As an avid reader, there are few things in Singapore that I can be more thankful for than our National Library. I can remember my first library card, a tiny pink cardboard folder (size of a name card) with which I would slot the book’s card and hand to the librarian while borrowing. The librarian would stamp the date due on a slip of paper stuck to the title page of the book. When I returned the book, the unlucky librarian at the return counter would have to pore over a sea of cards. After primary school, I was so excited that I could finally qualify for the adult card – a similar cardboard folder brown in colour. It was a long-awaited pass to the formidable collection of challenging word-rich books sitting in the quiet and imposing adult section upstairs. Such images bring back many fond memories of the countless trips I had made to Queenstown Library just across the road from my home at Block 39A (now demolished).
In those days, you had to return any books you’ve borrowed to the same branch where you had borrowed them. That’s easy to understand, but with the advent of technology, the whole system was revolutionised. I think it started some time in the early 90s. Somebody must have thought: “why not scan barcodes like checkout counters in supermarkets?”. It was a brilliant idea. It cut down borrowing and especially returning time, not to mention the manpower needs. Then, another idea. Why not allow borrowers to return their books at a branch most convenient to them, like somewhere near their workplace? Though the branches would have to make the extra effort to transport the returned items to the branches they belonged to, the libraries went the extra mile to make things more convenient for borrowers.
Apart from books, the library also provides AV materials and various online services like e-books. I’m especially fond of audio books which allow me to “read” while on the move. The best part is, many of these services are either free or very affordable. With more time on my hands now that I’m semi-retired, I’m making full use of the library services just like that gleeful, excited Queenstown kid did more than 40 years ago.
But a man who goes into the jungle often enough will one day run into the tiger. Earlier this month, I borrowed an audio book – a set of audio CDs from Tampines Regional Library. I’m sure most people who have borrowed AV materials from the library would realise that it’s common for some of the CDs or DVDs not to work properly. I remember there was one disc in this set that didn’t play, but as usual, I just returned it. They blocked my card. When I turned up at the information counter, I was informed that there was a crack in one of the CDs and they believed that I was responsible.
I had to wait for the item to be delivered to Tampines and frankly, I was more concerned about the opportunity cost of a blocked card than the prospect of having to pay for the item. I had read so many books, watched so many DVDs and listened to so many audio books free that it’s only fair that I made a “donation” to the library once in a while. When the item was finally delivered to Tampines and the damage (a crack in one of the CDs) shown to me, I was sullenly informed that I had to pay for it.
Sure, but can I get to keep the damaged item? The answer was a flat no. Why?
Librarian: “You’re paying for the replacement and not for the damaged item.”
Me: “But if the damaged item is going to be condemned, why can’t you get rid of it by giving it to me?”
It’s only fair and this is why. Let’s say you break an item in a store that has that warning sign you see above. You pay for the breakage and it’s only fair and just that you get to keep the broken item. If not, the storekeeper could well keep the money for selling you a flawless item, repair the damaged item and then sell it for cheap. By the same token, you must return the “unsatisfactory” item if you’re asking for a refund. Of course, I doubt that the library would stoop to that, but the same principle of fairness and transparency should apply. At a loss for any logical explanation, the librarians resorted to saying that they are just following orders from “higher up”. Here’s the bill.
So what’s the moral of the story here? Or rather, what message is the library sending and what is it trying to encourage by implementing this policy from “higher up”?
1. Borrower beware. You take all the risks and are fully responsible for any damage you may have failed to notice before or after borrowing the item.
2. If you only manage to detect the damage after borrowing the item and have no way of proving that you’re not responsible, keep the item, declare it as lost and then pay for it. At least you get to keep it.
Well, my card has been unblocked and I’m reading and listening voraciously as usual. I guess “donating” $40 or $50 once in a while is still OK considering the wealth of material and resources I’m getting from the library, but I can’t help wondering if this “higher up” is the same “higher up” as the one that revolutionised the library system, bent over backwards and brought so much convenience to readers like me. I suspect that some things or some people may have changed.
© Chan Joon Yee