Behind the Counter: Student Librarian For A Day (Part 2)

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Ng Ziqin (20S03H)

We left off last time with this heartbreaking tableau: a plucky student journalist, faced with the insurmountable task of shifting an entire collection’s worth of books down one shelf to make space for one unbelievably thick textbook. 

Did she succeed, or throw in the towel?

9.24 am: Resigned to my fate, I get to work transferring all the books one shelf down, starting with a row of nature books about insects in Singapore (call number: 595.789095957).

After shifting about three rows worth of books, I’ve finally finished shifting the last of the dreary nature books and move on to the books starting in the 370s range (the social sciences). It’s at this point that some of the titles in the Singapore Collection start to catch my eye.

Complete with pictures of the formal, councillor, and PE uniforms of every secondary school in Singapore. Now, you can finally find out what school that school-uniformed stranger on the MRT belongs to at a glance, without having to squint at their school badge.

Curiosity piqued, I end up pausing for ‘short’ reading breaks as and when I discover interesting titles, and put shelving the books on hold for the time being.

Library-ception? An RI student in RI school uniform in the SFL looking at a photo of RI students in RI school uniform in the SFL.

10.30 am: I have no idea how long I read for, but unfortunately, this is how Mrs Chow finds me at 10.30—sitting on the floor, with a book in my lap and my nose in it. I immediately feel guilty about slacking, but Mrs Chow assures me it is okay. She has some good news: I don’t have to finish reshelving the entire Singapore collection anymore, and can go down to look for Mrs Kumar for my next set of instructions. Hoping to at least finish up the task I was originally assigned to do, I tell her to give me 30 minutes to finish slotting whatever books are left in the trolley, then start transferring books as fast as I can.

11.20 am: It turns out I have greatly overestimated my shelving abilities. Reshelving the books on the trolley (plus shifting some more books down) takes me about another 45 minutes.

When I come down from 1M, Mrs Kumar is chatting with the cleaning lady, who is wiping shelves in the Philosophy and Psychology section.

The library has only one cleaner for the entire library. Furthermore, she is not stationed permanently at the library, and has to clean other parts of the school too. This is why the librarians constantly stress the importance of keeping the library clean and not bringing food into the library.

“Why don’t you go and take your lunch break now?” Mrs Kumar suggests. 

Mrs Kumar tells me that the librarians’ lunch break is usually 30 minutes. I say I’ll be back by 11.50 am. Water bottle and wallet in hand, I head to the canteen.

11.30 am: My lunch break ends up coinciding with the end of the Math ‘A’ Level Paper 2. 

The Y5–6 canteen is flooded with Y6s. After spending a whole morning in the quiet of the library, hardly hearing anything apart from the sound of my own breathing, the sudden cacophony of sounds feels discordant and jarring.

At the basin, I wash off the thick layer of dust coating my hands. Then, I sit down to eat as quickly as I can. 

11.40 am: I return to the library at 11.40, ending my break early.

Mrs Kumar goes on her lunch break while Ms Jessie Ho from the Hullett Memorial Library comes to cover for her. The HML closes at 11 am during the school holidays.

Mrs Chow shows me the list of things which she has typed up for me to do.

Now, I need to replenish the stock of due date slips, which are pasted on the first page of every library book.

Mrs Chow hands me the due date slip template, as well as a sample.

“Go to the staff workroom and make 30 copies of this.”

Mrs Chow leaves for lunch while the photocopier is still spitting out sheets of paper. When I’m back at my desk, Ms Jessie shows me how to use the cutter to divide each copy into four due date slips. 

At least two markings (drawn on the template and photocopied onto the copies) need to be aligned to the edge of the cutter to achieve a straight cut.

It’s all very strategic; certain sides need to be cut before others to avoid cutting off the markings which will need to be aligned with the edge of the cutter for a straight cut. The cutter also becomes blunt very easily, meaning only about two sheets of paper can be cut at once.

12.40 pm: I finish cutting all the due date slips and start on the next part of the task—sticking double-sided tape on the back along the top of the slips so that they can be attached to books.

1.10 pm: Finally, I am done, and I never want to see another due date slip in my life again. 

I hand the whole stack over to Mrs Kumar, who has returned from lunch by now, and get started with the next task on my list: processing a new package of books for the Hullett Memorial Library which has just arrived from Kinokuniya.

Mrs Kumar teaches me how to paste barcodes using a template. It’s important to ensure that every barcodes is placed in the right position, or students won’t be able to scan books by themselves using the self-check machine.

Mrs Kumar also teaches me a neat sticker-peeling lifehack: to make peeling off stickers easier, pour a little Zippo lighter fluid over the sticker. This is especially useful for removing price tags and adjusting poorly-positioned barcodes. 

I try it later on when removing the Kino price tags from the back of the books. The whole price tag peels off under my fingernails in one piece.

And the best part? 

No sticky residue! 

1.36 pm: Mrs Kumar teaches me how to wrap a book in plastic. I prove a poor student, and Mrs Chow ends up having to re-teach me when she returns.

A surprising amount of cutting is involved (at all sorts of angles) to make sure there’s no extra plastic at the corners.

“It’s still loose. But okay, it can pass, for now,” Mrs Chow says when I’ve finally finished wrapping one book… after almost 30 minutes.

Apart from being of lower quality than the average book in the SFL, my wrapping has also taken way too long. Mrs Chow reveals that there’s a member of the library staff who can finish wrapping a book in a jaw-dropping two minutes.

“But that’s because they’ve had a lot of practice!” says Mrs Chow.

2.20 pm: Mrs Chow has a new task for me—’condemning’ old VHS tapes.

VHS tapes are what preceded DVDs in terms of consumer-level video recording. The SFL still has tons of them, back from a time when RI (Y5–6) was still called RJC. The library’s VHS tape collection once spanned a wide range of topics, from geographical landforms to chemical equilibrium; from Singapore’s population to my old enemy from this morning, the Cold War (there were even several parts).

If you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t know what a VHS tape was before reading this either, so here’s a picture.

Although very few people still have the tape recorders needed to play these VHS tapes, the library has held on to them, mainly for the teachers’ reference. Now though, the time has finally come to bid farewell to these old tapes.

“Most of the useful ones have been converted to DVD by the teachers themselves already,” says Mrs Chow. 

The process of ‘condemning’ a library item is far from straightforward. First, each item needs to be scanned individually into the Bulk Item Deletion log to remove it from the system forever. Then, the librarians will compile all the titles scanned into a lengthy report, which will go to Mrs Reavley for approval and have to be confirmed again by Mrs Chow, before the items can finally be disposed of.

Scanning the old VHS tapes into Bulk Item Deletion is to be my job for the next few hours until closing. Mrs Kumar shows me a three-tiered trolley filled with VHS tapes, two rows on each tier. 

And this isn’t even all of them; there are still more in Mrs Chow’s room.

I check the screen after scanning each item to ensure it appears in the log. If I unwittingly miss out on one, Mrs Kumar warns, it might mean having to scan through the entire trolley’s worth of tapes again to find the missing one.

3.20 pm: After an hour, I report to Mrs Kumar that I’ve scanned all the VHS tapes on the trolley.

“How many?” 

I count the number of tape casings, layer by layer, then add them up. There are three casings which contain two tapes each, so I add three to the final count.


“Okay, let me check the report.” Mrs Kumar frowns. “Eh? 134 only.”

I return to the trolley to count the tapes again. Still 135.

The most probable explanation for the discrepancy: I have missed out on scanning one of the tapes. But which one? In a trolley full of tapes, it’s impossible to tell.

I will have to rescan all the tapes, one by one, just to find the missing one.

Taking pity on me, Mrs Kumar helps. Many hands make for light work. Soon we’ve gone through the entire trolley of VHS tapes. Yet, all of them show the same error pop up message and we are unable to find the missing tape.

Mrs Kumar decides to count the tapes again, this time in a more systematic fashion. She places them in piles of ten on the library counter, then counts the number of piles.

The final count reveals that there are exactly 134 tapes in the trolley. 

Meaning there was never any missing tape to begin with.


3.45 pm: I take the trolley of 134 tapes to the storeroom behind the photocopying room. This is where the tapes will sit until Mrs Reavley gives her approval.

A trolley of outdated technology books awaiting condemnation. The library no longer purchases technology books and instead subscribes to a database of technology e-books.

I hurry back to the counter to finish scanning the second round of tapes.

The tapes look like building blocks.

4.00 pm: One and a half hours till closing. Mrs Kumar locks up the Think Tank Rooms, then totals up the fines collected for the day—$2.10. 

4.10 pm: I start on the second batch of VHS tapes. To avoid a repeat of the previous incident, I count as I scan, scanning 10 tapes at a time and arranging them in neat piles on the counter instead of loading them back onto the trolley when I’m finished.

4.30 pm: “118 tapes,” I tell Mrs Kumar.

“118 + 134 is how many… 252?”

Mrs Kumar clicks the button to check the report. It takes a while to load. With bated breath, I keep my eyes glued to the screen, heart pounding furiously in my chest.

I have not been this nervous over a three-digit number since I was a 12-year-old waiting to receive my PSLE results.

Mrs Kumar turns to me, a wide smile on her face. “252.”


4.40 pm: Mrs Kumar tells me to collect back the newspapers from the display, and put them in the storeroom together with the new batch of VHS tapes. The library stores these back issues of newspapers for up to thirty days, after which they’ll be given to the karang guni or students needing newspapers.

4.45 pm: Mrs Kumar plays an announcement to inform library users that the library will be closing soon, and to remind them to borrow any library materials quickly. 

The recording, which features a soft-spoken female voice, dates back to 2006 or 2007.

4.54 pm: Mrs Kumar turns off the photocopier in the staff workroom. I go around the library pushing in chairs, then return to the counter.

I ask if the library is exceptionally quiet today. Apparently, it is; I’ve picked a slow day.

“Today is considered an empty day,” Mrs Kumar informs me. “Yesterday was more crowded. Because of Project Work. You should have come yesterday!”

5.20 pm: Mrs Kumar turns off the lights. Some students take this as their cue to leave.

While we wait, Mrs Kumar and I make small talk. She tells me even though she’s been here for years, she often gets mistaken for one of the lab staff or asked if she’s the sister of Sujatha, the Level 3 staffroom receptionist. She finds this quite hilarious.

“I always tell them: ‘No, I’m not from the lab, I’m from the library!’”

Back at the start of the day, Mrs Kumar told me that she’s retiring soon to take care of her grandchildren and pursue her passion: baking. 31 December 2019 will be her last day at RI. Curious, I ask her more about it. She thinks she’ll miss the library after retirement, but she’s also eager to start living life at 60.

“Now, I want to pursue my passion [for baking] at 60 years old. Not too late, right?” She laughs.

She tells me her favourite part of the job is interacting with the students, and that she loves it when old Library Soc members come back to the library to visit her. 

There’s a little corner behind the counter, next to the dumbwaiter, which seems to be a sort of shrine to the former Library Society.

Sensing an undercurrent of nostalgia, I ask if she misses the Library Soc members. 

“Yes, of course. Actually, one of them is a teacher here now. Gavin. Such a sweet person!”

So Mr Gavin Swee used to be a student librarian. Who knew!

5.25 pm: Mrs Kumar makes the final announcement, then goes around the library to dispatch any remaining stragglers. 

I am put on gate duty, which is fairly simple: herd students who trigger the alarm to one side to wait until Mrs Kumar comes back to deal with them.

5.32 pm: Everything runs in reverse clockwork to the opening routine. We go around the library one last time, to tuck in the chairs in the Quiet Study Areas.

I take some final photos from behind the counter, bid goodbye to Mrs Kumar and Mrs Chow, and thank them for having me for the day.

Spending the day here has definitely given me greater insight into what the SFL librarians do on a daily basis. It’s also made me more appreciative of the work that goes on behind preparing every book (and of the librarians’ physical fitness!).

One thing’s for certain: I’m going to miss the view from behind the counter.
338780cookie-checkBehind the Counter: Student Librarian For A Day (Part 2)


Leave a Reply