Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Social Libraries

Singapore's district libraries, termed Community Libraries, are more like Community Drop-in centres. With books. People do go there to read but also just to cool off in the air-con (which is set a couple of degrees too low for long-term comfort), feed babies, read newspapers, do homework with school mates before splitting up to go home, use the wireless Internet access and to borrow books. I go there for the books and sometimes to work, purposes that place me in a minority.

Bishan library is a funky building with a really good collection of books. There are glass protrusions from the front elevation which you can sit in, but it's all hard walls and floor so they're not that great to use. The other odd design decision was to dispense with stairs up to the 2nd floor and use a long ramp. You have to walk further and it's more tiring than stairs. I'm all for accessible buildings but is this a glimpse of the future where all stairs are converted to long, switchback ramps? Maybe they were planning for when we will all own Segways.

Eating, drinking, smoking and using mobile phones are all banned in libraries but Bishan has a decent cafe on the ground floor which annoyingly has the monopoly on the nice tables and chairs. Its round company logo is such a direct rip of Starbucks in a brown color scheme I half expected the place to be called StarBooks. So if you want a nice table and chair you have to stump up for a coffee, espresso or smoothie. It's relatively expensive. Most of the school kids buy a coke and make it last a whole homework session.

I popped into my old library in England a few months back and was struck by how much it had changed since I first used it when it opened 25 years ago. Half of the upstairs was converted into an Internet cafe and the lady handing out tickets casually stated the building was no longer fit for purpose but couldn't be replaced because it was protected. Singaporean libraries are also caught in this transition. Clientèle split roughly into thirds; some just want a cool building to sleep, read a paper or do homework, others want books and the rest just want Internet access. In Sembawang library, you have to watch your step as people plug laptops into power outlets at pillars and just sit on the floor.

All of which highlights the problem with modern libraries. Fifty years ago, they existed as valuable civic amenities when people couldn't necessarily afford books or homes with space for big study tables. Where else could you access a wide range of research and reference material? Librarians were knowledgeable researchers and libraries were impressive civic structures to store physical books. The Internet makes information weightless and volumeless. Library designers are slow to acknowledge they are going the way of high-street banks. Banks used to be impressive stone buildings intended to induce trust and to protect cash. Now there are often just a row of ATMs with most transactions occurring online.