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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Planning the Library of the Future - The Singapore Experience

Julie S Sabaratnam
Director, Digital Library Cluster and Information Services
Singapore National Computer Board


Consultant (Digital Library Services & Systems Review)
Singapore National Library Board



Countries and businesses today compete based on information, knowledge and know-how. In the U.S, for instance, the services sector which is dominated by knowledge work account for more than 70% of all employment, and 74% of the value-added in U.S. Gross Domestic Product. In today's world, information, not land, labour or capital, become the critical economic resource. Information plays a key part in wealth generation. Intellect, intelligence and ideas give businesses and nations the competitive edge. Information and knowledge will affect the work of all organisations. Even a small nation like Singapore realise the importance of information. Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong highlighted the importance of knowledge and information in his 1993 National Day Message to his people. He reinforced that "The future, belongs to countries whose people make the most productive use of information, knowledge and technology. These are now the key factors for economic success, not natural resources."


Information has continued to grow and multiply at an exponential rate. Islands and pools of information are being created and generated by people and businesses. The sudden growth of Internet in the last one to two years have added to the amount of information that become readily available to users. More and more people are creating their own Web Pages that allow for information to be dissemin ated. Bulletin boards, discussion groups and databases are being made available via the Internet. Community networks are also sprouting -- the National Public Telecomputing Network , in the US is the fourth largest online service in the world. These networks allow users to search and retrieve information and communicate directly with experts and peers in the fields of interest. Even coffee s hops operate Cyber Cafes that provide facilities for people to explore the Internet and hence access information. Almost every country has plugged onto the Internet. Virtual communities have formed and they are making an impact on the way we work and operate or function.


"Water, water, everywhere... not a drop to drink" said Coleridge in the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. We are swimming in seas of information and users often complain that they are starved of knowledge. Why ? Well, when we are swimming in the sea, we cannot drink the water no matter how thirsty we get, as it may not be pure, it could be too salty etc. Sea water will not quench or nourish us. Si milarly, users have access to huge databases of information but cannot use it. The Internet, for instance, has given individuals the unprecedented access to information and we are flooded with a variety of information sources and often drown in it. It makes it difficult for users to sieve the relevant information. After a while people stop using these sources or fast foods of information as th ey find it difficult to differentiate between the facts and "factoids" . They are lost in the maze of information sources as they do not know how to select the best and most authoritative sources. They need assistance in navigating through the maze.


Today's workforce is buried in a deluge of information caused by the exponential growth of information. Customers become more demanding and have a variety of choices. For example, in the past, people depend on libraries, librarians and online databases. Today, this paradigm may not hold. Technological developments impact the way we work. Companies and individuals have and continue to invest in technology which will enhance their capabilities. They learn to use IT, exploit IT, and have at their disposal reservoirs of information, often for free. Work in the Year 2000 will be redefined. Workers depend on information and with the technological advances often tend to be self-sufficient.


Given the rapid growth of information, information sources, technological advances and changing user demands, libraries and librarians need to respond quickly and position themselves to provide a useful and relevant service. Libraries need to anticipate, innovate and excel in whatever we do. Allow me to share an example from history. In 1968, if anyone was asked who would dominate the w atch industry in the nineties, the answer would have been Switzerland. The Swiss had dominated the watch industry for 60 years and were constantly improving on the watches they produced. By 1968, they had more than 65% of the market share and more than 80% of profits. In 1980, their market share collapsed to less than 10% and profit margins to less than 20%. They were dethroned because somethi ng profound took place -- mechanical mechanism was making way for electronic technology. The Swiss overlooked the wonders of the new quartz technology but Seiko of Japan capitalised on it. Today, the Japanese have gained 33% of market share. It was a Swiss research institute that invented the quartz technology but the Swiss watch manufacturers rejected it. They said "it could never be the wat ch of the future". So confident were the manufacturers that they let the researchers showcase what they deemed a useless invention at the World Watch Congress. Seiko took one look and the rest was history. How can we avoid this mistake?

The Swiss watch example illustrates the importance of discovering paradigms for success. We need to be alert and respond to changes promptly and positively in order to maintain the lead and play a relevant role. We must constantly review the business we are in and always look ahead, anticipate changes, innovate and provide excellent services and products. Libraries have been a little slow at exploiting the Internet to their advantage. In fact coffee houses in the U.S. and U.K. were among the first to offer their diners free access to Internet. It was much later that libraries introduced Internet to the users. The Internet has increased accessibility to information sources and there is a growing reliance and over dependence on free information on the Internet. People may be making use of factoids rather than facts. Libraries must look at how they can continue to help users as we have always done in the past and also look at new opportunities that will add value to the user and ensure that users continue to get the right information at the right time in the right form.


Here, I would like to draw on the Singapore experience to show how the Government took the lead to ensure that Libraries are transformed to meet the challenges of the information society. In 1992, the Minister for Information and the Arts, BG(NS) George Yeo formed the Library 2000 Review Committee to review the approach to building new Public Libraries. The Government felt that with changing lifestyles, higher expectations and the growing dominance of technology, simply replicating existing branch libraries in new towns may no longer be the best way to cater to the diverse needs of the community. The high level Committee, comprising of senior executives from a cross section of economic sectors, academia, and Government, were tasked with drawing up a master plan for developing librar y services over the next ten to fifteen years to support national development.

Singapore is an island-city-state of about 646 sq m, with no natural resources. Singapore's success, thus, becomes very much dependent on her people. The Government, in the Next Lap, articulated the need to develop her only resource, the people. To maintain her competitive edge, Singapore's response to the emerging knowledge economy, information explosion and rapid knowledge obsolescence is to be a learning nation. Singapore's long-term competitiveness depends on the nation's capacity to learn faster and apply knowledge better than other countries. Lifelong learning and re-skilling our people are not choices. They are necessary for Singapore to remain competitive in the global economy.


The Library 2000 Review Committee envisioned that libraries can play a vital part in supporting Singapore's vision to be a learning nation. Libraries will be positioned as one of the key pillars of the national infrastructure to expand the nation's capacity to learn. Libraries will not only cater to the variegated needs of the population and specific needs of different economic sectors but will also serve as nuclei for the development of culture and heritage. The ultimate aim must be to enable and encourage people to read and absorb more information.

The Library 2000 Vision is one that "continuously expands the nation's capacity to learn through a national network of libraries and information resource centres providing services and learning opportunities to support the advancement of Singapore." The Committee has recommended six strategic thrusts that will help transform library services and turn vision to reality. These str ategies considered national aspirations, people's rising expectations and changing lifestyles, technological advances and best practices in the field. The Committee also identified three key enablers that will help turn vision into reality.


The six thrusts will help in refining the existing library system to better serve the total needs of Singaporeans. These include:


The Committee has also identified the following three key enablers for the successful implementation of the strategic thrusts:


The Library 2000 Review Committee's recommendations are articulated in its Report -- The Library 2000 : Investing in a Learning Nation -- this was endorsed by the Government in march 1994 and released in April 1994. Several developments has since taken place. These include :