An email response to a member of the public has now become a full-blown communication crisis for the National Library Board with junior officers groping for answers at a media briefing yesterday.
It was the email response from Tay Ai Cheng, NLB’s assistant chief executive and chief librarian, to Teo Kai Loon’s complaint that two children’s books were not pro-family – an euphemism to describe the LGBT community – that sparked the controversy.
The decision to take the books off the shelves was made in just two days – a surprise since one would have expected NLB to deliberate seriously before making up its mind on a thorny issue like this.
Then came yesterday’s media briefing fronted by Jasna Dhansukhlal, assistant director of Public Library Services.
Poor Dhansukhlal; she was sent into the lions’ den to face the music while her bosses were nowhere to be seen. Surely, this was a serious enough assignment for the chief librarian or the CEO to handle.
Reflecting the seriousness of the issue, Minister Yaacob Ibrahim jumped into the debate today to say the library has to reflect society’s norms.
Dhansukhlal’s stock answer to most of the questions was: I will get back to you on the details.
She could not explain satisfactorily how its staff review books, or why the banned books were allowed on the shelves in the first place.
It was also unclear if NLB had ever banned books that were not pro-family.
LAST CHANCE: Magdalene Boon, ex-primary school librarian, came to the public library to read White Swan Express before it was taken away.
Here are excerpts from the media conference:
Question: So NLB missed the two books [And Tango Makes Three and White Swan Express]?
Answer: I am not saying that.
Q: And Tango Makes Three is based on an actual story. Was this taken into account when NLB reviewed the book?
A: Yes, we read that. It’s in the book as well.
Q: So was that taken into account?
A: I would like to, at this point, invite you to have a look at the books themselves.
Q: How many librarians reviewed the banned books?
A: I do not have the numbers with me.
Q: So if books are not pro-family, NLB will remove them from the catalogue?
A: I think we will treat it the same way we would treat any other requests that I’ve mentioned. It is like… we have 20 requests in a year. When people write to us, we will review that title and go through it and see if you know, is the language there, or the content, or the graphics… or something else.
The biggest blunder at the press conference was for the officer to say that the banned books will be destroyed, raising images of book burning ordered by many world dictators of the past.
And then, as though as an afterthought, a statement came from NLB in the late evening, answering some of the questions that went unanswered at the media briefing.
- NLB receives over 20 requests from the public, but only bans less than one third of these books.
- The library is not against “alternative lifestyles.”
- “Our adult collection does contain titles with homosexual themes and our collection policy does not exclude materials on alternative lifestyles.”
- “NLB’s collection development policy takes special care of our children’s collections to ensure they are age-appropriate.”
With all this talk about the government admitting many times that it needs to get its communications act together, it is a surprise that an organisation like NLB is struggling to piece together a coherent strategy on an issue that could have been handled simply, smartly and efficiently.