The National Library Board (NLB) has been in the spotlight this week with its controversial withdrawal of two children’s books on the grounds that they are not aligned to the “pro-family” philosophy championed by the board.
To paint the background in broad strokes, the two books portray same-sex couples either rearing young or adopting a child, because at least one member of the public has lodged a complaint against them. NLB’s response was to remove the books from circulation, and the response to this concerned member of public was circulated online, reportedly two days after the deed.
Many people who have learnt of this have expressed disappointment, disgust and puzzlement, with more than a handful penning their responses through social media and emails to the executive who seems to have made the decision to withdraw the two books in question.
In response, those in support of NLB’s actions also took to the Internet, encouraging more from the “silent majority” to voice their support for NLB. It does looks as if NLB will have its hands full from now on, acceding to a flood of such requests.
As of yesterday, NLB held a media briefing to selected media and declared that the books will not be reinstated, and that they will be destroyed. It also stated that its collection policy “does not exclude materials on alternative lifestyles”. It also indicated that its pro-family stance “was in line with that of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Social and Family Development”.
“Trusted and accessible” library, or information filter?
While the incident itself may seem localised, the implications of the NLB’s actions are rather far-reaching and open the door to insidious consequences. If people can merely complain against a book whose content they do not agree with – and the NLB is willing to remove the books based on that localised complaint, then the removal of a great many books can be easily justified. As some point out, “Cinderella” portrays a family unit driven by abuse and “Hansel &Gretel” portrays kidnapping. Would that be justification enough to remove these timeless classics from the library shelves?
The underlying issue is whether the library is a repository of information or an authority of content. Unless there are laws being infringed upon, there is no reason to meddle with the virtues of a storybook, regardless of whether they are for children’s eyes or not. Moral values are the domain of the parents and books can be exposed to their respective children according to their belief systems – the job of the library then is to make all books available to all parents so that they can choose the ones they deem relevant or appropriate.
Question of impartiality
The public still has not been given a clear picture on why and how the fate of these two books were decided. A casual reading of the circumstances leads one to conclude that it was linear – we received a complaint, we removed. Or worse, that a single executive at the NLB made the decision. In either case, the vetting procedure seriously needs a relook because it reveals major lapses in due process. Even the explanation provided in a Q&A report carried by Channel NewsAsia sheds no light.
The NLB cannot afford to come across as making unilateral decisions with regard to the content of its literature, nor can it be so easily manipulated to the whims and fancies of interest groups. On the contrary, the public institution is accountable for the interests of many – from the activists to the academics, across races, cultures and philosophies.
NLB needs to understand that the removal of any book, while satisfying the wishes of some, necessarily means that some will feel unwelcomed at the library, which would only serve to replicate elements of apartheid. As it is, the latest incident drew the ire of not just the LGBT community, as most would expect, but rebuttals from heterosexual families. Ironic, then, that NLB’s “pro-family” position has basically been rejected by those it claims to support.
The Streisand Effect
Perhaps the real irony is that a whole population of Singaporeans are now aware of the two books taken down – arguably, many would have seen the video adaptation of “And Tango Makes Three”, learnt about the authors who are a real-life same-sex couple, and read up on the original non-homophobic true story on which the storybook is based on. Some have even come together to organise a reading event to share the removed books, at the very doorstep of the NationalLibrary, no less.
This essentially would have had the opposite effect of what the complainant had wished for – the books to be not accessible to children in general. As the books themselves are not banned in any way here, it is fairly easy to get your hands on copies, either through non-NLB libraries or purchase.
Time to right the wrong
Any which way you look at it, this has been an abysmal handling of the complaint and the action puts the NLB in bad light. However, unlike other types of shortcomings and oversight, there is no need here for staff to be cautioned or even the concerns of the complainant to be marginalised. On the other hand, NLB must reassure the public that it safeguards the interests of all visitors and potential visitors of the library – which is just about anyone in Singapore.
It could have taken a balanced approach by keeping these two books physically on a high shelf or moving it out of the children’s section altogether. It could have added a disclaimer or advisory notice to inform parents that the content may make young readers uncomfortable. Or, it could have simply adopted the approach that controversial content is part and parcel of library collections – even in the children’s section. A more democratic approach of resolving the issue though would have been to conduct a survey to see how the majority of Singaporeans actually felt about the books in question.
But not managing this creatively cannot possibly be NLB’s worst suit. After all, its stated mission is “to make knowledge come alive, spark imagination and create possibilities”. Sadly, the removal of these two books, while making an issue come alive, is very much against creating possibilities.
As it stands, leaving it as it is and waiting for the aftermath to blow over is certainly not the best way to move forward. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case right now with the NLB not really providing any justification or even replying properly to queries – worse, it is going to now actively destroy the books.
Whether the NLB likes it or not, this has become a watershed situation which will underpin public faith in the library as a public institution for the people, rather than a champion for specific interests.