Comes With It, and Love, Or Something Like Love. O was a recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2012, and was shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize. His debut novel, Now That It’s Over, won the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015, as well as the Best Fiction title at the 2017 Singapore Book Awards. His second novel, Fox Fire Girl, was published in March 2017, and a new story collection, Signs of Life, will be out soon.

You may also like “5 Rare Books in the National Library’s Rare Collection”.

Like our stories? Follow us on Medium.com/sgmci