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Mar 5, 2013

Singapore's National Library

National Library, Stamford Road, Singapore

The National Library traces its history back to the establishment of the first public library as a result of suggestions by Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. This library, renamed the Hullett Memorial Library in 1923, was co-located with Singapore's first school, Raffles Institution, at a site now occupied by the Raffles City complex. It moved to a separate Library and Museum Building in 1887 under the name of Raffles Library as part of the Raffles Museum, before moving to the Stamford Road premises in 1960 under the name of the National Library of Singapore.

In a previous blog "Reminiscence of National Library at Stamford Road" here .

On 30 April 2010,  Mrs Hedwig Anuar celebrated the 40th Anniversary of Queestown Public Library .

Mrs Hedwig Anuar, the first Director of the National Library of Singapore from 1960 to the end of 1988 when she retired, had written an article on "Singapore's National Library" in The Straits Times Annual for 1962 to share on this blog.

Mrs Hedwig Anuar, Director of the National Library in 1962
Singapore's National Library is the youngest of all national libraries in Asia since it was established as such only in April 1958 when the Raffles National Library Ordinance of 1957 came into operation.  The history of the Library, however, goes back as far as 1823 when it was formed as an integral part of the Singapore Institution, better known as Raffles Institution.

At that time it was a subscription library open only to boys attending the school and their parents.  In 1844 these restrictions were removed and it became known as the "Singapore Library".

In 1849 a Museum was added to the Library and in 1874 the Government took over control, renaming it "Raffles Museum and Library".

The books were housed in a succession of buildings until 1887 when the present Museum and former Library buildings until 1887 when the present Museum and former Library buildings in Stamford Road were erected.  The Library moved into them in 1916.  The Library remained under the control of the Director of the Raffles Museum and Library until January 1955 when the administration of the Library was separated from that of the Museum.

At that time the State Archives and the publications deposited under the Printers and Publishers Ordinance were also passed into the care of the Director of Raffles Library, thus giving it a national character that was to take concrete shape in 1958.

With the extension of the Library came the recognition of the need to provide a new building.  The first move towards a new building came in 1953 from Mr. Lee Kong Chian who donated $375,000 towards a new building on condition that the government should contribute a similar amount, that the library should be made available to the public without charge and that books in the languages commonly spoken in Singapore and in European languages other than English be provided.

On August 17, 1957, the foundation stone of the new building which cost a total of $2,300,000 was laid by Mr. Lee Kong Chian.  Various delays held up the completion of the building, but finally on November 12, 1960 the completed new National Library building was declared open by H.E. the Yang di-Pertuan Negara, Inche Yusof bin Ishak.

The new building was designed by architects of the Government Public Works Department in consultation with the former Director, Mr L. M. Harrod, F.L.A., who retired in January 1960.  The total floor area of the building is approximately 101,500 square feet.  It has a reinforced concrete framed structure with brick walls.  The external walls are of selected bricks with cement pointings.

On the ground floor are the exhibition hall, adult lending library, Braille library; children's library and children's activities room for story-hous, puppet shows and so on, a lecture hall with seating accommodation for 200 people, which is hired out for lectures, concerts, film shows and other meetings and cataloguing and other work departments.

Administrative offices, including those of the Director, Deputy Director, Secretary, staff library and training room are on the mezzanine floor.

The first floor holds the reference library, study carrels for the use of research workers making use of the archives or other reference material, microfile reading room, a conference room which can seat 50 people comfortably and is used for meetings of local societies and associations on a hire basis, the open reading room used as a quiet study and homework room for use by secondary school students, and the office of the Dewan Bahasa dan Kebudayaan Kebangsaan, which will be temporarily housed in the National Library.

In addition, there is a five-storeyed stack for the State Archives.  The building has been designed in such a way that an additional stack can be built alongside each floor as and when it becomes necessary.  The stacks are not directly accessible to the public, but a book lift will convey books to readers on each floor.

Originally, the whole building was to be air-conditioned, but this plan was given up as too expensive, so that only the work departments and lecture hall on the ground floor, the mezzanine and first floors, and the stacks are now air-conditioned.

There is ample provision in the new library building for future expansion.  The building has solved the problem of accommodation for books (estimated capacity 250,000 volumes) and for readers for years to come.  The adult lending library can seat about 100.  The stack rooms do not have any seating accommodation provided as they are for reference only.

The book shelves were constructed of local balau timber, graded and painted with an insecticide solution to help preserve tho books.  Local dark red meranti timber was mainly used for the furniture which was made by the Singapore Prisons Department.  Steel shelving was used in the stacks.

Singapore's National Library is probably unique in being simultaneously a national and a free public library.  Besides serving as a lending and reference library, it houses the State Archives, collects materials published about Singapore, Malaya and the surrounding countries, and preserves and records all books and periodicals published in Singapore.

The Library's book stock now totals 170,000 volumes, of which over 17,000 are in Chinese, over 3,600 are in Malay and Indonesian and over 3,000 in Tamil.  The number of books in Malay, Chinese and Tamil is a very small proportion of the total stock, but this is because books in these languages began to be provided only from the end of 1956.

The importance of increasing the provision of books in Chinese, Malay and Tamil for the largely non-English educated section of the population has been recognised, and in 1960 the total number of books bought in these languages exceeded, for the first time in the history of the Library, the number of English books that were bought in that year.

There are more than 40,000 books in the Children's Library and over 10,000 in the Reference Library.  In addition, the Library subscribes to about 400 current periodicals and 500 annuals, has over 4,000 pieces of sheet music and scores, nearly 200 Braille books for the blind and nearly 1,000 microfilms.

The improved facilities of the new building have resulted in a record increase in membership since the operation of the library in its new premises.  Within three months of the move to the new building, the adult membership had shot up from over8,000 to over 11,000 while membership of the children's library had increased even more rapidly from over 19,000 to over 24,000.  This public response augurs promisingly for the continuing development of the Library and of public library services in Singapore.

The new National Library building will in time be the headquarters of a network of library services for the whole of Singapore.

A children's mobile library, which was donated by Unesco in 1957, began operating in September 1960.  At the start it served 2,000 children in schools in the rural areas who would otherwise have had no opportunity of borrowing books.  The number of children served by this mobile library has now increased to 5,000.

Mobile libraries for the adult population are being planned which will bring the library within reach of many in Singapore's densely populated housing estates and rural areas.  The Library also plans to have deposit collection in community centres which would be maintained by voluntary staff.

The future development of the National Library and its services must be towards expansion into new fields so that the Library will eventually serve everybody in the community, from children at school to research workers and readers with special interests.  The Library must endeavour to help satisfy the thirst for knowledge, for education, for economic and social advance, which are apparent not only in Singapore but also in all the neighbouring countries in Asia.

In these times of challenge, the National Library has a very important role to play in stimulating and satisfying the need for wider horizons in the social, cultural and economic life of Singapore.


The Reference Library is one of the best in South-East Asia.  Housed on the second floor, it is air-conditioned and seating can be provided for 160.
 Source: The Straits Times Annual, 1962

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