Exhibition: Evolution of NUS Libraries

As an undergraduate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), I spent most of my time in the Central Library (CLB), studying in the conducive space. One of my fondest memories in NUS was coming into the library in the morning to spend some quiet time alone before going to my classes. There is no doubt that CLB was my favourite place in the university. But how much did I know about it before I started working here? Frankly, not much. I am sure many of you love and visit the library as much as I do. So, why not take a break from your assignments while you are in CLB and visit the exhibition on level five to learn more about the history of the library?

A Kodak moment: returning my library books one last time at the old book drop station on level four. The photograph was taken during the post-circuit breaker in June 2020.

Retired library technologies on display: chest of drawers for card catalogue (left) and albums containing microfiches (right). The Library of Congress describes the card catalogue beautifully – a “venerated chest of small drawers that contained the known universe”.

Retired library technologies on display: chest of drawers for card catalogue (left) and albums containing microfiches (right). The Library of Congress describes the card catalogue beautifully – a “venerated chest of small drawers that contained the known universe”.

The exhibition, Evolution of NUS Libraries, chronicles the development of the NUS Libraries from the 1900s to the present. The exhibition space comprises three sections. The banners on the wall illustrate the history and milestones of NUS Libraries, beginning from 1905 when it started from a small collection in the principal’s office at the Straits and Federated Malay States Government Medical School to its trials and tribulations during the Japanese Occupation and finally becoming what we know today as the NUS Libraries.

On the other side of the exhibition space, a selection of retired technologies that were used for manual cataloguing and indexing are on display. The library technologies are not merely relics of the NUS Libraries but they also bear testament to our librarians’ adaptability to change in the different eras and their efforts in modernising and digitising the organisation system.

Enclosed in the glass case is a curated selection of rare books from the Singapore-Malaysia Collection. The rare books are not often on display, instead, they are usually carefully wrapped in acid-free paper and stored in the closed stacks with optimised temperature. They are making a brief appearance to promote Digital Gems, a gateway to our rare, historical and primary source materials from the NUS Libraries Special Collection that are in digital format. A large selection of the materials in the Libraries, including the rare books, have already been digitised and made available on our digital platform. Digitisation has its advantages, it allows users to access the materials online wherever they are (yes, even during circuit-breaker!) and it provides an alternative approach to preserving the materials.

Above & below: A selection of rare books on display.

Yet, I still believe that technology should be used to enhance experiences but not replace them. Hence, I would still encourage you to come and take a look at the rare books on display when you are at CLB. The old (and rare) books are really a form of art on their own – the way it is bound, the cover; whether the paper is marbled or embossed with gold letterings, the illustrations and the font type used. These are details you will only notice when you look at them in person. What’s more? The selection changes from time to time so look out for the next update!

Gladys Toh
Heritage Working Group

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