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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Jammin' with books

Libraries have become lifestyle centres and host activities ranging from pop concerts to dance classes to stargazing
The Straits Times - June 15, 2014
By: Benson Ang
| More
Jammin' with books Pop-punk band JJ And The Paperplanes did a gig at the Jurong Regional Library last month. -- PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

There is a place in town where you can watch a concert, play board games, pick up cooking tips at a demonstration and even star-gaze, for free.

The place is the library.

Public libraries are more than book lenders these days, offering a host of lifestyle activities - from workshops and performances to professional networking sessions. While some activities require prior registration, almost all are free, with materials provided.

And library users are lapping these activities up.

Mrs Sae Then, a quantity surveyor, goes to public libraries every weekend, mostly to take part in such sessions.

She and her three children - Thea, 12, Jerome, eight, and Jacob, five - have taken part in more than 30 activities since last June. Most are arts-related, such as pottery, calligraphy and book-binding.

"Initially, I signed my kids up to keep them occupied during the June holidays," says Mrs Then, 41, who is married to a research and development manager. "But the classes were free and so interesting that I signed up myself."

The family, who lives in Woodlands, has travelled to libraries as far as Tampines and Jurong to attend activities.

For example, her kids participated in a hip-hop dance class at Sengkang Public Library last Sunday.

The National Library Board, which manages the National Library and all 25 public libraries in Singapore, started offering more programmes in recent years. These programmes are typically conducted in designated programme zones within the library, separate from the main reading area.

The idea is to enhance readers' learning experience, says Ms Jasna Dhansukhlal, 39, the board's assistant director of library services and management.

She says: "Libraries are social learning spaces, and these programmes can spark an interest in reading among our users. For example, after attending a concert, users might want to read about the artist, or genre of music, from our collections."

She adds: "As work, learning and play increasingly overlap, it is no surprise that more users are requesting such activities, and we try to accommodate as much as we can."

Indeed, some library patrons are reading more after turning up for the activities.

Mrs Then's family, for example, typically borrows about 10 library books every month. But they sometimes borrow more after attending activities.

Says Mrs Then: "Last June, I attended a collage-making workshop. I was so amazed at being able to make art without drawing that I borrowed three books on collage-making on the spot.

"But if we hadn't done the activity before, we might have found the book boring."

Another user, Mrs Dorothy Tan, 39, has attended more than 50 activities with her family - from clay modelling to making leather crafts - all for free.

Says the insurance agent, who has two daughters aged five and seven: "People say Singapore is very expensive to live in. But they overlook the many free activities available to us at the library.

"The activities don't need much time commitment, and provide an introduction to topics such as graffiti and mixing music. They are a good starting point for learning."

While users in general should minimise their noise level in the library, some noise may be accepted during programmes, says the library's Ms Jasna.

The first library to offer such lifestyle programmes was the former library@orchard, opened from 1999 to 2007, in Ngee Ann City shopping centre.

Talks, forums, exhibitions and performances were held at the lifestyle- oriented library, which also had a cafe and listening stations playing pop, dance, jazz, world music, soundtracks and classical music.

The new library@orchard is due to open in October this year at the new fashion mall orchardgateway.

Assistant Professor Natalie Pang, 37, from the Nanyang Technological University says similar activities are being offered by libraries around the world.

Says the lecturer in the university's division of inform- ation studies, who recently wrote a paper on how youth use public libraries: "There's a trend towards greater convergence of institutions... people want to be in a place that offers them everything they need - to read, experience, gaze and experiment."

She notes that in Australia, some libraries have even been renamed "learning centres" to free themselves from stereotypes of libraries as places where people just go to borrow books.

For example, in 2012, the Craigieburn Library in Victoria was renamed the Hume Global Learning Centre, with the construction of a new building housing the former library. This new learning centre also has a cafe, gallery and exhibition space, as well as seminar and conference facilities.

Nonetheless, Prof Pang feels activities alone are not enough to encourage users to pick up a book.

She says: "It is about designing the entire learning experience. Activities should relate back to the resources of the library."

Says civil servant Tham Yong Hsiang, 36, who attends free board game sessions at the Serangoon Public Library once every two months to play games such as Ticket To Ride and Pandemic: "If not for the gaming sessions, I won't go to the library.

"I don't borrow books because most don't interest me.

"Maybe if there were more books on board games, I might consider reading them," adds the board game enthusiast, who is married to an accountant.

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