• A Recent Visit to our National Library – Some Worrying Observations

    Recently, I had to get my hands on some education statistics and the only place where I could locate some of this data was at the National Library.[1] The National Library is located just off Jalan Tun Razak, near Jalan Semarak in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The first and only time I had been to the National Library was in the last 1990s, after completing my studies in the UK. I remember the grand entrance into the library but recalled little of the books and reading materials.

    My visit in December 2012, which took place over a few days, illustrated, in a microcosm, what is wrong with the way the country is currently being governed and administered. Despite its sizeable overall budget of RM54 million in 2013, the flagship library of the National Library system is disappointingly poorly designed and not public friendly, focuses on the wrong priorities, has poor ‘software’ and is not representative of a truly ‘national’ library.

    Poor design and not public friendly

    For a National Library that is supposed to promote a culture of reading, only two floors out of 3 buildings were dedicated to books and materials which the public could borrow. And both these floors were located in Wisma Sejarah, which is to be found at the very back of the National Library.[2]

    Most of the public libraries I’ve been to in the US have their borrowing section on the ground floor of the main library building so that the public can have easy access to these books. It’s not really convenient for people to trudge all the way to the back of the library complex and go up to the third or fourth floor of the building to borrow and return books.

    Even getting to this building was tricky. We had to walk through the front of the main library complex (Anjung Bestari) to the back and there were no signs as to where exactly Menara Warisan Sejarah was located. It is also very difficult for a disabled person on a wheelchair to get to this building. Even though there was a disabled ramp that led to this building, from the photo below, one can see that the ramp is far too steep for someone on a wheelchair to go up and down easily.

    A steep disabled ramp leading up to the Menara Warisan Sejarah which houses books which the public can borrow

    In other related news, we did not see any outdoor parking lots specifically reserved for disabled visitors although we drove around the entire library complex twice. We might have missed them but if there were any specifically reserved slots, they were clearly not marked or visible to visitors.

    As for parking lots in general, there were certainly enough for us given that the National Library was largely deserted of public visitors during the times (weekdays and weekends) we visited. However, the sheltered parking annexe in Menara PNM (the tallest building with 15 floors, which houses special collections and government documents) had only just over 30 total parking spaces for the public, with parking slots on the first 3-4 floors reserved exclusively for Library directors and staff. This shows that the National Library is not designed to handle high-volume traffic, should more people decide to visit in future.

    Sheltered parking annexe at Menara PNM – each floor had about 20 parking spaces

    When we got to Menara Wisma Sejarah, we were surprised to find that 5 floors have been rented out to other parties including a law firm and an event management company! One really has to wonder about the rationale of this rental agreement and how these contracts came into being.

    4th floor to the Penthouse

    Basement Floor to the 3rd floor

    And even the small space that was allocated to public rentals was not properly maintained. Stacks of books were found piled up on shelving carts and strewn haphazardly all over the floor.

    This kind of maintenance would be a disgrace in any public library. That this would occur in the flagship National Library building is utterly shocking! We may have all the funds in the world to buy the newest books but if we cannot even shelve our books properly, then all this money spent has clearly gone to waste.

    Books piled up on the shelving carts

    Books strewn all over the floor

    Wrong priorities

    Instead of putting the books which the public could borrow in the main library complex (Anjung Bestari), this space was reserved for exhibitions instead. There is a lot of material here promoting the Minister in question – Rais Yatim – and of course, 1 Malaysia propaganda, but also a lot of underutilized space. Wouldn’t it be more productive to use this space to put reading materials which the public can borrow and have access to, and to put in a nice café where people can sit and read instead of these largely empty exhibition spaces?

    Main hall of the main library complex (Anjung Bestari) – with a lot of empty and underutilized space

    Even the types of books published by the National Library and put on prominent display smack of government propaganda. Not surprisingly, many of the books on display feature the accomplishments of Dr. Mahathir, Najib and the other Prime Ministers of Malaysia. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that we shouldn’t publish literature on our past PMs but a lot of other people and institutions such as the Perdana Leadership Foundation (PLF) are already doing things like this. Wouldn’t it be better for the National Library to focus on publishing and promoting literature which is not covered by the mainstream but which is important to the culture and heritage of our country?

    Literature published by the National Library featuring the usual cast of suspects

    Not truly a ‘National Library’

    In my humble opinion, a national library should be a progressive institution that aims to preserve, highlight and conduct research on the literary traditions of all communities and cultures in the country. Even though BM is the national language and should be given the most important status, other languages used in Malaysia have also produced important literary contributions which are of literary, cultural and historical significance and therefore should not be ignored.

    And yet, this seems to be the case for our ‘National Library’. A sign which is prominently displayed has “Membudayakan Bahasa Kita” as one of the tag lines as well as “Membudayakan Tulisan Jawi”.

    Taglines for the National Library 

    I don’t have anything against the usage and learning of Jawi. I learned Jawi in primary school and was pretty decent at it but I don’t see why Jawi should be given prominence at the same level as BM while many of the other languages spoken and used by Malaysians are totally ignored.

    Many of the signs at the National Library have both BM as well as Jawi featured which is a bit odd to me – since Arabic speakers from the Middle East who may visit the library would not understand the Arabic words in Jawi, and Malaysians who can read and understand Jawi would also be able to read and understand the words in BM. Why not state basic visitor information, such as opening times, in Chinese and Tamil in addition to BM?

    Opening times of the National Library in BM and Jawi

    One of the other odd things I found on one of the posters at the National Library was this poster emphasizing “Kedudukan Istimewa Bumiputera”. The special status of the Bumiputeras in Malaysia is found in Article 153 of the Federal Constitution. I have no dispute with that but I was left to wonder why this specific issue is highlighted in our National Library?

    Poster with “Kedudukan Istimewa Bumiputera” in the National Library

    Ironically, the photo of the children in this poster is actually a photo of 3 Temiar children who are part of an Orang Asli kampong in Perak.[3] And the Orang Asli are not recognized in the Federal Constitution as belonging to the Bumiputera population in Malaysia.

    Photo of the Temiar children taken by the Center for Orang Asli Concerns and featured in a Nut Graph article (http://www.thenutgraph.com/left-in-the-margins/) The poster in the National Library does not attribute credit for the photograph to either the COAC or the Nut Graph.

    Documentation Problems

    Even in the area of collecting government documents – which the Library should be good at since it is a government agency – the National Library fails miserably. I was looking for education statistics at the state level and I found out that the various state education departments stopped submitting their records to the National Library in the late 1990s and early 2000s. When I asked the person in charge why these documents were stopped in the early 2000s, she said that these government agencies simply stopped sending their reports to the National Library, and the National Library never followed up to ask them to do so (even though they are supposed to by law). The Library of Congress in the United States is supposed to collect and house every single newly published book that it can possibly lay its hands on. This is a mammoth task which by most considerations, they do pretty well. In contrast, our National Library can’t even keep track and collect all of the government’s own documentation, much less the other books which are published in Malaysia.

    ‘Software’ issues

    I think that many of the problems I’ve highlighted with regard to the National Library starts with the issue of leadership. If the leadership, starting with the Minister, cares more about public appearances and publicity – which explains the large exhibition area and the 1 Malaysia propaganda stuff – then this will filter down the line and into the mentality of the organization. The leadership in charge of the National Library will then also focus on the wrong priorities – making themselves look good in the eyes of the Minister – by organizing events that will help promote themselves and the Minister rather than to focus on what is really important – to increase the reading culture in our country, to make our national library system into one that is widely accessible, frequented and used by the public and that is truly inclusive, and to protect, promote and conduct research on the important literary contributions in this country in all languages and traditions.

    No amount of money spent on building new libraries and procuring new books and developing new apps can make up for this shortcoming in ‘software’ – the most important of which is the issue of leadership.


    [1] The educational statistics I was looking for could only be found in the Social Statistics Bulletins and the Department of Statistics only provided soft copies for 2012.

    [2] http://www.pnm.gov.my/index.php?id=276

    [3] http://www.thenutgraph.com/left-in-the-margins/

6 Comments

  1. Avatar says: February 27, 2013 at 11:24 amReply

    Thanks for the very informative review and virtual tour of our National Library. I cannot believe my eyes that the situation there is that deplorable. I’ve heard rumours and some adverse comments about it, but never realized the situation is so bad to this extent.

    One thing that is even worst is that interesting and thought provoking books on economics and politics, on Malaysia’s past are placed in the REFERENCE section, meaning its’ impossible to borrow for about 2-3 weeks for thorough reading. Some of these books are out-of-print, so it means anyone interested will never have a chance to read them.

    Further, our National Library is located in such an inaccessible location, quite far from LRTs and bus stops, one wonders whether they actually want visitors or otherwise.

    Sigh!

  2. Aina says: March 3, 2013 at 10:46 pmReply

    Saya pun setuju kerana kebanyakan perkhidmatan yang disediakan perpustakaan negara tidak mesra pengguna dan tidak convinience dengan bahan yang boleh dipinjam kebayakan sudah lama dan outdated

  3. nour says: March 19, 2013 at 8:40 amReply

    I’m sad and you are right, must be a leadership problem

  4. Chez says: April 21, 2013 at 3:25 amReply

    Stick to your observations of the National Library (kudos!). As for the other insinuations and cheap pot shots, be honest. You made a search of some education statistics or data online and found that the Social Statistics Bulletin online is only for 2012. Being new and probably unwilling to invest in the time or money to buy the publication or softcopy CD from the Department of Statistics in Putrajaya, you believe the National Library would have these in their collection. I guess UCSI don’t have them, too bad. Apart from pointing out deficiencies in the PNM from management to signage, and inaccurate statements like “And the Orang Asli are not recognized in the Federal Constitution as belonging to the Bumiputera population in Malaysia”, you didn’t quite finish the story.

    Did you get the data you are looking for? I have softcopy of the SSB dating back to 2005 – that’s when I started compiling them in my hard disk.

    Note: Just for the rest of the ignoramuses, the Malaysian Constitution does not define Bumiputera nor it was a term used in the document. Article 153 uses the phrase “the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak”. Aborigine to represent Orang Asli in Semenanjung Malaysia was specifically defined under our Constitution and there are specific provisions for their protection in Article 8(5) which stated “provision for the protection, wellbeing or advancement of the aboriginal peoples of the Malay Peninsula (including the reservation of land) or the reservation to aborigines of a reasonable proportion of suitable positions in the public service”. In operational terms, bumiputera does include the Orang Asli, sometimes even the Siamese and Seranis.

  5. Judy says: April 22, 2013 at 3:40 pmReply

    Public fund go to waste and people are sleeping on the job. I don’t blame the staff, but the chief of our National Library who is suppose to understand the mission of a National Library, or does he?

  6. RW says: December 18, 2013 at 12:38 pmReply

    Agreed, there is room for improvement. But obviously, first impressions are not always accurate. Here’s some input which I hope can help everyone:

    1. Please research the National Library Act. A National Library’s main focus is the conservation and preservation of the nation’s memory. This is true in many countries. Hence, the reference collection (no borrowing) is almost always the main collection. Our National Library is about the very few national libraries that circulate. You don’t see circulation collection in the British Library, the Library of Congress, for example. This started many years ago to fill a void in access to public libraries. But this also causes a big stress to the resources in the national library. I feel a public library section which is separate from the national library should be created. (In SG, the community libraries are managed by their national library but have separate operational organizations. SG is a bit different due to its smaller size and manageability of an island/country/city). I think an MP is in the position to make positive proposals that will help improve the real services of a national library. A national library is not equal to a public library so the expectations on each are different. Personally, I think they should be separate.

    2. Out of the RM54 million budget, can you research to see if some of it is channeled to other organizations e.g. the state libraries? It would be good to know. Out of this budget, salaries are paid to professional or semi-professional staff that are sent to other libraries (e.g. libraries in ministries and government agencies) as part of the service to the country. This also means, that although many are under their payroll, not all are serving at the National Library (again: a stress to their system)

    3. Wisma Sejarah does not belong to the National Library. I think it belongs to the Historical Society of Malaysia. The national library’s circulation section is a tenant there. The circulation collection used to be on the ground floor next to the exhibition area. But the collection outgrew the space.

    4. I don’t see anything wrong with having an exhibition area since it’s part of the knowledge sharing activity. A learning space, if you may. You probably visited when there was no exhibition. It can also be space used to fund-raise for the library by way of renting out the space. Nothing wrong with that.

    5. I personally would like some changes to the policies to allow volunteers or friends-of-the-libraries or even paid part-timers. Many libraries have this but I think in Malaysia, the government service policies do not allow this. Certainly, the disheveled state of the books calls for additional help.

    6. The access to our national library is difficult since there are no LRT stations nearby, like mentioned in Avatar’s comment. On this, many have commented – including Ridhuan Tee. But the fault lies where ………? (Note: The National Library building was constructed before the LRT project).

    7. Also, Avatar’s comment mentioned out-of-print books. All the more, they should not be circulated. Circulating these will risk damage and loss.

    8. The National Library Act calls for all books published in Malaysia, to be deposited with our National Library. Publishers are aware of this law. The multiple copies are kept in the Malaysiana collection (in different locations) and not meant to be circulated, unless you find a copy in the Circulation section. Whether our National Library has the resources to upkeep this policy, I don’t know. This is why I believe they should not be doing the public library services, which is a secondary role but takes up so much resources. Let public library be the responsibility of the state or town hall.

    While I agree that there are short-comings, I hope the MP in you will work towards improving the situation. An educational visit or a discussion with the librarians can probably put more perspective to your observations. You will find out more about the behind-the-scenes of what is being done which not many know about. I cannot comment much on the political aspects of your observations since I don’t know much about that.

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