National Library of Singapore


A review of the National Library of Singapore, Singapore.

The tall, bright and shiny National Library of Singapore (100 Victoria Street, Singapore 188064;, located in the Bras Basah area, may not have the classic stature of the original building, which was located a stone’s throw away on Stamford Road and regrettably torn down in 2005 instead of being conserved and re-purposed. However, the new building does have the advantage of being massive, airy and modern, and it is a pleasure to work and conduct research in.

The Library is in a very convenient location, being very close to the City Hall and Bugis MRT stations. It is also right next to Bras Basah Complex, which has more bookshops than any other shopping center in Singapore. The Library is also very well served by bus routes. However, it is recommended not to drive there; parking is always available in the basement car park, but that is because it has some of the most expensive parking rates in the area.

There is a cafe on the ground floor, and there is also a hawker center in Bras Basah Complex. Restaurants and shops are numerous in the area, so the hungry researcher is spoiled for choice.

Within the Library, researchers will find the higher floors to be of great interest. Level 9 houses the Chinese, Malay and Tamil Collection; Level 10 the Donors’ Collections; Level 11 the Singapore and Southeast Asian Collection, microfilms, and maps; and level 12 and 13 the Rare Materials Collection. Access to Levels 9-11 is open to the public; access to Levels 12-13 is only possible with permission from the Library. The reading rooms are open 10:00 am to 9:00 pm every day, but are closed on public holidays and close at 5:00 pm on the Christmas Eve, New Year and Chinese New Year.

The Library takes seriously its mission of preserving Singapore’s written heritage, as well as of educating the public, and so the researcher of Singapore will find extensive holdings of Singapore material freely available. For me, the highlight of the collection is the Microfilm Collection on level 11. The National Library of Singapore has made an effort to microfilm all of its older and more fragile holdings. While nothing beats holding the actual book or newspapers in one’s hands, being able to read them on microfilm and knowing they will be protected and preserved for future generations is a reasonable compromise. The researcher will find in the microfilms virtually complete runs of all of Singapore’s mainstream print media in all of its languages, as well as all official publications released under by the governments (both colonial and independent) such as the Parliamentary debates, gazettes, reports, maps and directories.

The microfilms sit in file cupboards in the middle of the huge, double-story reading room. Next to the cupboards is the newspaper database computer. To find newspapers on microfilm, go to the computer, search for the newspaper name and date, and write down the microfilm number on the pink request sheet provided. To find other documents on microfilm, search for them through the regular catalog search engine online or on any of the terminals scattered around the reading room. Often one will be searching for other documents, only to find that they are “For Reference Only” and will need to be requested at the service counter. If that happens, the staff will usually direct you to use the microfilm – look for the microfilm number in the catalog listing (it starts with “NL” and is followed by four or five digits).

You are allowed to draw up to eight microfilms at one time. Once you have written down the eight numbers, go to the shelves to pull out the microfilms and fill up the little green baskets helpfully provided. Then go to the counter nearby to be assigned a microfilm reader machine. You will need to show your ID – Singaporeans need their Identity Card; foreigners can show any form of government-issued ID. You will be assigned a reader in the microfilm reading room. To take a break (e.g. to go to lunch), bring your basket back to the counter and ask them to hold the microfilms for you.

The microfilm printers are in the photocopier room, around the corner. The friendly staff will be happy to help you print the microfilm. Be warned that printing microfilm is expensive – both A3 and A4 pages cost SGD$1 each (so try to print as much as you can on an A3 page), and you can only pay in cash (no cash cards or EZ-Link cards can be used, unlike the photocopiers). If you need to print a lot, the nearest ATMs are in the Bras Basah Complex, so draw money before you go up as it is a hassle to go all the way back down just to get cash.

The limitations of the microfilm collection are similar to what one will face in Singapore in general. Only publicly available documents are available, and many banned publications (for example, left-wing newspapers from the colonial period) are generally not held by the Library (although the odd issue might be). In addition, some newspapers were not scanned very well – the Sin Chew Jit Poh, for example, was scanned without removing the bar holding the newspapers’ spines together, so as one reads towards the inner edge, text slowly becomes indistinct. As many of the microfilms date from around 1980, Singapore’s tropical climate has turned the occasional microfilm into vinegar. Finally, expect rules to be enforced very strictly, especially the rule that no digital photography is allowed.

Finally, the comfort of the Library also makes it very, very popular. Because students love to go up to the cavernous Level 11 reading room to study, the Library has banned outside books from being brought in. Laptops and notepaper are fine, but you will not be able to bring in any reference books or bags in with you. Lockers are provided outside the reading room for your belongings. This has not stopped the tables being filled up with students. A few tables are set aside for researchers – request to use them at the service counter. The free Wireless@SG wifi is easily overwhelmed, so do not expect to have internet access on your laptop on a busy day. You can, however, pay by the minute for internet access on the internet terminals (a free user account is required). Lastly, exercise vigilance over your belongings – the reading rooms are very popular with thieves.

P.J. Thum
Postdoctoral Fellow
Asia Research Institute
National University of Singapore


Image:  National Library Building, Singapore. Wikimedia Commons.

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