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History of National Library Singapore

The National Library is every nation's knowledge institution, preserving its cultural and literary heritage as well as providing trusted reference services. The National Library of Singapore (NLS), situated in the National Library Building on 100 Victoria Street, is a national knowledge institution empowering individuals and businesses with knowledge and information as it continuously expands its vast array of reference collections and services. The NLS is responsible for preserving and making accessible the nation's literary and publishing heritage, and intellectual memory.

History of National Library

Beginnings of the National Library
The Early Years: 1823 – 1845
Building up the Collection
A New Building
The Japanese Occupation
The Post-war Years
The National Library @ Stamford Road
The Raffles National Library Ordinance (No. 31 of 1957)
The First Singaporean Director of the National Library
A Chapter Ends
References

The National Library of Singapore, as we know it today, has evolved in tandem with the development of Singapore from a subscription library serving the needs of a privileged few, to a library system that aims to reach out to Singaporeans from all walks of life.

Beginnings of the National Library

The National Library had its beginnings in 1823 and was inextricably tied to the establishment of Singapore’s first major educational institution, The Singapore Institution, now known as the Raffles Institution, as well as the founder of modern Singapore Sir Stamford Raffles.

Stamford Raffles worked for the British East India Company, a purely commercial enterprise but he was a self-made man who fervently believed in the opportunities afforded by education and its ability to benefit the poor. Soon after the founding of Singapore, Raffles proposed setting up an educational establishment and envisioned that a library was needed to support the educational aims of the college. As such, the seeds of the National Library were sown.

The Early Years: 1823 – 1845

Raffles laid the foundation stone in 1823 for the Singapore Institution and the building was completed in 1837. A certain Dr Robert Morrison, an eminent missionary, philanthropist and educationist, became the first librarian and played a key role in the early developments of the library.

The library, being a part of the Singapore Institution, was open to its students and staff. However, for 25 cents a month, any member of public could use the library and borrow books as well. However, following increasing public calls for the library to be open beyond school hours, the Singapore Library was formed and officially opened on 22 January 1845. Invited members of the public could use the library after paying a monthly subscription of $2.50. The Singapore Library was thus Singapore’s first subscription library.

The functions of the library were expanded in 1849 with the mandate to administer a museum as it was considered to be in close " connection with the library for the elucidation of Malayan history." With the passing of a resolution by the Legislative Council in 1873, for colonies to contribute " products depicting the antiquity and physical character of the Straits Settlements ", a local museum was deemed to be a useful addition and from 16 July 1874, the Singapore Library became known as the Raffles Library and Museum.

The Library consisted of a Reference Library, a Lending Library and a Reading Room and was used by over 4000 visitors in 1875 from naval officers’ and travellers in transit. However, only a handful of the local population be it the local Europeans, Eurasians or Chinese visited the library.

Building up the Collection

The National Library has, since its early days, actively tried to boost its collection of rare or scholarly materials, especially on the heritage of Singapore, Malaysia and the region.

Some notable donations in those early years included a box of books from the Trustees of the Library and Museum of Victoria, Australia. The 1875 Annual Report stated that 2000 books were purchased and literary agents had helped to increase the library of Malayan Literature. In addition, the Colonial Secretary’s Office received gazettes and reports from the government, which were subsequently handed over to the library.

Amongst the National Library’s literary treasures is a rare book of great historical importance, The History of Trauayle in the West and East Indies, and other Countrys Lying Eyther Way, Towards the Fruitfull and Ryche Moluccaes. Printed in 1577, the treasure contains one of the earliest narratives of sea voyages.

A New Building

On 12 October 1887, the Governor of Singapore, Sir Frederick Weld, officially opened the new building of the Raffles Library and Museum. Dr R. Hanitsch from University College, Liverpool, was appointed as the new Curator and Librarian in June 1895. The title of Curator and Librarian was changed to Director, so as to be, ‘uniform with similar appointments in the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States.’ Hanitsch thus became the first Director of the Raffles Library and Museum in September 1908.

Hanitsch made a number of significant contributions to the development of the Library such as being one of the first librarians to conduct a survey of visitors and creating the Singapore History Collection and publishing a new catalogue after he had relabelled and renumbered all the works in the Library.

The Annual Reports of the 1930s stated that the library grew in popularity as a result of a number of initiatives such as increased purchases, reorganisation of the non-fiction section and the distribution of quarterly bulletins of new titles as well as the periodic announcement of lists of new acquisitions in the local newspapers. In 1932, a legal section was formed which comprised all publications on laws, enactments and ordinances of the Straits Settlements and the Malay States, government gazettes and all printed matter of an official nature. Such materials from the Straits Settlements can still be found at the National Library.

The Japanese Occupation

For 2 weeks before Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, the British and Australian forces occupied the library as a Regimental Aid Station. Thereafter, it was closed only to be reopened officially on 29 April 1942, on the occasion of the birthday of the Japanese Emperor.

The Raffles Library and Museum was renamed the Syonan Hakubutsu Kan, as the museum, as compared to the library, was more eminent during the pre-war period. The library section was known as the Syonan Tosyokan and was headed by Marquis Yoshichika Tokugawa who was related to the Emperor of Japan, a situation that was propitious to the safeguarding of the library and its collections.

Amidst general destruction to many buildings during the war, the library remained largely unscathed with only about 500 reference books lost through looting or damage. This was a marginal amount compared to the destruction and losses suffered by other libraries in Malaya. This was largely through the reputation of the museum as well as the commitment of two individuals, Professor Hidezo Tanakadate from Tohoku Imperial University and E.J.H Corner, a former Assistant Director of Gardens, both of whom were committed to learning as well as preserving library materials of historical interest

Tanakadate was instrumental in his attempt to rescue books and collections from damaged houses and offices and as a result lorry-loads of books and journals were retrieved from the libraries of civil service departments such as the Agricultural Fisheries office and the Colonial Secretary’s Office. In just one month, more than 40, 000 books were brought in to the Raffles Library.

The Post-war Years

The library was reopened to the public under British Administration on 1 December 1945. The perseverance, steadfastness and relative safety of the library during the Japanese Occupation cemented the role and importance of the library, as an emblem of Singapore’s cultural heritage and ‘an epitome of commitment by all to consolidate society through shared knowledge and experience’.

The post-war years brought considerable change to the Raffles Library as several plans were made to improve services to the public such as setting up a Branch Library Scheme to create wider access for the local population.

Other proposed changes included setting up a free public library and this idea came to fruition with a contribution of $375, 000 in 1953 from rubber magnate and philanthropist Lee Kong Chian who was keen to promote the use of vernacular languages in the public arena and whose donation was also given on condition that the library would be made a public and free library for all.

A new phase of the library system began in the 1950s with the appointment of L.M. Harrod, a qualified librarian, as director of the Raffles Library. Harrod played a significant role in expanding and modernising the library and was also integral in the eventual separation of the library and museum. He introduced the Browne system to issue books, a system that was used by the library until 1988 when a computerised library system was introduced as well as translating children’s books into Chinese, Malay and Tamil in a bid to reach out to the local population.

The National Library @ Stamford Road

History of the National Library
A black-and-white photograph of the old library building at Stamford Road

Harrod’s most visible legacy was his joint effort with Lionel Bintley, a British architect with the Public Works Department, to design the National Library building. The site of the building was along Stamford Road to the south of Raffles Museum. From 1875 to 1940, the St Andrew’s Chapel and School buildings occupied the Stamford Road site, after which it became the British Council Building.

Lee Kong Chian laid the foundation stone of the National Library at Stamford Road on 15 August 1957.

The National Library building, which was supposed to reflect the red-brick epoch of British architecture in the 1950s, received mixed reviews. Most criticised the aesthetics of the building which stood in contrast to the dignified and Victorian style architecture of the National Museum. The library building, however, was four times larger than its old size and brought about much-needed space.

History of the National Library
View of the main entrance of the old National Library building with its walls of exposed red bricks

The Raffles National Library Ordinance (No. 31 of 1957)

The enactment of the Raffles National Library Ordinance marked an important milestone in the history of the National Library. Coming into effect on 1 April 1958, it enabled the National Library to provide a free public service for residents in Singapore. The ordinance also instituted for the library to be the depository library for all publications printed and published in Singapore, a function that continues under the National Library Board Act (1995).

History of the National Library History of the National Library
A black and white top view photograph of the reading area in the library Aerial view of the library's reading area with its distinct tiled floor in black and white, wall fans and card catalogue cabinets in the centre

The First Singaporean Director of the National Library

Hedwig Anuar succeeded Harrod and became the first Singaporean to be Director of the National Library, a position she held for more than two decades. She was Director of National Library from April 1960 to June 1961 and again from 1965 to 1988.

One of her major tasks was to oversee the laborious mission of relocating the library in November 1960 from the Raffles Museum site to the new building. Dubbed “Operation Pindah”, all 40-odd members of the library staff formed a human chain to pass down 150,000 books and the relocation was complete in just 2 weeks.

History of the National Library
View of the staircase leading to the main entrance of the old National Library at Stamford Road

The Raffles Library was renamed National Library which was a symbolic move away from its colonial beginnings and was officially opened by the head of state, Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak on 12 November 1960.

A significant contribution by Anuar was the setting up of the Mobile Library Services. Through a US$2000 donation from UNESCO, library vans were purchased and put to use from 1960 as part of the library’s efforts at decentralisation and reaching out to schoolchildren. Mobile library services were introduced in West Coast, Tanjong Pagar, Nee Soon and Bukit Panjang over a period of several years with Sembawang, Tampines, Pasir Panjang, Bukit Timah, Changi and Kaki Bukit added on subsequently. This brought the library to the people, a vision that the first Director, Harrod strongly believed in. The Mobile Library Service was phased out from the 1980s with the construction of full-time branch libraries, and terminated entirely in 1991.

The National Library was also able to expand its services to the public by increasing its collections through gifts, donations and government grants.

With the retirement of Hedwig Anuar in 1988, Yoke-Lan Wicks succeeded her as Director of the National Library until 1992 and she was responsible for setting up the first full-time branch library in Queenstown.

A Chapter Ends

The iconic red-bricked National Library at Stamford Road closed its doors for the last time on 31 March 2004, six years after the government announced that the building would be demolished for urban redevelopment. Given the special place the National Library had in the hearts and minds of many Singaporeans, a year-long series of events was planned to commemorate the closing of one chapter and to begining of a new one

Half a century later, Lee Kong Chian’s legacy and support continued with a $60 million donation for the Lee Foundation towards the development of the new National Library at Victoria Street. The reference library is named in honour of Lee Kong Chian.

For more photographs, please visit: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/pictures/

References

Seet, K.K. A Place for the People – the story of a National Library. Singapore: Times Books International, 1983.
(Call Number: SING 027.55957 SEE)

Balamurugan, Anasuya (2004). National Library Building, Stamford Road. Infopedia, 12 August 2004.

Nasir, Heirwin M (2002). Raffles Library and Museum during the Japanese Occupation. Infopedia, 10 July 2002.

Books to Bytes virtual exhibition

Last Updated On 28 February 2017

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