NLB in PR storm after "pro-family" move

The National Library Board (NLB) has come under intense fire from netizens after it decided to pull off two children’s book titles off its shelves.

The books were removed after the board received complaints from a member of the public stating that the titles And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express were not in line with traditional family values. The first book depicts two male penguins acting like a couple raising a young penguin and the latter talks about a single mother, adoption and a lesbian couple.

While, NLB did not respond to Marketing’s queries, according to an article on Channel News Asia, Tay Ai Cheng, the NLB’s assistant chief executive and chief librarian, said the NLB takes a strong pro-family stance in selecting books for children. In a letter addressing the initial complaint, she also added that with over five million books it is difficult for the board to monitor each and every book. However when visitors highlight books that they feel are in conflict with the boards stand, they are reviewed and later removed if need be.

Netizens fight back

Currently petitions are going around for the library to reinstate the books. In an open letter by Ng Yi-Sheng, Lim Jialiang and Liyan Chen, they say the books “removing books that reflect reality in all its diversity is contradictory to how the NLB sees itself as providing knowledge to society."

“The library should not privilege transient policy and public opinion, but serve to display the diversity of opinions of a time, without prejudice. It is therefore crucial that the NLB conduct itself in a neutral fashion, to act as an observer and a recorder of the times,” the duo added.

Another Bernadette Chow in her petition added that the national library serves everyone in Singapore.

“We are a diverse population of varied beliefs, hopes and dreams, and that demands that our library represents a diverse range of literature too,” she added.

Meanwhile Jolene Tan, programmes and communications senior manager at AWARE Singapore said that the move shows that NLB is taking a very “ideological stand” which is quite troubling.

“NLB appears to be taking a specific political stand erasing images that do not fall in line with the traditional ideas of family. This is troubling because as a library it is there to make culture accessible and should be inclusive and expansive. This move is jarring and contradicts its mission of spreading knowledge.”

Industry experts weigh in

The conundrum is not one that is new to Singapore, said Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and managing director of PRecious Communications citing the HPB incident which occurred several months ago.

HPB also fell into a similar situation when it removed links to various lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender organisations and counseling hotlines on its FAQ’s site. The portal soon became a point of heated debate from the local public, with some supporting the move and others slamming the HPB for it.

Independent of NLB’s policies of what kind of values it generally wants to promote and how it selects its books in the first place, in the context of the recent confrontational discussions around the Pink Dot movement, the move makes the NLB look like it’s reacting to one person’s opinion, explained Voedisch.

“The very action taken makes it look a bit panicky - as if they want to avoid any controversy at all costs,” said Voedisch.

While waiting for the storm to pass might now be the best move for the board, what NLB should now work on is creating policies on the selection of books in the first place and share those guidelines publicly. This will help to avoid the impression of random, externally initiated or closed door decisions on the definition of what’s appropriate, added Voesdisch.

Wesley Gunter, PR director of Right Hook Communications also added that the move by the library felt like a knee jerk reaction from one complaint without much thought.

He added that the reason given by NLB of having a strong pro-family stance doesn’t echo well with the public simply because NLB seems to have suddenly shifted its image from being an ‘information provider’ to a ‘moral watchdog’.

“This is a job which should be left to another organisation such as MDA to make the decision,” Gunter said.

Another senior industry practitioner remarked that the library has little actual choice to make an independent decision, however. “I don’t believe the NLB, being the visible institution that it is and a part of Singapore’s society and fabric, has a real choice in this instance to make an independent decision,” he said.

(Photo courtesy: Google Books)