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I wondered if I should illustrate this reflection with a photo of an inconsiderate patron at the library.

I made up my mind when I recalled how she opted to sleep in public and then raised a fuss when approached by a librarian. There is no shaming the shameless.

But this reflection is not about a character attack. If I had such inclinations, I would use Facebook.

No, this my observation of how public servants lose moral authority by compromising on standards.

Inconsiderate patron at a library.

The person in the photo was sleeping in the library. This seems harmless until you realise that she:

  • Was denying a more legitimate user of a seat
  • Set a phone alarm that alerted everyone but her
  • Drew the attention of the same librarian on two occasions
  • Verbally abused the librarian

The librarian had first told the woman not to sleep there. In her second patrol, the librarian responded to the ringing alarm. She asked the woman, “Are you feeling ok?” and this set the woman off. The woman cussed and complained.

Thankfully, inconsiderate patrons are still the minority, but I still do not envy being the librarian. It takes just one to spoil your day.

That said, librarians (and anyone in authority) are gatekeepers of behaviour. If they let one misbehaviour through, others will follow. If they attempt to stem the flow and do not do it well, the flow continues.

The librarian asked an indirect question in an attempt to deal with the problem. She was hoping that the woman would realise her anti-social behaviour and correct herself by leaving. She did not and she was recalcitrant.

A more direct approach might have been to tell the woman that it was library policy not to deny a more legitimate user a seat. If she did not get that message, the librarian could do what the periodic announcements declare — tell her to leave.

It is not always wise to let sleeping dogs lie. They will take over and you will lose moral authority.

This is a principle that applies broadly to other contexts, e.g, classrooms, public transport, parenting. Our authority as educators, public servants, or parents lies not in who we are, but in what we stand on. Lose that ground and we will lose that authority.

The modern library is not just a place, it is a space. It is not just a place to borrow or read books, it is a space to expand your horizons.

Abandoned property and loud phone use in a local library.

Unfortunately, some people do the unexpected or the unacceptable. Modern libraries in Singapore, particularly those in the heartlands, are also spaces for:

  • Child daycare and playgrounds
  • Denture display AKA public napping
  • Using wifi to watch YouTube or video conference sans ear/headphones
  • Taking advantage of air-conditioning to engage in coffeeshop talk sans coffeeshop heat
  • Talking loudly on the phone
  • Displaying, abandoning, or donating private property

If libraries are microcosms of society, it seems to attract and concentrate the irresponsible and the selfish. They are not the majority, but they make a disproportionately large show of force. Please do not judge the rest of us by those examples.

When I travel overseas, I try to visit a local library. This might be a tiny one in Vietnam, a traditional one in a university, or a modern one in Amsterdam.

Why do this on vacation? I find that what people stand or wish for translates into the design of such a public space.

A trend that seems to have consumed progressive libraries and librarians is the mantra that the modern library is not just a place but also a space. This statement leaves room for interpretation. Mine is that a library should not just be a place to read or borrow books; it is space to work, chill, collaborate, get inspired, or learn in less restrictive and self-directed ways.

Some libraries slap old and new together and expect them to meld. Others integrate the two seamlessly or relegate the redundant pragmatically. My recent visit to the Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam (OBA) — the Public Library of Amsterdam — was a perfect example of what I think a library should be.
 

The OBA was not a gem to admire on the outside, but once inside you might find it hard to describe why it is so welcoming and different. Note: Several Instagram embeds to follow.
 

Near the entrance was the kids’ section and a piano. I recorded this video while a pianist provided an impromptu soundtrack.

Function meets form: Provide a piano in a prominent place and someone will play it.
 

Absolutely love the main Public Library of Amsterdam #oba #amsterdam

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

The kids’ section dominated the entrance on the left. The unusually shaped lights reminded me of ball-and-stick chemical molecules or some diatoms underneath a microscope. The section was predominantly white with bright splashes of colour from the toys, furniture, and displays that strategically littered the space.

Function meets form: Provide a welcoming and curious place to explore and kids will learn by play.
 

I noticed at least two displays: One was a comic exhibition that ran along three walls; the other was a three-metre high Mouse Mansion. The comics were as thought-provoking as the mansion was fascinatingly detailed.

Function meets form: Provoke with dissonance and detail, and people will learn by critique and observation.

I forgot to photograph the space to the right of the entrance. Other than elevators and a service desk, that side was dominated with self-help kiosks for membership, buying wifi time (for non-members), returning books, borrowing books.

The book system was particularly impressive. It sported a modern, brushed metal interaction front, and a robotic complex of tubes and arms behind plexiglass in the back.

Function meets form: Provide minimal instructions and slick but compelling tools, and people will learn to use them.
 

Computers for the public to use at the Public Library of Amsterdam #oba #amsterdam

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

The ceilings were high and the place well-lit either by large windows or bright white light.

OBA upper floor.

The library had a basement and six upper levels. I explored them all and discovered a common theme despite each floor having is own character. There were relatively few bookshelves and books. The mid-level floors featured reading and display areas that might look like a Barnes and Noble or part of a modern museum.
 

The spaces seemed to be designed with people and creature comforts in mind, not silent reading or maintaining order. The strange thing about giving people what they wanted was that they respected the place with a hush that would make a mouse blush.

Function meets form: Provide variations on a human-centric theme and people will do what comes naturally.
 

There were several seating configurations. Other than this café-like arrangement, there were also comfortable single seats, sofas, glass-walled cubicles and meeting rooms, and computer terminals that ringed the central atrium on almost all floors.

Function meets form: Recreate what people are already familiar with and they will transfer behaviours or learn new ones with minimal barriers.
 

The top floor was accessible only by this staircase or a set of elevators. If you ventured to this floor, you were rewarded with a restaurant and excellent views of Amsterdam.

View from the top floor of the OBA.

My family and I spent about four hours at the library. While I had my fix of photo-taking, my wife and son chilled at the top floor for much of the time. We had dinner there and relaxed some more.

Function meets form: Provide rewards that are not purely extrinsic or obvious. A room with a view is a room with a view.

Rising above all of this, I was reminded that there was no point rushing from point to point during a family vacation. The point was to relax and recharge, and in doing so, learn incidentally and accidentally. I knew about form meeting function, but I received informal lessons on function meeting form.

The principle of form meeting function applies in web design as much as it does in interior design. It is about putting human function first. But just as we shape our environments, our creations also shape what we do and how we do it. Function meeting form is a human-centric principle of recognising that this reverse and balance is also true.

Like newspapers and magazines, libraries need to stay ahead of the curve in their bid to stay relevant. Thanks to Carolyn, my regular provider of news tidbits, I gained an insight from the Rambling Librarian about the Republic Polytechnic Library right here in Singapore.

It’s no New York Public Library (see a photo I took of its Reading Room about three years ago), but it is quite impressive in its own right. I include one of the Rambling Librarian’s photos below thanks to the Creative Commons license.

I am not just referring to its spaciousness or its modern look and feel. It seems to have been designed and built with the polytechnic’s problem-based learning approach in mind. There is space and seating for small teams to gather, discuss, research and play. Speaking of play, there are areas for gaming as well!

I have not personally been to that library, but I’d like to visit it some day to get an up close and personal feel of it. I’d also like to gauge if its used the way its been design to.


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