MCI Quizzed in the House Over the Removal of Three Books

national library
The National Library's forayer during a moment of quiet.
Last month, there was a public outcry over the National Library Board pulling three books its catalogue after a "concerned member of the public" complained that the books were not "pro family." As expected, this outcry has spilled over to parliament where several MPs filed parliamentary questions in a bid to satiate the public's demand for answers of the matter. Here are the parliamentary questions and the Ministry of Communications and Information's subsequent replies in full:
Dr Lim Wee Kiak: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information with the recent removal of three children's books from the National Library (a) what system is in place to screen the content of all books at the National Library before they are released for lending to the public; and (b) what are the general guidelines for a book to be cleared before it is put up for public lending.
Mr Nicholas Fang: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information whether there is a standard procedure for statutory boards such as the National Library Board for the communication of decisions that can potentially have significant social impact such as the recent move to remove three titles from the National Library's children's section.
Ms Janice Koh: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) how can the process of content regulation for publications be made more transparent to the public; (b) whether NLB can publish a quarterly list of challenged, withdrawn and reclassified books in the National Library; and (c) whether MDA can publish a quarterly list of publications that have been prohibited from sale by booksellers.
Ms Janice Koh: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) what are the roles and objectives of the National Library; (b) whether NLB's collection policy should be subject to existing community norms; and (c) as a member of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), how is NLB committed to upholding its core values of free and equitable access to information, ideas and works of imagination.
Ms Faizah Jamal: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) whether the review process for library materials will include a notice on the NLB website of withdrawn books and the reasons for so doing for transparency; (b) who are the external parties envisaged in the review process that will be invited to give feedback to NLB; (c) whether he can give an assurance that this exercise will be as diverse and inclusive in terms of views and that it will be open and transparent and for the public to be continually informed; and (e) whether he will give an assurance that NLB will remain secular in all its procurement of library materials and in its policies and decisions.
Assoc Prof Tan Kheng Boon Eugene: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) what are the learning points from the National Library Board's recent withdrawal of three titles from its children's collection; (b) what are the "community norms" in Singapore that guide NLB in the acquisition and review of titles for its collection; and (c) how the NLB can avoid being caught in future contests over values.
Mr Pritam Singh: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information if he will (i) explain NLB's selection processes governing the purchase and classification of books for circulation and if there is a dedicated selection committee to oversee this process; (ii) clarify whether the book entitled "Who's in My Family" that was pulped was approved by this selection committee or any other individual or committee before appearing on the shelves for the public to access; and (iii) explain what procedures were followed and what committees were consulted before NLB arrived at the decision to pulp the book.
Mr Baey Yam Keng: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) what are the gaps that have been identified in the National Library Board's book acquisition and review processes in addressing public complaints; (b) what are the current guidelines for book disposal, including pulping, and whether they will be reviewed; and (c) how does NLB promote the active involvement of parents in book selections for their children.
Minister Yacob Ibrahim's Response
1  I thank members for their questions. My response would be in three parts; first, I will touch on the library’s role in society; second, I will discuss NLB’s processes and how these might be improved; and third, how we move on from this episode.
The Role of the Library
2    Our libraries serve Singaporeans of all ages from all walks of life. To promote reading, learning and information literacy, NLB maintains comprehensive and high quality collections for the reference library, for the adult sections of the public library, and for the children’s section of the public library. NLB recognises that its collections must cater to a broad range of interests, tastes, reading levels, cultural and social backgrounds. NLB also recognises that its role goes beyond providing a place for reading. It strives to provide spaces where communities can come together and learn together.
3    NLB cannot impose a one-size-fits-all approach to its different collections. The Lee Kong Chian Reference Library at the National Library provides a comprehensive collection of library materials, with a special emphasis on Singapore, to preserve our cultural heritage and to support research. Its materials are housed in the reference library and are not for loan. Its content guidelines allow for an extensive range of ideas and opinions.
4    NLB’s approach for the adult’s section of the library is that it will be in compliance with Singapore laws and regulations. It will therefore not acquire publications that are prohibited under the Undesirable Publications Act. It will also not acquire publications that incite hate or violence, or cast aspersions on any racial or religious groups, for example.
5    It is impossible to keep every known title in its collection. Some curation is required, and NLB is guided by the principle of maintaining a comprehensive and high quality collection. Materials in the adult’s collection will also not be inhibited by the possibility that materials may be accessible to children or teenagers. It is NLB’s philosophy that the responsibility for guiding and directing the use of such materials by children and teenagers rests with their parents or guardians.
6    With the children’s section of the public libraries, NLB adopts a more cautious approach. The children’s library covers a wide range of developmental stages and reading levels, from 0 to 12 years. NLB encourages parents to actively partner their children in their reading or their visits to the library. However, it must also be recognised that in reality, for many different reasons, it is not possible for kids in the children’s library to be supervised at all times. Many will thus browse the shelves unsupervised. NLB also recognises that many pre-schools organise visits to its libraries, and in those situations, a whole class will be supervised by a few teachers. Titles from the children’s collection are also provided to some pre-schools and kindergartens, to help them provide greater variety of books in their kindergarten libraries.
7    For this reason, NLB’s approach is to take special care in its children’s collection, to ensure that the books are age-appropriate. The assessment of age-appropriateness should take into account community norms. For example, we observed from the 2013 Our Singapore Conversation survey that 55% of the 4,000 respondents surveyed rejected same sex marriage, compared to 24% who were neutral and 21% who accepted same sex marriage.
8    It is not NLB’s mandate to challenge or seek to change these norms. Community norms are subjective and will evolve over time, especially as our society becomes increasingly diverse. A REACH survey conducted after the NLB decision was first made known showed that 52% of respondents agree that books promoting values that are not in line with traditional family values should not be made available in the children’s section of the public libraries. A further 23% were neutral on the issue, and 21% disagreed.
9    The Government pays close attention to community norms. This is the right approach. We will continue to run polls from time to time, and actively listen to how Singaporeans debate various issues. Therefore, we must also enhance our processes to ensure that our collections best meet community norms. I will speak more about this later.
10   The NLB is an active member of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). IFLA has members from over 150 countries with diverse cultures, as well as government and legal structures. By adopting a differentiated approach for the reference, adult’s, and children’s libraries, NLB seeks to apply the principles and philosophy of IFLA, adapted to the local context. This is because in every society, libraries must be responsible to the communities they serve.
NLB’s Selection and Review Processes
11   Let me now touch on the queries regarding NLB’s selection and review processes.
12   The NLB runs a wide network of 25 public libraries across Singapore, with about 35 million loans per year. To make sure Singaporeans’ reading demands are met, the libraries bring in about a million new items a year.
13   Within NLB, there is a team of selectors. To ensure new books are made available in a timely manner as expected by NLB’s patrons, selectors refer to reviews and synopses to decide what the library should buy. With the high volume, it is not possible to read every book from cover to cover during the selection process.
14   NLB also considers public feedback in building up its collection. Any member of the public can submit a recommendation for a book that is not in the collection.
15   Now, let me explain the book review process. There are two ways NLB reviews its collections.
16   First, NLB regularly reviews about 5,000 books a year internally. This is part of NLB’s regular work in putting together booklists for their programmes and festivals. Secondly, the public may also provide feedback on books to be reviewed. Each year, NLB receives about twenty such requests. Regardless of whether the review is initiated internally, or via public feedback, the book will be read by staff, supplemented by research based on book reviews and recommendations in trade journals. NLB staff also make reference to lists such as the American Libraries Association’s list of challenged books. They then make recommendations to withdraw or retain the books for final decision through an internal approval process.
17   Mr Pritam Singh asked specifically about the book Who’s In My Family. That book was reviewed through the process I described.
18   Let me touch on the issue of how books are disposed of. To date, it has been NLB’s standard practice to recycle books when they are torn or worn. They therefore applied this same practice to books withdrawn on the basis of content that is not age-appropriate. The REACH survey showed that while 52% of respondents agreed that books that promote values not in line with traditional family values should not be made available in the children’s section of the public libraries, only 22% thought that the books should be destroyed. I think that was a reasonable point of view. It reflects a deep-seated respect in our culture for the written word. It is for this reason that I had asked NLB to transfer And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express to the Adult’s section. NLB’s key objective in ensuring the children’s library is age-appropriate can still be achieved.
19   I am confident that NLB has learnt from this episode, and will improve its processes. Let me highlight three important areas.
20   First, NLB will ensure that the team selecting books for acquisition and the team reviewing books are different. At the moment, this is not clearly spelt out. It is a good practice to segregate these responsibilities and I believe it will also lead to greater public confidence in the review process.
21   Second, we should retain the existing system in which NLB staff make professional judgements on the suitability of a title for any collection. Making such assessments is not an exact science. It would be most regrettable if NLB staff making such assessments as part of their duty, and acting in good faith, are attacked by those who are unhappy that a particular decision did not go their way. This is why I had announced that NLB should set up an advisory panel, to help NLB staff to take into account the broader concerns of the community.  Such a committee should represent a cross-section of society, and include members from the literary community.  An advisory panel will also help improve the communication of the rationale for review decisions – something Mr Nicholas Fang raised. This is also the experience of the Media Development Authority, which relies on various consultative panels to provide input to its classification decisions.
22   NLB will be working out further details of the advisory panel in the weeks to come.
23   Third, NLB will establish a clear process to deal with books that have to be withdrawn. For books that are in good condition but were withdrawn due to controversial content, NLB would consider other options than pulping.  I do not want to prejudge their review, but one possibility is to place them in a more appropriate section of the library for lending as was finally done in this case. Other possibilities are to place them in the reference library, or to put them up for sale or donation.
Regulation of Publications
24   Ms Janice Koh has asked if NLB could publish a list of challenged books, and if MDA could similarly publish a list of publications that are prohibited from sale.
25   Let me address the queries pertaining to MDA in the area of regulation for publications. The publications industry is largely self-regulated. In assessing whether a publication is suitable for importation or distribution, importers, local publishers and retailers refer to content guidelines issued by MDA and the Undesirable Publications Act (UPA). These documents can be found on MDA’s website. MDA also engages importers and local publishers regularly, to ensure that they are aware of the content guidelines.
26   MDA steps in when there are public feedback or complaints, or when importers refer publications to MDA for advice. If MDA assesses that a publication is in breach of the UPA or content guidelines, MDA would advise the importer or retailer not to import or distribute the publication.
27   Given that importers, publishers and retailers by and large self-regulate based on the UPA and content guidelines, it would not be meaningful to publish a quarterly list of publications that have been disallowed for sale.
28   In NLB’s case, the immediate priority should be to establish the advisory panel, which can complement NLB’s review process. At this point, NLB has not decided whether to publish a list of challenged titles.
29   I would reiterate that this would not be the last time public institutions like NLB would face such controversy. We have learnt much from this experience and we will continue to work with Singaporeans, such as those who will be appointed to NLB’s advisory panel, to better understand and balance the different views of different groups.
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