When was the last time you held a book in your hand? There are a thousand things vying for our attention every day, and the sight of someone sitting down – undistracted – to read a book is becoming a rare sight, where eyes are mainly glued to phone screens, catching up on the latest news or videos.

As reading habits change, Singapore’s National Library Board is also changing – powered by high tech. “We accept that the library is not just a place to come and borrow books. To attract more people, we need the library to be a place for experience, especially networking and community connection,” says Ramachandran Narayanan, NLB’s Director and Deputy Chief Information Officer of Technology & Digital Services.

He shares with GovInsider how libraries are using augmented reality, robotics and artificial intelligence to make reading great again.

Creating libraries with its users

In 2017, the United Kingdom closed down some 130 libraries across the country. But in Singapore, the number of libraries have more than doubled since 2000, according to Narayanan.

NLB believes the key is to use data to create libraries that last. It works with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Singapore Land Authority to plan libraries in crowded areas, and close them in others. This has seen an increasing number of branches open in busy shopping malls where younger people escape the tropical sun to gorge on frappucinos and curry puffs.

The biggest library is at Harbourfront mall, which was opened this year, and has a sea view and a lush modern design. The location isn’t the only change to make it more appealing. The branch has a space dedicated to augmented reality in its children’s section, where immersive storytelling can take place. “We want to revamp the libraries to create a more conducive space for younger readers,” says Narayanan.

NLB has launched similar spaces across the island, which can even include 3D printing facilities and maker workshops for people with similar interests to gather, learn and experiment.

Melding the digital and physical

This tech is not just targeted at the young. NLB is trialling a new app to help people navigate around the library without asking the librarians or blindly searching a labyrinth of books. People scan a QR code at the entrance of the library, and their phone will then direct them to the book they want.

NLB is also using virtual reality to bring history alive. Since the National Archives came under its purview in 2014, it has digitised old audiovisual records and packaged them as virtual tours. These are available online or in ‘learning pods’ – with interactive screens – where people can learn about Singapore’s history.

Who runs the library? Robots

Imagine a library without librarians, but you are still able to have everything you need at your fingertips. The NLB is using robots to make that happen.

The use of tech is intended to reduce manual tasks for library staff, he says. “We do a lot of automation so that staff can focus on providing other services, rather than doing the mundane and routine,” says Narayanan.

Branches already have an auto-sorter robot which sorts the books that are returned and flags the late ones for charges. Narayanan wants to bring that to the next level by using a “shelf-scanning” robot to see if books are sitting at the right places and to stock take items.

Who knows how long the familiar feel of a crumpled paperback will be in our lives. But NLB is constantly fine-tuning its approach by keeping track of its users’ needs with data, he says. “Whether you want to read ebooks or physical book, it becomes a place for community to gather,” says Narayanan.

He believes that the library will long be with us as a valued part of our lives. “People still go to the cinema, you know, it’s an experience”. With robots roaming the stacks and virtual reality powering the branches, it sounds like Singapore Library Board is taking on Hollywood head on.

Image by the National Library Board