Should the National Library Board have pulled the two books off the shelf?
July 10, 2014
The Singapore National Library Board (NLB) recently pulled two children’s books off their shelf (read the article here). One was about two male penguins that successfully hatch and raise a baby. This is based on a true incident that occurred at the New York Central Park Zoo. The other book is based around adopting children, with a single mother and a lesbian couple among the characters. Both were pulled out based on complaints from the public.
This decision is interesting as it comes in the light of the LBGT discussions in Singapore, where family values are being debated. But does that make the decision to pull the books off the shelf valid? Let us apply our strategic thinking methodology and see what the right decision should be.
In coming out with the intent of this decision, I first sifted the definitions of “library” online. One of the clear definitions is its role as repository of information. Information in all forms of media is kept in the library, which all users can access easily. Hence the main role of a library is its unrestricted access to information. As I journey down this track, I asked myself, “What would make a library ineffective?” The answer is simple: when it doesn’t have the information that people seek. Hence, the role of the library is to facilitate the flow of information, not to impede it. That, therefore must be the highest intent of any library. I assume it would be, too, for NLB.
1. The Singapore library exists within a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious ecosystem. As such, one of the major constraints is to ensure that it promotes healthy co-existence among the people. Its actions, therefore, cannot be divisive.
2. As equality is one of the pillars of Singapore, the NLB cannot be seen to be siding one person, or group of persons, over another. They have to respect all points of view. (Similar but not totally the same as Constraint #1)
3. The library promotes social values and norms. It cannot be a subversive element of society, one that corrupts social mores. It must therefore toe the establishment’s views of family values.
If indeed the intent is of facilitating the flow of information, then taking the books off the shelf already infringes it. The NLB should never have cowed to the demands of a single group of people, even if they were the majority. So what could they have done differently?
Teach users how to deal with conflicting information;
Segregate mainstream from alternative material;
Open a dialogue to help people accept different points of view;
Simply flat-out decline to take the books off the shelf and ride the furor
Balancing options with constraints
When we take each option and see which of the 3 constraints it would meet, we find Option 2 to be the best, with Option 1 following close behind. Option 2 – segregating mainstream from alternative - allows people to understand that the library does not take sides, and that a good library is one which offers information without pride or prejudice. And to toe the government’s line on family values, they can locate the more mainstream media front and centre, and the alternative ones to the sides. That way, the library would meet its intent of not impeding information.
So, should the NLB have pulled the two books off the shelf? Absolutely not!