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NLB to finetune book selection, review processes: Yaacob

Minister for Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim detailed in Parliament three areas of improvement for the National Library Board, including an advisory panel to assist the board in book selection.

SINGAPORE: The National Library Board (NLB) has learnt from its actions regarding its decision to withdraw two books from its children’s section of its libraries, said Minister for Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, and will “improve its processes”.

The two books in question - And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express - were withdrawn as they contained depictions of same-sex parents that were deemed not pro-family. The decision sparked much controversy, and the two titles were subsequently moved to the library's adult section instead of being pulped. Following this, Dr Yaacob said NLB will be refining its processes on three important areas: 

  • Defining the book selection and review processes;

  • The introduction of an advisory panel to help NLB staff take into account broader concerns of the community and to help improve communication of the rationale for review decisions;

  • Establishing a clear process for books that have to be withdrawn.

"NOT AN EXACT SCIENCE"

On how books are selected and reviewed, the minister said: “NLB will ensure that the team selecting books for acquisition and the team reviewing books are different. At the moment, this is not clearly spelt out.

“It is a good practice to segregate these responsibilities and I believe it will also lead to greater public confidence in the review process.”

He added that NLB should retain the existing system in which its staff make professional judgments on the suitability of a title for any collection. Making these assessments is “not an exact science”, and it would be “most regrettable” if they are attacked by those who are unhappy that a particular decision did not go their way, he stated.

“This is why I had announced that NLB should set up an advisory panel, to help NLB staff to take into account the broader concerns of the community. Such a committee should represent a cross-section of society, and include members from the literary community,” Dr Yaacob said.

“An advisory panel will also help improve the communication of the rationale for review decisions – something (Nominated Member of Parliament) Mr Nicholas Fang raised.”

The NLB will be working out the details of the advisory panel in the weeks to come, he added.

WHAT TO DO WITH WITHDRAWN BOOKS?

As for books that have to be withdrawn, Dr Yaacob said NLB will establish a clear process for this. For books that are in good condition but were withdrawn due to controversial content, NLB would consider other options than pulping, he said.

“I do not want to prejudge their review, but one possibility is to place them in a more appropriate section of the library for lending as was finally done in this case. Other possibilities are to place them in the reference library, or to put them up for sale or donation,” the minister said.

He added: “This would not be the last time public institutions like NLB would face such controversy. We have learnt much from this experience and we will continue to work with Singaporeans, such as those who will be appointed to NLB’s advisory panel, to better understand and balance the different views of different groups.”

NORMS AND VALUES

Speaking about the library's stand of reflecting community norms in its selection process, Nominated MP Janice Koh asked: "In a complex plural society where the social cultural context is still gradually shifting, whose community norms is NLB basing its policies on? Is there only one standard set of community norms that prevail? What assurance do we have that in the future (that) NLB shall not flinch from its basic purpose as a custodian, not of morality, but of learning, knowledge and access to a wide range of information?"

In response, Dr Yaacob said the Singapore Government is a secular one, but it did not operate in a vacuum. "We also look into community norms, we have to see how society is shaping," he noted. "We adopt secular policies. We stay true to that, but at the same time, we operate in an environment where there are people of different races, different religions so we have to take our context into account."

Nominated MP Eugene Tan pointed out that the two titles were acquired in 2005 and had passed the NLB's review in 2009. He expressed concern that the change in the NLB's stance this time showed it was caught in a tussle of values. "I hope that Minister and NLB will not flinch from making hard choices, particularly when the easiest way going forward in terms of acquisitions is perhaps to go for safe titles. If that's the approach that NLB's going to take - a very timorous approach - then I think society will be a lot poorer, and will not be able to manifest this diversity that's important."

"I'd like to assure the member that we don't think we'll just go for safe titles," Dr Yaacob replied. He said the 2009 decision to retain the books "was then looking at the discussion at that point in time". However, "things have changed, a fresh pair of eyes took a look at the book again; there was feedback from the public, and they decided that maybe it's not appropriate for us to have the book in the children's section. So my sense is that I don't think that NLB has shifted significantly", Dr Yaacob said. "I don't think NLB will flinch in future, but we have to take into account the concerns of the community and how best to go forward," he added.

He reiterated that the selection and review process is not "fool-proof", and pointed out that the library's adult collection has expanded significantly, and includes titles "which may be controversial to some groups of society". 

He also urged Singaporeans to remember the good work that has been done by NLB over the years. "They have served millions of Singaporeans; they've done their very best. In fact, NLB, if I may say so, is one of the Government institutions that have received the highest number of compliments compared to complaints, because they've done their job well," he revealed. "So let us not ignore the contribution of NLB to building up a reading culture and raise the literacy of Singaporeans. This is an episode that we'll learn from and we'll move forward. And I thank the contribution of members both inside and outside of the House, on how we can move the process forward." 

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