As a tourist, travelling in Singapore with at least three mobile devices is easy. I could logon to the Internet in most enclosed spaces via ‘Wireless@SG.
Wireless@SG is Singapore’s largest free Wi-Fi network. It is available in most metro stations, shopping malls, and public libraries. As a tourist, I launched the sign-in page, keyed in my mobile number, and entered the CAPTCHA code that was sent to my phone. Residents can download the Wireless@SG app for easy connection to free wifi.
So what are the ambitions behind free Internet?
Singapore is fast becoming a Smart Nation. It’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to have a Digital Government with online services and processes that are simpler and easier to use, and more services on mobile devices. Public services are ‘harnessing the power of networks, data, and infocommunication technologies […] to support better living, stronger communities, and create more opportunities, for all’ (Singapore Smart Nation).
Public libraries are at the forefront of this shift from analogue to digital. They are promoting Smart Citizenship through a number of measures, which includes taking away the staff counter. This is an exceptional move on the part of the National Library Board. Whilst the needs of users have changed over the last fifteen years, the library staff have often been slow to embrace new ways of interacting with customers. So, the NLB are ahead of the game.
Instead of a counter, or ‘reception desk’, where staff would traditionally deal with reference and collection enquiries, the National Library Board has introduced a Digital Concierge Library Guide for new visitors. It’s like a self-help desk. The library users can ask questions by clicking on the appropriate buttons on the website, and they can fill in an online form to provide feedback about the service.
If a customer needs to speak to a person, then there are staff on hand to help, wearing t-shirts marked ‘Ask a Librarian’. In staff-less libraries, such as Chinatown Library, which is managed by volunteers, there is a Cybrarian on hand to deal with customer queries. What is a Cybrarian? It is a library and information science professional that specializes in using the Internet as a resource tool. In this case, the term is used to describe a librarian who can be accessed via the Internet.
Most public libraries also have e-kiosks, digital information systems, which consist of different input components (such as touch screen, keyboard) and output components (screen). They are used for self-check out. Customers can also check out books using their National Library Board mobile app. All users have to do is focus the camera on the barcode to scan it. Customers can also borrow eBooks using the mobile app to read on their phones.
The interactive digital displays that have been installed in more popular public libraries like Sengkang and Bukit Panjang display the eBooks that customers can borrow from the public library. There is also a video wall that ‘signals’ the digital based services of the library, and gives updates on content and services.
How will digital technology affect the service and spaces in the future?
Artificial intelligence will no doubt bring further changes to the public library in the future. Librarians, who are currently responsible for curating the physical objects on the shelves and the digital displays, will no longer have to curate the content, which will no doubt organize itself. As staff get a better feel for the needs of their users, so they will be able to create algorithms to automate the curation process.
But, there are barriers to this new world of autonomy achieved through seamless information access. Staff cannot routinely collect personal information that they will need to make decisions about user preferences, interests, and values and organize new content. Singapore introduced a new comprehensive “European-style” Personal Data Protection Act in 2014. It is already handing down its first fines under the new law.
There are economic motives informing the new law. Singapore believes there is a link between the implementation of data privacy regulation and its national ambitions to be a leading high tech hub.