Disbelief. Disappointment. Rage. These emotions have not been in short supply on my Facebook news feed recently. And although a lot of it was World Cup-related (sorry, Brazil fans) most of it was actually about the National Library Board’s (NLB) removal of certain children’s books.
I’m sure the NLB had hoped that the removal of the books would happen quietly, unannounced and mostly unnoticed. It’s not the first time they’ve done it, after all. It has emerged that three books written by Robie Harris, making sex education accessible to young children, have also been withdrawn.
But now the news is everywhere, and it’s a revelation that hurts. I see it in the reactions of my friends and I feel it myself; indignation and anger mixed with deep, deep disappointment.
The national library was ours – a publicly funded institution open to all members of the public, a house of knowledge, culture and learning for all Singaporeans. As a child I visited the library often. I still remember learning how to use the self-checkout machines, carting my books home and devouring them while lying on a mattress spread out on the floor of my grandmother’s house. Those books were the foundation of a lifelong love for reading that endures till today. The library belonged to me, and my family, and my friends. It felt like it would always be a space for us to turn to, a neutral space that would be open to all Singaporeans, regardless of who we are.
Discovering the NLB’s willingness to cave to conservative religious anti-LGBT pressure has shattered that illusion. We now realise that our public library is complicit in denying space to people who don’t conform, and in using the “pro-family” excuses used by homophobes and bigots committed to the marginalisation of sexual minorities.
We now realise that our public library is not actually ours, and probably hasn’t been for a long, long time.
The NLB has decided on our behalf what “family” means. It has decided that children should be prevented from learning about the realities of a diverse world, because this interferes with their “policy” and gets conservatives’ panties in a twist. It has decided that the decision of whether to read certain books will be taken away from all parents because of those who cannot bear the thought of their kids realising that there are gay people in this world (or perhaps what they really cannot bear is the fact that there are happy, fulfilled gay people with families in this world).
NLB’s announcement that the books will be pulped – pretty much an eco-friendly version of book burning – is just rubbing salt into the wounds of those who value diversity and access to knowledge through reading. But what is really troubling is the type of books that are getting pulped here. These books aren’t old, tattered or unwanted. They are being pulped for daring to tell stories of different families. Nothing that runs contrary to the narrow heterosexual nuclear family model will be spared. Not even if they’re penguins.
This is a clear sign that the national library is not a neutral space open to all Singaporeans. It has become a space that will pander to vocal conservatives who – while being free to live their own lives as they want – demand the right to dictate what everyone else should have access to. It has become a space that would happily refuse to acknowledge the existence of certain minority groups. (Pointing out that “homosexual themes” can be found in the Adult collection is a weak defence made even weaker by the use of the term “alternative lifestyles.”) It has become a space that would dump a considerable chunk of the community it claims to serve by the wayside just to please an already-privileged group.
The NLB is not the first public institution to have attracted criticism and sparked outrage, nor will it be the last. But this sad, sorry episode has unveiled a betrayal that hits hard. A public library banning and destroying books because of their content; the very wrongness of the situation lingers long after the books disappear from the shelves.
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Attend ‘Let’s Read Together!‘ from 3pm on 13 July if you can. Bring your kids, your friends, anyone you consider to be part of your family.
There is also a video reading of And Tango Makes Three: