Then and Now: Former National Library Singapore

By Lionel

Then. (1960)

1960 

Singapore’s first national library was built. I lived on Stamford Road, and it was just a short walk from my house. I remember being six when my parents took me there for the first time, and as a child I was fascinated. The completed library had a reinforced concrete framed structure with brick walls, the architecture reflecting the red-brick epoch of the British architecture. The place was tremendous, spanning a large area and three stories tall. Like a child to its parents, I felt a strange comfort and connection to the place, as if it were holding me in its arms. That day, I spent hours burying my nose in books, tossing each aside after my childish attention span decided it was enough.  

Unfortunately, it seemed that almost everyone had something negative to say about the library. They said “it looked “horrible” and “out of character”. But I didn’t care, I loved it as it was, unfazed by any criticism.  

From then, my parents took me there every week, and occasionally I would visit it on my own on the way home from school. The librarians seemed to like me; they were always okay with my antics as long as I kept quiet.  

1964  

My grandfather died.   

I came home from school one day and saw him lying on his chair. My ten-year-old self took a while to notice how his head was tilted back in an awkward position, his jaw slightly open and his movements still. All assumptions of him sleeping fell away when I shook him by the shoulders and he rolled onto the floor, his arms limp and unmoving.   

I called him once. Twice. No reaction, no pulse. My calls turned to screams as his breath reached its silent halt. My mom gasped when she heard my pleas and came down, greeted by the sight of me with a tearstained face and a lifeless grandfather.  

Dealing with it was never easy. It was my first time with death and the experience made me hate it. I ran to the library, because it was the only other place I felt safe. I hid in the furthest corner, among the back rows of shelves, crying. To cope, I started to read. Tears stained the pages of some books lightly, but as they piled up, my heart felt a subtle sense of release. One after another, these stories helped with the grief I was facing. The warmth of the library returned to assure me that everything was okay.   

I knew it wasn’t but at least for a moment, it made me feel alright.  

1972  

In my pre adult years I was experiencing some rough times. What’s surreal is how at 18, you’re thrown into the world to survive so suddenly, as I entered the cycle of job searching and tax counting. Overwhelmed by stress the only thing that provided me solace was the library. In this place of refuge I felt like a child again; the security it provided in this turbulent phase in life put me at great ease. There was something about sinking back in a chair with a book in hand that felt so timeless.  

This friendly silence showed me relief in distress, and the feel of these pages gave me a reason to believe that I was safe and sound.  

2004  

Years passed; I’m 50 now. My daughter had her firstborn a month ago, a beautiful baby boy. Age has brought me wisdom and throughout the years I continued to hold onto that library as something of deep sentimental value to me. It accompanied me through the bad times, the good times, and sometimes it was my safe space, where on the rougher days I would pray through my sorrows there. One is never be too old to read; it was these pages and rows of bookshelves that got me through my life, giving me the will and courage to go on, to be able to live through the tough times to make it where I am now.  

Now, the library is being demolished. It closed on April 1 this year to prepare for its destruction, the reasons for this being poor land use in the area and traffic congestion. A new national library was to be built in its place in a different location, on Victoria Street, while the land the original building sat on would to be used to make way for the Singapore Management University and Fort Canning Tunnel. I visited the library one last time to utter my last silent goodbyes to it, before it got taken down.   

Entering the place, memories of my youth came flooding back. I brushed my fingers against the shelves, seeing the familiar titles and the feel of the covers. I picked up a few classics I used to read, Ray Bradbury, Robert Louis Stevenson… I ran through those one last time. Memories of my grandfather returned, but in my maturity I had come to terms with the inevitability of loss. The world moves, things change. I guess I had to move on. Just like this library, I know the new library will never be the same, but everything must go at some point.   

So there I sat, for hours on the stool that bore my weight for decades. 

Now. (2005)

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