Stacking the Shelves: An Interview with the Head Librarian

By Ng Ziqin (20S03H)

Did you know that RI is one of the few local schools in Singapore to have a professional librarian? Or that the ‘mirror’ on the wall to the right of the library counter is not actually a mirror, but a window into the head librarian’s office?

Don’t deny it, you know you’ve stopped in front of this ‘mirror’ to rearrange your hair before.

Have you ever paused to wonder how a book made its way from a Kinokuniya or the dusty stockroom of a publisher to come to be on the shelves of the school library, and then, finally, in your hands?

“You think: ‘A book is just a book’, right? But actually, there’s a lot of work that goes on behind getting a book ready,” says head librarian Mrs Joanna Chow, who oversees both the Shaw Foundation Library (SFL) as well as the Hullett Memorial Library (HML) over at Y1-4: 

Mrs Joanna Chow has been with RI for 13 years. (Notice the familiar window in the background?)

Unlike other school libraries, which might only be able to put in a book order once every term or every half a year, the SFL processes orders on a daily basis. This means that the book requests don’t sit with the librarian for months, and students and teachers get the items they need as quickly as possible. 

Whenever a teacher puts in a request for an item, the librarians first have to check that the item is not already available in the library. After this basic step has been conducted, a dizzying list of questions then follows: Where’s the cheapest place to get it from? Is it out of print? Is there local stock? Overseas stock? How urgent is the request? Are there sufficient funds for the purchase?

Occasionally, there will be requests which call for a little more ingenuity and resourcefulness on the part of the head librarian.

“For example, currently I have a request to buy this book about Zapin, which is a folk dance of the Malay world. But the book is actually already out of print.”

Mrs Chow isn’t going to let something as small as a title being out of print get in the way of her acquisitions. She checks Carousell for a second-hand copy. No luck.

Finally, she manages to locate a copy of the book. But it’s in Malaysia. In order to avoid paying for exorbitant postage costs, Mrs Chow will call upon her extensive personal connections to get someone who lives in Malaysia who comes to Singapore regularly to help her bring it out. 

So things like that, we will try to go all out to help the teacher get the book because it’s part of the curriculum. I like to make sure I have exhausted all avenues before I tell the teacher, ‘I can’t do it.’

Mrs Joanna Chow, Head Librarian

After an order has been placed, still more steps follow. The library staff need to check the item against the order, invoice it on the system, accession it, barcode it, process it (which involves wrapping, stamping, and placing a magnetic strip to sound the alarm against ‘library-lifters’), and then catalogue it to make it available in the system so that it can be searched.

But these are just the basics. Mrs Chow’s exacting standards and attention to detail shine through in the other non-standard processes which every library book goes through before hitting the shelves. 

For instance, every book has an extra page at the front, attached by the librarians using double-sided tape, because Mrs Chow doesn’t like having the due date slip pasted onto the book itself.  “Every book is wrapped very, very nicely. I’m very, very particular about all this. And every book needs to be stamped.” 

My perfectionist tendencies are instantly soothed. It takes all of my willpower to not start gushing right there and then in the middle of the interview.

She lifts the book she’s currently reading—The Revenge of Analog—from her desk, turning it around from side to side to show me. The stamped words, which read “Shaw Foundation Library Raffles Institution”, are perfectly aligned, stamped perpendicular to the pages on all three sides. 

Considering the amount of effort that goes into sourcing, purchasing, and preparing each book, Mrs Chow is understandably upset whenever students do not take care of the books they borrow. Her pet peeve is when students get the books wet, and then try to weasel negotiate their way out of paying the fine because they’ve “only stained three pages” of the whole book. In truth, determining the value of a book is never as straightforward as offering to pay pro rata

“It’s very hard [to determine]. How to pay me [for] three pages? You stain it, you pay for the entire book. It’s as easy as that. Because I can’t tell you that three pages is worth ten dollars.”

And often, it isn’t just about those three pages either, because if a book isn’t dried properly, it can grow mould which can spread to other pages, or even other books in the library. 

And people prefer to read newer-looking books. “Our experience has shown that [even] if it’s an old book, but we buy a new copy of that old book, people will want to read it.” 

The upshot? Keeping books looking good-as-new is very important.

We don’t want the money. We want the book!

Mrs Joanna Chow, Head Librarian

As the old proverb goes, prevention is better than cure. So if you would like to stay on the head librarian’s good side, please keep your library items clean and dry. “I mean, I’m happy to give you a ziplock bag. I’m happy to give you a recycling bag, or whatever. But if you don’t take care of it… then I think it’s just too bad lor.”

“Actually, it’s not that we want to be strict. We just hope that students understand—we have a lot of students to deal with. And it’s always easier when you’re strict with the rules in the beginning, then relax when necessary. Rather than relax and then tighten the rules [later]. We realised that when we tighten the rules right from the beginning, there are fewer issues for us to deal with.”

While the library’s draconian circulation policies might have drawn flak from some students, Mrs Chow sticks to her guns about the importance of students taking responsibility for the items they check out.

“It’s not our aim to frighten the students. What we want the students to do is to be responsible for the things, because there’s a cost to everything and the students don’t actually realise they’re very lucky to have a good school library, especially our Singapore collection. But that’s because we spend time building the collection. So we want to make sure that the students are responsible, that when you borrow something, it’s not like it doesn’t cost anything. It costs something, you know. That you take care of my items.”

Apart from her Singapore collection, there is another collection which is a personal point of pride for Mrs Chow: the exam papers compilations in a corner of the Quiet Study Area. For copyright reasons, the librarians are not able to put up the electronic versions of the other schools’ papers online. 

Doesn’t looking at this photo just make you want to crack open a book and start studying?

“Some people say, ‘It’s so old fashioned’, but it’s actually a lot of work for us. Sometimes when we receive the soft copy [from the other schools], there’s no cover page and we need to create a cover page. If you go and take one exam book, you will understand. We stamp every page number so that you know what page number Hwa Chong is, rather than have to flip every single page.”

While compiling exam papers is relatively easier for “regular” subjects like Econs, ensuring that RI has the complete collection of papers for more esoteric subjects can be challenging.

“For example, Art. How do you know what school has it, and what school doesn’t? So we have to go and find out. Whatever we have, we make sure that it’s there. Because once we send it for binding, it’s in a bound copy, and we can’t add anymore. That’s why it’s priceless! If you lose that book, I can’t put a price tag to it. It’s so much effort. And that’s the reason why we don’t allow students to take it out.”

But while students will gladly pick up a book of exam papers to browse through, getting students to read beyond the curriculum takes a bit more creativity. To encourage RI students to read more, Mrs Chow shares with me that the library has resorted to some rather unconventional measures, such as putting up magazine articles from The Economist or TIMES on the board outside the toilet, next to the library.

A perennial boredom-reliever for those of us with slow friends.

“Because when people are waiting for their friends at the toilet, they actually stand there and read! So it’s actually quite useful to have that. [Just one of] a lot of different aspects that we try [to] encourage people to read.”

But what about something slightly longer than a magazine article?

“Usually, when the students come up to JC, they don’t really have a lot of time to read, right?” Mrs Chow laments. “And even when they do, it’s usually just the academic books. So a lot of our fiction books are actually mainly bought for Y1–4. Our main fiction is there. Our acad one is here. Because in Y1–4, you’re expected to read mah.”

To instill a love for reading in the Y1–4 boys, Mrs Chow is not above purchasing books which other adults might frown upon as childish or silly, so long as they’re popular with the boys.

Harry Potter—I already bought, like, ten sets. It’s all broken and torn. So we will buy replacements. We will also buy different versions of it,” she says, citing the Harry Potter graphic novels, DVD, and a beautiful edition with full-colour illustrations. 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: The Illustrated Edition. Available at the HML.
Time for a scheduled nostalgia trip!

“Even if it’s a silly thing,” she says, referencing the hit series Diary of a Wimpy Kid by American author and cartoonist Jeff Kinney. “It’s a ‘cartoon book’, you know? But did you know everybody likes to read it? And I will buy it because people like to read it. What is that $20 to me if I can encourage people to read?”

But it’s not just the students that Mrs Chow serves; she is also highly aware of the reading habits and preferences of the teachers. And she may know more about them than they think.

For instance, she knows that Mr Magendiran likes to read biographies, Mr Patrick Wong likes books about animals (especially birds), and Mr Eddie Koh likes… a highly specific sub-genre which Mrs Chow refers to as “Pulau Ubin kind of books”.

“He likes those ‘kampung’ kind of things,” she says with a laugh. “So when I have the stuff, new biographies, or maybe an article, I will notify them.”

The reason she is able to do this is because these teachers have come up to her to talk to her about their pet subjects.

If you come and tell me what you want, I will look out for you. But if you don’t tell me, I don’t know!

Mrs Joanna Chow, Head Librarian

It’s hard to imagine someone like Mrs Chow, with her resourcefulness, eye for detail, and a passion for getting the right books to the right people, being anything other than a librarian. So I am surprised when Mrs Chow tells me that she didn’t start out as one.

As a former RJC student who studied music, Mrs Chow didn’t expect to become a librarian. Her first degree was in Music, and she went on to complete her postgraduate studies in education. “But then, I didn’t like teaching general music because at that time, part of the syllabus was to teach the recorder.” 

It was then that she realised that she “prefers quietness”, decided to do something “arts-related, but not classroom teaching”, and went on to do her Masters in Library Studies. 

Before becoming head librarian at RI, Mrs Chow worked in retrospective cataloguing at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where she was dealing with 19th-century books. There were huge temperature-controlled archives, she had to wear gloves to flip the pages of the books, and the librarians had to ensure people didn’t bring pencils into the Reading Room to prevent them from staining the priceless books.

While her job in RI is very different, there is much that Mrs Chow enjoys about being Head Librarian here. Prior to joining the school, she never expected there to be so much to do. When she worked in the university library, she was only in charge of one aspect of library work. Here, she has to do it all. 

“I mean, I love the job because it gives me so much variety and so many challenges. It has given me the opportunity to stretch myself beyond just a single aspect. In St. Andrews, I only did cataloguing. But here, I need to do acquisitions, I need to do cataloguing, I need to do collection management. I need to do subscriptions, I need to liaise with vendors, I need to discipline students. I need to manage staff. I need to do budget. So yeah, there’s never a dull day. And I do not know what’s next. I mean, I didn’t know you were coming in today!”

Mrs Chow hopes that RI students will realise just how well supported they are, and make full use of the library’s facilities and resources more often. 

We really have a lot of good stuff in the library.

Mrs Joanna Chow, Head Librarian

And if there’s anything you need, don’t be afraid to approach her for help. 

“If you have the courage to ask, you will get something back. You ask, we will check for you, but if you don’t ask, we don’t know.”

“My door is always open.”

One thought on “Stacking the Shelves: An Interview with the Head Librarian”

  1. I think it’s probably safe to say that the RI libraries are among some of the best and well-maintained in Singapore. I only wish I had more than 2 years to explore its collection.

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