library@chinatown: A Library with the People, for the People

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On 31 January 2013, the National Library Board (NLB) added a new shopping mall library to its network of 25 public libraries. Although mall libraries have been around since 1996, lib​rary@chinatown became the first themed, mall library on Chinese arts and culture that was co-developed with and managed by the community, for the community. Rental and fit-out cost of the library was sponsored by CP1 Pte Ltd while its five-year operating cost was sponsored by the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. The concept of this library was co-developed by NLB and an advisory team of 12 experts on Chinese arts and culture, while its day-to-day operations were helmed by volunteers.

The central idea of this library was built upon the Chinese character 学 'xue' which means 'to learn'. For library users, it expressed the pursuit of knowledge and the spirit of scholarship, both common values found in Chinese culture. For NLB, it symbolised the organisation’s approach towards continuous learning and re-invention, where it actively learns and adapts to changes.


The idea of a library in Chinatown came about when Chinatown Point underwent major renovations after it was bought by Perennial Real Estate Holdings, the parent company of CP1 Pte Ltd. Located at the busy junction of New Bridge Road and Upper Cross Street, the new owners wanted to refurbish this landmark and give it a new lease of life. Their intention was to target middle-class customers and design the mall around an oriental theme. As part of the strategy to create vibrancy and traffic, a mixed development was planned where tenants would comprise fashion retailers, travel agencies, traditional Chinese retail outlets, eateries, and even a public library. With the co-location of a public library, the developer was eligible for the Community/Sports Facilities Scheme1 which allowed it to acquire additional gross floor area (GFA), beyond the allowable GFA. The 311, 725 sq ft mall with an initial number of 220 tenants was eventually renovated at a cost of $90 million.

For these reasons, CP1 Pte Ltd suggested to NLB that it would like to allocate space for a library in Chinatown Point, and pay for the library's fit-out (including design, build, equipment, IT and collections) cost. While NLB was quick to welcome this idea, it also faced a dilemma. It was sensitive to Singapore's racial society and wondered if there would be repercussions if it agreed to the developer's proposal. On the subject of ethnic fairness alone, NLB considered the implications of accepting the project, in particular, would there be criticisms on why NLB should choose to set up only a library on Chinese arts and culture, instead of also planning for libraries on Malay culture and Indian culture.

Fortuitously, the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, a Buddhist temple that has a history dating back to 1884, decided to sponsor the five-year operating cost (such as enhancement and refreshing of collection, development and organisation of programmes to promote Chinese art and culture, and other costs such as utilities and site maintenance) of running the library. Although the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple is located at Waterloo Street in central Singapore, a distance from Chinatown, it is active in charity work and had been involved in other library projects before and believed in the importance of libraries as a social and community space. The Temple decided that this would be a meaningful contribution.

The eager participation from both a commercial organisation (CP1 Pte Ltd) and a non-profit organisation (Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple) gave NLB the impetus, inspiration and justification to agree to the development of library@chinatown. With this experiment, it is open to exploring similar collaborations.


The concept of this library was co-developed by a team led by an NLB librarian and 12 experts on Chinese arts and culture. Known within NLB as members of the literati, these 12 experts comprised educators, academia, and media experts from local Chinese media organisations, the Ministry of Education, local universities, arts school, and business council. Together, they advised NLB on the library concept and co-created some of its core elements with NLB. Some of the core elements that they worked on were the target audience, collection scope, and library name.

Deciding on target audience

The team mulled over the definition of the library's target segment and its positioning. Although library@chinatown was intended as a niche library that carried the same brand signature as library@orchard and library@esplanade, unlike its predecessors, the team decided that library@chinatown should include children amongst its target audience and develop a children's collection. It was felt that Chinese culture is passed from old to young and often, grandparents do bring their grandchildren to the libraries. To encourage bonding between generations, a children's collection was added to library@chinatown. This library was positioned as a public library and not a research library so that the everyone and anyone can access the library to discover Chinese arts and culture, regardless of race and language.

Developing the collection

Once the target audience and library positioning were determined, the team streamlined the theme of 'arts and culture' to define its scope of coverage. For example, within the domain of Chinese literature, it was decided that collections for the library should include books from Chinese classics up to the Qing dynasty period, and post-1950s literature. The team chose specific subject areas and genres, as well as recommended titles to include within the collection. The collection covers subjects such as painting, ceramics, literature, food, festivals, history, etc.

Another significant milestone in the library's development was the idea to collect books that showed how other cultures influenced Chinese culture, and vice versa. Specifically, library@chinatown has titles on Straits Chinese culture, also known as Peranakan culture. Peranakan is a term used for descendants of 15th and 16th century immigrants to Malaya, many of whom have married locals, hence, developing a new culture that is a combination of Chinese and Malay. Although the original intent was to only collect Chinese and English translated books, the team felt that by including Malay translations of Chinese classics and Tamil translations of Chinese short stories and folklore in the collection, this would create access to knowledge about Chinese arts and culture among a larger pool of non-Chinese language readers.

Naming the library (唐城图书馆or 牛车水图书馆)

When deciding on the Chinese name of the library, the team considered 'Tang city' (唐城) and 'bullock cart water'(牛车水), which was a literal translation of the Malay words 'kreta ayer'. During the 19th and early 20th century, bullock carts were the main modes of transportation, and often used to transport water to the locals. It was common during that time to see bullock carts transport water to people in Chinatown, and the name stuck. 牛车水 became specific to the Chinatown in Singapore. Although it seemed logical to differentiate the library and choose牛车水图书馆 as the official Chinese name of the library, the team eventually picked 唐城图书馆. Team members felt that this was a better name because it captured the vision and identity of the library which is to be a channel where everyone can learn about Chinese culture. The Tang period was China's renaissance, an era where Chinese arts and culture flourished. It was also a time of great cultural exchange as travels through land (the silk route) and sea routes peaked – Chinese culture was exported to Japan and Korea while Arabic culture came to China.


Customer-centricity and community engagement began to take on a new dimension in library@chinatown. Besides just delivering library services that were congruent to user needs and desires, NLB began to allow its volunteers to perform core functions previously provided by third party vendors. Volunteers now conduct shelf-reading, assist in the shelving of books, provide programme logistics, and clear the Bookdrop. Clad in volunteer t-shirts, they also became the library's custodian and ambassadors, reminding users to pick up after themselves. NLB hoped that, over time, they would become part of the library experience. With no librarians to intervene on proper usage of the library or be a point of authority on library collections and services, users of the library@chinatown would only have themselves and the shared values of the community to sustain the library experience.


NLB's process of engaging stakeholders and volunteers started eighteen years ago. In its first decade of re-inventing learning in libraries, NLB had used physical environments and technology to re-engineer the way people perceived and used libraries. Mall libraries have since become part of the people's lifestyle. Towards the end of its second decade, NLB has begun to reap benefits from its earlier engagement strategies. Besides requests from the private sector and the community to be involved in public libraries, its volunteer base has also grown significantly. For the library@chinatown, it started with 40 volunteers which increased to 60 volunteers after a year. Today, NLB works with the community to co-create libraries that they want to be part of, and to set the tone for co-delivering the type of services that they expect in their libraries.


NLB's vision of Libraries for Life is one where libraries are built by the people, for the people. With each library project, NLB faced different challenges but also gained new insights. An early lesson was that its publics are diverse with many varied needs. NLB had created themed libraries that cater to specific segments but with finite resources, themed libraries would not be able to address every single segment nor meet every need. There could be factors which could not be controlled or anticipated, such as those related to user behavior in the library, and the organisation had to respond and learn along the way.

Another lesson was the challenge of sustaining volunteer involvement. Volunteer motivation was easily influenced by lifestyle changes, competing interests, and phase of life developments. Volunteers wanted flexibility in terms of volunteer schedule rather than comply with a structured time plan. They also preferred not to do shift work. The extent of engagement by volunteers had to be developed and cultivated over time when trust between volunteers and NLB deepens.

While NLB had hoped that volunteers running a library provided another path for volunteers to give back to society and foster social resilience, it also opened itself up to criticisms. Some disapproved of volunteers running operations in public libraries because they were seen as free labour for the government. Then, there were others who suggested that if the government was to ask for volunteers, then they should be better deployed in sectors such as healthcare and social services as these were felt to be more important areas compared to the library. The degree in which the community would take on the library as their own continues to be tested daily.

The relationship among library stakeholders, the community, and the library was changing. The participation and involvement of all parties could never be taken for granted. NLB hoped to find new ways to deepen its relationship with its stakeholders and the community.


Dr June Gwee is Principal Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College, Singapore. This case study was adapted and re-written from "A Library for the People: A Case Study of the National Library Board" by June Gwee and Neo Boon Siong (March 2013). The Institute of Governance and Policy is a node for research on strategic policy issues facing Singapore. It aims to further new insights, catalyse thought leadership in the Public Service, and advance Singapore's public governance model.


1Urban Redevelopment Authority,, date last accessed: 7 Apr 2014