Extension of library services (1953–1995)

In support of Singapore’s educational and cultural development, part-time branch libraries were started by the Raffles Library in the 1950s, with the first of these set up at Upper Serangoon in 1953.1 Stocked with books for juniors and adults, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, trade directories, reference books and fiction titles2 in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil,3 more part-time branch libraries were opened, up until 1981,4 to “make books go to the people" instead having people come to the books.5

This service was expanded in the 1960s with the introduction of mobile library services that brought books to schools and subsequently community centres in the rural areas.6 In 1970, the first full-time branch was opened in Queenstown as part of the National Library’s plans to decentralise its services,7 followed by the provision of special services like large print books and audio books.8

As more full-time branch libraries were opened, part-time branches started closing, with the last one closing in 1988.9 The mobile library service also ceased in 1991.10 In 1994, the Library 2000 Report was released. It envisaged a system of libraries in Singapore consisting of the National Reference Library, and a network of Regional Libraries and Public Libraries to be autonomously managed under a statutory board which would be established.11 Consequently, the National Library Board (NLB) was formed on 1 September 1995. With that, branch libraries came to be known as "Community Libraries".

The suggestion to establish branch libraries was mooted in as early as 1940, when the library was still known as the Raffles Library.12 Its first branch, a part-time branch library, was opened in Upper Serangoon in 1953 to bring the library closer to the people.13 Following that, three more part-time branch libraries were opened in the 1950s in Siglap,14 Joo Chiat15 and Yio Chu Kang.16 When the branch libraries in Upper Serangoon and Yio Chu Kang were closed in 1960,17 mobile library services were started in the 1960s to serve the people living in the more remote areas of Singapore.18

The mobile library service was rolled out by the National Library in September 1960 with the first mobile library truck, presented by UNESCO, servicing schools in the rural areas of Singapore.19 In July 1964, the mobile library service started providing books for home reading for adults and children at community centres in Tanjong Pagar and West Coast.20 Both mobile libraries and part-time branches operated under the Library Extension Services.21

Plans to decentralise library services were then announced in the National Library’s first annual report, which was released in 1964. The aim was to bring library facilities closer to those living outside of the city and reduce overcrowding at the National Library.22 The plan involved the deployment of more mobile libraries to rural areas and the acquisition of shop spaces to be converted into branch libraries within heavily populated areas. Larger branch libraries would also be progressively established in housing estates.23

Queenstown Branch Library, the first full-time branch library of the National Library, was opened by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 30 April 1970.24  In his opening speech, Lee said, “This branch library in Queenstown is a milestone in our rising standards of life. We shall have similar branch libraries in every major area like Toa Payoh, Katong, Jurong and Woodlands”.25 The next full-time libraries opened were Toa Payoh Branch Library on 7 February 1974,26 and Marine Parade Branch Library on 10 November 1978.27 Chai Chee Part-time Branch Library, the first library to operate from a rental shophouse, was opened on 9 November 1974. It was the largest part-time branch library opened by the National Library back then.28

The 1970s saw new services being introduced by the National Library and its branches. Instead of merely being a place for reading and borrowing books, libraries were transformed into educational, social and cultural centres through programmes such as storytelling, talks, exhibitions, music performances and interest groups for the community.29

To cater to the elderly and users with special needs and the elderly, the National Library announced in 1978 that it would incorporate wheelchair friendly features into the designs of future library buildings, including ground-level entrances, ramps and lifts. In addition, large-print books were introduced for those with weaker eyesight.30 Recordings of popular fiction and classics on tape for those with disabilities were also offered through its library extension section.31 Prior to this, in the mid-1960s, braille books and storytelling sessions were made available to the Singapore Association for the Blind.32

On 1 October 1981, Whampoa Part-time Branch Library, the first void deck library in Singapore, was opened.33 It was also the last part-time branch library under the National Library to be set up, in alignment with the National Library’s plans to transfer their members and functions to the full-time branch libraries. It was subsequently closed on 30 July 1987.34

In July 1983, four full-time branch libraries (Queenstown, Toa Payoh, Marine Parade and Bukit Merah) began offering audiovisual materials in a bid to reach out to users who were not inclined to reading books. Members could borrow audiovisual materials, such as videotapes and cassettes, and view or listen to them in the audio-visual rooms in the libraries. Each of the four branch libraries specialised in certain subjects in order to reduce the duplication of materials.35

In keeping with the plan to gradually phase out part-time libraries, Whampoa was closed on 30 July 1987.36 It was the second last part-time library to shut its doors. Subsequently, Jurong Part-time Branch Library was closed on 23 May 1988.37 Its closure marked the end of part-time library services under the National Library.

Owing to a large decrease in the number of books borrowed through the mobile library service over the years, this service was eventually stopped on 2 January 1991.38

The Library 2000 Review Committee released the report, “Library 2000: Investing in a Learning Nation”, on 5 March 1994.39 The report covered recommendations for the library system in Singapore, including a proposal to organise the library system into the National Reference Library, specialised reference libraries and a network of public libraries of varying sizes. In addition, the committee also recommended the establishment of a new statutory board, known as the National Library Board, to oversee the transformation of libraries in Singapore.40

Tampines Branch Library, renamed Tampines Regional Library,41 was officially opened on 3 December 1994. Besides being the ninth branch library, it was the first regional library in Singapore.42 By the end of March 1995, 10 full-time branches, including the Central Lending Library, had been established.43 The branches were each managed by a Head, and overseen by the Deputy Director of Public Services and the Director of the National Library.44

On 1 September 1995, the National Library Board was formed as a statutory board to spearhead and implement the recommendations in the Library 2000 report. Its role also includes the management of the National Library and the network of public libraries in Singapore.45 With the formation of the NLB, public libraries came under the management of a dedicated Public Library Services division, helmed by a Director.46

Goh Lee Kim

1. Raffles Museum and Library, Annual Report 1953 (Singapore: Raffles Museum and Library, 1953), 10 (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RAF); “Libraries for Rural Areas: First Set Up,” Singapore Free Press, 6 January 1954, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “This Is a Happy Suburb,” Singapore Free Press, 31 May 1954, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Upper Serangoon Folk Will Soon Have Their Own Library,” Singapore Free Press, 6 October 1951, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Bookworms’ Delight,” New Nation, 16 December 1981, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “This Is a Happy Suburb.”
6. Lydia Aroozoo, “The Reading Habit at Your Doorstep,” Singapore Free Press, 21 September 1960, 7; “New Bookmobile Service Gets Good Support,” Straits Times, 25 September 1964, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
7. K. K. Seet, A Place for the People (Singapore: Times Books International, 1983), 138. (Call no. RSING 027.55957 SEE-[LIB])
8. “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)
9. “Library to Close,” Straits Times, 18 May 1988, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Library to Close”; “National Library to Open on Sundays from Jan 2,” Straits Times, 25 November 1990, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Library 2000 Review Committee, Singapore, Library 2000: Investing in a Learning Nation: Report of the Library 2000 Review Committee (Singapore: SNP Publishers, 1994), 6–7, 67, 106, 109 (Call no. RSING q027.05957 SIN); “The National Library Board Bill,” Straits Times, 24 January 1995, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Improvements Plans for Raffles Library,” Straits Times, 10 May 1940, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Raffles Museum and Library, Annual Report 1953, 10; “Libraries for Rural Areas: First Set Up,” Singapore Free Press, 6 January 1954, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Now Siglap Gets Library,” Singapore Free Press, 23 June1954, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Seet, Place for the People, 105.
16. “Library for Yio Chu Kang Villagers,” Singapore Standard, 21 November 1956, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Seet, Place for the People, 120.
18. “New Mobile Library Service to Schools,” Singapore Free Press, 5 September 1960, 11 (From NewspaperSG); “New Bookmobile Service Gets Good Support.”
19. Aroozoo, “Reading Habit at Your Doorstep.” 
20. National Library Board, Singapore, Annual Report October 1963–September 1965 (Singapore: National Library, 1965), n.p. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 SIN) 
21. National Library Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1963 (Singapore: National Library, 1964), 8. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 SIN)
22. A. Lourdes, “A Library Right at Their Doorstep in Queenstown,” Straits Times, 8 February 1970, 10; “400,000 Readers Is Library Target,” Straits Times, 23 January 1964, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “400,000 Readers Is Library Target.”
24. Seet, Place for the People, 138.
25. Azizah Sidek et al., The People’s Library: 50 Years of National and Public Library Services (Singapore: National Library Board, 2007), 17. (Call no. RSING 027.55957 SIN-[LIB]
26. National Library Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1974 (Singapore: National Library, 1975), 11 (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RLSAR); “Services at Library,” Straits Times, 8 February 1974, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Library to Have recording Booths By ‘80s,” Straits Times, 11 November 1978, 9; “Third Branch Library,” Straits Times, 4 November 1978, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Library Network to Promote Reading Habit,” Straits Times, 10 November 1974, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Ismail Kassim, “Making Libraries Social and Cultural Centres,” New Nation, 21 May 1974, 4; Lee Geok Boi, “Mad Rush When the Library Van Comes,” Straits Times, 14 July 1979, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “Street Level Entry for All Libraries.”
31. “Library Caters for the Disabled Too,” Straits Times, 9 March 1979, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
32. National Library Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1965 (Singapore: National Library, 1966), 10. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 SIN)
33. “Bookworms’ Delight.”
34. “Around Your Place Information Service,” Straits Times, 24 July 1987, 21 (From NewspaperSG); National Library Board, Singapore, Annual Report 1987/1988 (Singapore: National Library Board, 1988), 6. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 SIN)
35. Hedwig Alfred, “Library to Start Audio-Video Loan Scheme,” Straits Times, 13 May 1983, 1; “Libraries to Offer More Audio-visual Services Soon,” Straits Times, 3 December 1981, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
36. National Library (Singapore), Annual Report 1987/1988 (National Library (Singapore)) (Singapore: National Library, 1988), 37. (From BookSG)
37. “Library to Close.”
38. “National Library to Open on Sundays from Jan 2.”
39. Library 2000 Review Committee, Singapore, Library 2000, 5; Geraldine Kan, New-Age Public Libraries With Global Reach Planned,”  Straits Times, 7 March 1994, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
40. Library 2000 Review Committee, Singapore, Library 2000, 6–7, 12, 106, 109.
41. “Tampines: The Branch Library of the Future,” Straits Times, 18 March 1993, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
42. “Branch Library of the Future”; “Protocol Thrown to the Wind,” New Paper, 6 December 1994, 29 (From NewspaperSG); National Library (Singapore), Annual Report 1993/1994 (Singapore: National Library, 1995), 15. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RLSAR-[AR])
43. National Library (Singapore), Annual Report 94/95 (Singapore: National Library, 1995), 12. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RLSAR-[AR])
44. National Library (Singapore), Annual Report 93/94 (Singapore: National Library, 1994), 20. (Call no. RCLOS 027.55957 RLSAR-[AR])
45. “Bill to Give National Library Wider Role,” Straits Times, 2 March 1995, 19; “The National Library Board Bill,” Straits Times, 24 January 1995, 22 (From NewspaperSG); National Library Board, Singapore, National Library Board (Corporate Brochure) (Singapore: National Library Board, 1999), 3. (Call no. RSING q027.55957 SIN)
46. National Library Board, Singapore, A Learning Nation, A Thinking Nation: Annual Report 1997/1998 (Singapore: National Library Board, 1998)

The information in this article is valid as at April 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.

Public libraries
Public libraries--Singapore--History