National Library (1960-1979)

Singapore Infopedia

by Goh, Lee Kim


Between 1960 and 1979, the National Library expanded its collections and diversified its services. The number of library members grew from 55,000 in 19631 to more than 322,000 by the end of March 1979.2 Key developments include the library moving beyond the promotion of reading and loan of books to organising programmes, exhibitions and other activities aimed at educational, social and cultural enrichment for people of all ages.3 It also decentralised its services by opening branches around Singapore and introduced a mobile library service.

Originally called Raffles National Library, the library was renamed the National Library on 9 December 1960 with the enactment of the Raffles National Library (Change of Name) Ordinance.4 Before that, it was known as Raffles Library from 19555 till the Raffles National Library Ordinance came into effect on 1 April 1958.6 Raffles National Library’s depository function for books published in Singapore, which was accorded by the Printers and Publishers Ordinance, was also transferred to the National Library.7

The new building housing the Raffles National Library, located on Stamford Road, was officially opened by head of state Yusof Ishak on 12 November 1960.8 The general lending section was in operation after the opening. However, the reference section was  reopened to the public only on 3 January 1961.9 The opening hours of the library was from 8.30 am to 8.00 pm on weekdays and from 8.30 am to 1.00 pm on Saturdays, with the Reference section operating from 10 am to 5.30 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 1 pm on Saturdays.10

On 16 December 1960, Loke Wan Tho became the first chairman of the National Library board. The board made recommendations to the National Library relating to the provision, regulation and financing of library services to the public and government departments, as well as the training of library staff.11 The National Library served as the country’s national and public library, providing reading materials and information through its loan and reference services to members of the public, from children to adults.

In the 1960s, the National Library received assistance from the Colombo Plan Co-operative Economic Development in South and South East Asia for various aspects such as library administration and development. Launched in July 1951, the Colombo Plan was an economic aid programme aiming to improve the lives of people in South and Southeast Asia.12 Through this, New Zealand provided monetary aid to the National Library for buying books as well as professional training of its librarians.13

The National Library also received library development expertise through two library professionals who were posted to the National Library between 1962 and 1964. They were J. R. Cole, the assistant chief librarian of Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand, and Priscilla Taylor who had many years of library experience overseas. Cole was the Director of the National Library for three months.14 Taylor, who was initially appointed as associate director, assumed the post of Director in August 1962 after Cole left.  After two years of service, Taylor left Singapore in 1964 to take up a new position in Nigeria. She was succeeded by the assistant director Hedwig Anuar.15

Growing the library collection

When Yusof Ishak toured the National Library in 1961, he had expressed disappointment over the small number of Malay and Tamil books in the children’s section.16 Subsequently, when the National Library obtained a five-fold increase of its book budget in 1963, it focused on strengthening its vernacular collections.17

The Library’s collection was also boosted through donations and deposits. On 30 June 1963, the National Library became a depository library of United Nations publications in English, Chinese and Arabic languages.18 That year, philanthropist Lee Kong Chian donated $10,000 to the Library which was used to purchase 4,000 Malay, Chinese and Tamil books.19 Two years later in 1965, the Library received a Colombo Plan grant of £10,000 for stocking up two of its mobile libraries with books in Chinese, Malay and Tamil.20

The Southeast Asia Room at the National Library was opened by Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam on 28 August 1964. The collection featured works relating to Malaya and other countries in the region, as well as the Ya Yin Kwan Collection21 donated by businessman Tan Yeok Seong.22 The donation of the Gibson-Hill Collection on 18 June 1965 further enriched the Southeast Asia collection. The donation was made by Mrs Loke Yew, mother of the late Loke Wan Tho23 who had passed away the year before.24

The National Library also held an old and rare books collection which comprised materials printed in Singapore since the 1800s. Due to the age and fragility of the materials, the collection was not accessible to the public. However, surrogate copies were made available on microfilm for viewing and study by the public.25

In 1967, the Printers and Publishers Act was amended, requiring five copies of books published in Singapore to be deposited with the National Library instead of six copies.26 One copy of each publication was sent to the Ministry of Culture and the University of Singapore, while the other three were kept by the National Library for preservation and research purposes. Publishers who failed to submit the five copies within a month of publication could be prosecuted and fined up to S$1,000.27

Following that, the National Library published the first issue of the Singapore National Bibliography on 8 August 1969. The annual publication listed the works deposited with the National Library under the Printers and Publishers Act, including textbooks, government publications, reports, serials and pamphlets.28

The National Library’s collection exceeded one million volumes by the end of March 1977.29

Developing the library’s services
Since the 1960s, the Library has been actively promoting reading among the populace in Singapore, with the aim of nurturing a nation of readers.30 To cultivate the reading habit, the head of the children’s section, Mrs Eleanor Smith, Hedwig Anuar’s sister,31 initiated storytelling sessions for children in 1962. This marked the start of regular storytelling sessions at the National Library, which were later extended to branch libraries.32 Keeping the less privileged in mind, the National Library also provided bulk loan services and reading aids to inmates of prisons, the disabled and those in rehabilitation institutions to cater to their reading needs.33

On 10 February 1965, the reference division opened a new section housing publications relating to business, science and technology and with a seating capacity of 24.34 The opening was possibly in line with the onset of a new industralisation phase in 1964 that saw rapid development of scientific and technological infrastructure resulting in the need to train and develop a skilled local workforce.35

On 15 April 1966, a new service targeted at youths aged 15 to 19 was launched to bridge the gap between the children and adult services. The book collection selected for young people ranged from books on careers, adolescent problems to teenage novels and short stories.36 Smith was the coordinator of this Young People’s Service.37 Hobby clubs for youths, such as drama, guitar, dance and reading clubs, were formed.38 In 1969, Teen Talk, a bimonthly magazine of book reviews in both English and Chinese written by students, was started.39 In the 1970s, the Young People’s Service initiated the Young Writers’ Circle and the Crescents, a drama group for its youth members.40

Growing library membership
The library’s daily visitorship grew to about 6,000 in 1963, a large proportion of which were students. In comparison, the library’s seating capacity was only 402, hence casual readers were unable to find seats.41 In view of the overcrowding issue, the National Library announced a four-stage plan for the decentralisation of services in its first annual report published in 1964.42 The aim was to bring library services to the people through a network of mobile libraries, part-time branch libraries and full-time branch libraries in large estates like Queenstown.43

In January 1965, the National Library closed the study room as it was unable to meet the heavy demand for study space by students. To alleviate this situation, the library approached the People’s Association and school libraries to make more study space available for students.44

By July 1965, more than 100,000 people had registered as members of the National Library, with an average of about 2,000 joining each month.45 With the achievement of its target of 100,000 readers, the National Library board recommended the abolishment or reduction of the deposit fee for new members, so that the library would “freely serve all the people of Singapore”.46 The deposit for adults was subsequently reduced from S$10 to $5 in 1969 in a bid to encourage more people to join the library,47 while that for students remained at S$5.48

In July 1971, it was reported that nearly 29 per cent of the school-going population in Singapore were members of the National Library.49 This rise was attributed to the library’s efforts in organising programmes catered to young people.50 With rising membership, the library faced issues of space and seating constraints, overcrowding and long waiting times. There were constant complaints by adult users who found the library spaces occupied predominantly by students especially during examination periods.

In response, the National Library banned the use of its premises for studying purposes at Stamford Road and its full-time branches from 18 September 1978. Students were not be allowed to bring in their files, notes and textbooks into the libraries. Though study spaces in schools and community centres were possible alternatives, some students questioned the conduciveness and the short duration these venues were open for study purposes.51

Overcrowding at the National Library was addressed through the establishment of more branch libraries, which were part of the Library’s decentralisation plan.52 Three full-time branch libraries were opened in the 1970s: Queenstown Branch Library in 1970,53 Toa Payoh Branch Library in 197454 and Marine Parade Branch Library in 1978.55 In addition, two part-time branch libraries were set up: one in Chai Chee in 197456 and another in Jurong in 197757 to serve residents in these areas. Library services were also extended to individuals with special needs through the introduction of large-print books and audiobooks.58

The intent to computerise library services was first announced in December 1975.59 In 1979, more details of the computerisation plan of the National Library and full-time branch libraries at a cost of S$1.2 million was made known. Computerisation would be carried out in three stages beginning with the catalogue system, followed by the book ordering system and finally, book loans. The project was carried out in the 1980s, resulting in improved library services for the public.60

Goh Lee Kim

1. “400,000 Readers Is Library Target,” Straits Times, 23 January 1964, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. National Library (Singapore), Annual Report 1978 (Singapore: National Library Board, 1979), 27. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RLSAR-[AR])
3. Ismail Kassim, “Making Libraries Social and Cultural Centres,” New Nation, 21 May 1974, 4; “Wealth of Knowledge at Library for the Young,” Straits Times, 12 December 1974, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Singapore, “Raffles National Library (Change of Name) Ordinance 1960 (Ord. 66 of 1960), 1960 Supplement to the Laws of Singapore, 1 (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SIN-[HWE]); “Out Goes the Name Raffles,” Straits Times, 21 November 1960, 9; “Raffles’ Name Will Live On: Rajaratnam,” Straits Times, 1 December 1960, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Raffles Museum (Singapore), Annual Report 1955 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1957), 1–3 (Call no. RRARE 069.095957 RAF; microfilm NL9548); Raffles Museum (Singapore), Annual Report 1955 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1956), 1 (Call no. RRARE 069.095957 RAF; microfilm NL9548); K. K. Seet, A Place for the People (Singapore: Times Books International, 1983), 102. (Call no. RSING 027.55957 SEE-[LIB])
6. Singapore, “Raffles National Library (Change of Name) Ordinance 1960,” 1; “Out Goes the Name Raffles”; “Raffles’ Name Will Live On.”
7. “Expansion of S’pore Library Services,” Sunday Standard, 23 March 1958, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Cultural Awakening,” Straits Times, 13 November 1960, 5. (From NewspaperSG) 
9. “Reference Library Now Open,” Singapore Free Press, 4 January 1961, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “National Library Reference Section: New Times,” Straits Times, 30 January 1961, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Loke Is Library Chairman,” Straits Times, 17 December 1960, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “The Big Aid Plan Has Started,” Straits Times, 2 July 1951, 3; “Colombo Plan for Asian Prosperity Is Launched,” Singapore Standard, 2 July 1951, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Colombo Plan Aid for Region’s Projects,” Straits Times, 2 February 1969, 13; “Library School Graduates,” Straits Times, 21 December 1962, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “N.Z. Advice for S’pore Library,” Straits Times, 9 April 1962, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Miss Taylor’s 3 Hopes for S’pore Library,” Straits Times, 1 August 1964, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Che Yusof at National Library,” Straits Times, 4 August 1961, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
17. National Library (Singapore), Annual Report 1963 (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., 1966), 1–2. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RLSAR-[AR])
18. “UN Books,” Straits Times, 1 July 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
19. National Library (Singapore), Annual Report 1963, 3; Seet, Place for the People, 127.
20. “£10,000 Books for S’pore,” Straits Times, 30 September 1965, 13 (From NewspaperSG); Seet, Place for the People, 127.
21. “SE-Asia Room of Library Opens Today,” Straits Times, 28 August 1964, 5; Lee Geok Boi, “National Library Can Meet Your Reference Needs,” Straits Times, 30 June 1979, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Lee, “National Library Can Meet Your Reference Needs.” 
23. National Library (Singapore), Annual Report 1964 (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., 1967), 1, 5 (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RLSAR-[AR]); “Gift of Rare Books to Library,” Straits Times, 19 June 1965, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Leaders Shocked at Death of Loke,” Straits Times, 22 June 1964, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Betty L. Khoo, “A Jealous Guard on Singapore’s Earliest Books,” New Nation, 8 September 1972, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Printers and Publishers (Amendment) Bill 1967, Bill 27 of 1967, Singapore Statues 
27. “Why Locally-Printed Books Must Go to the N-Library,” Straits Times, 8 November 1976, 14; “Many Run Afoul of the Law By Not Sending Books to Library,” Straits Times, 23 March 1981, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “First Issue of National Bibliography Is Out,” Straits Times, 9 August 1969, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
29. National Library (Singapore), Report for the Period April 1976–March 1977 (Singapore: National Library, 1977), 2. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RLSAR-[AR])
30. “Getting More from Life with Books,” New Nation, 27 April 1976, 8; “Big Jump in Singapore Library Readership,” Straits Times, 18 August 1968, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Hedwig Elizabeth Anuar nee Aroozoo, oral history interview with Jesley Chua Chee Huan, 30 October 1998, transcript and MP3 audio, 27:52, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002036), 415.
32. “The Spellbinder,” New Nation, 21 January 1971, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Seet, Place for the People, 141–42.
34. “New Section at Library,” Straits Times, 11 February 1965, 16; Lee, “National Library Can Meet Your Reference Needs.” 
35. “Development of Our Local Skills Is the Next Step,” Straits Times, 1 January 1964, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “New Library Service for 15–19 Age Group,” Straits Times, 14 April 1966, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Peter Koh, “Where Reading Is Such Fun,” New Nation, 10 March 1971, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Hedwig Alfred, “Reading for the Fun of It,” Straits Times, 31 May 1983, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Koh, “Where Reading Is Such Fun”; “New Chinese Section in ‘Teen Talk’,” Straits Times, 19 June 1971, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “Publicity Leads to More Youth Members,” New Nation, 24 January 1980, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
41. “More Are Using National Library,” Straits Times, 22 February 1963, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
42. “400,000 Readers Is Library Target.”
43. A. Lourdes, “A Library Right at Their Doorstep in Queenstown,” Straits Times, 8 February 1970, 10; “400,000 Readers Is Library Target.”
44. Hedwig Anuar, “Why Study Room Was Closed,” Straits Times, 8 December 1967, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
45. “2,000 Readers Join Library Each Month,” Straits Times, 9 July 1965, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “Library Hits 100,000 Readers Target,” Straits Times, 5 October 1966, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
47. “Library Fee Halved,” Straits Times, 13 January 1969, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Lourdes, “Library Right at Their Doorstep.” 
49. “More Students Join Library,” New Nation, 16 July 1971, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
50. “National Library Drawing More Young Members,” Straits Times, 10 September 1972, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
51. “No Studying in Library Premises from Monday,” Straits Times, 15 September 1978, 13; “What Timing!Straits Times, 16 September 1978, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
52. “400,000 Readers Is Library Target.”
53. Lourdes, “Library Right at Their Doorstep.” 
54. National Library (Singapore), Annual Report 1974 (Singapore: National Library, 1975), 11. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RLSAR)
55. “Third Branch Library,” Straits Times, 4 November 1978, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
56. “Library Network to Promote Reading Habit,” Straits Times, 10 November 1974, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
57. National Library Board (Singapore), Report for the Period of April 1977–March 1978 (Singapore: National Library Board, 1978), 22. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 SIN)
58. “Street Level Entry for All Libraries,” Straits Times, 18 August 1978, 11; “Library Caters for the Disabled Too,” Straits Times, 9 March 1979, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
59. “National Library to Go Computer Soon,” Straits Times, 31 December 1975, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
60. Carolina Ong, “On-Line Plan to Make National Library Visit Such a Breeze,” Straits Times, 2 June 1988, 19; “1-for-4 On-Line Cards for Libraries,” Straits Times, 18 August 1987, 16. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at June 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

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