By Clara Chow
I CONSIDERED it a milestone when my son became a card-carrying member of (no, not Mensa or American Express, but...) the public library.
To see me and my husband a couple of Sundays ago, you would think that we were enrolling our three-year-old Julian for university, such was our cheery enthusiasm, excited commentary on what the boy can expect, and general ooh-ing and wowing.
In reality, we were merely signing up the boy for library membership. But, to me, it was a start to a life-long affair with reading, and thus worth making a mountain out of a molehill over.
Come to think of it, signing up for library membership proved to be a bit of an education for me.
The process is a far cry from the rubber-stamp and cardboard experience of my childhood, when you filled up a form and got a rectangular library card with your name handwritten on it. In later years, you waited while your computer-printed card got laminated.
Nowadays, you simply key in your identification number at an e-kiosk, verify a few details, and out pops a swanky credit card-like document from the machine almost instantly.
Armed with his library card, Julian pulled his papa's hand and skipped to the children's section, eager to borrow books with it.
He rejected all the educational books on fire-fighters, science and numbers I tried to introduce to him, and settled on only one: a Thomas And Friends Wonderful Word Book.
Not wanting to cramp his style, we made little comment and headed for the borrowing kiosks, where he inserted his card, scanned the book and collected the date-due receipt.
Task completed, Julian flicked out some important cards from his father's wallet and proudly slotted in his precious library card.
It struck me, more than ever, that Singapore has a public-library system that we should all be proud of.With its efficient application of IT, its ease of use and the educational collection it offers, our libraries are so accessible that even a three-year-old can master its ins and outs in a few minutes.
On a typical day, I pop by my community library in a shopping mall after doing my supermarketing, take out loans of the latest foreign fashion magazines and peruse the latest fiction and non-fiction titles from literary heavyweights, before heading home to browse through e-book titles on the e-library portal.
And it's all free.
It's encouraging how more people are making full use of the libraries, although many are merely there to read newspapers or snore away in comfortable armchairs. Others hog tables for studying or make use of the freeWi-Fi and power supply for their laptops.
Sadly, I've also been finding evidence of bad behaviour by library users: magazine pages torn out by previous borrowers; defaced books and dog ears; loud aunties using mobile phones in reading areas; and teenagers who insist on sprawling on the floor in front of shelves, getting in the way of those who want to browse titles.
In the end, parents who teach their kids to appreciate and respect libraries may be giving these tykes one of the greatest gifts you don't need money to buy.
And since there's an ongoing drive to get parents to sign up their children for membership from a young age (along with a competition to find the youngest library member), I'm planning to send the Supportive Spouse to get a library card for our second baby as soon as he arrives in a month's time.
Should all the shopping malls and entertainment hotspots in the world disappear overnight, or should the apocalypse strike, I'll be happy to be cocooned in a reading room surrounded by masses of books, all offering windows into alternate universes and parallel lives.
And I'm sure that in time to come, Julian will, too.
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