A new chapter for Singapore’s libraries

Experts from software supplier Civica explain how technology can bring libraries into the digital age and help librarians foster a love of reading.

"When in doubt, go to the library,” said J.K. Rowling, author of the renowned Harry Potter series. Throughout history, libraries have been treasure troves of knowledge, delighting and informing us with answers to many of the world’s mysteries. Libraries have evolved from being places that disseminate information and resources to communal spaces that offer a range of services to their users, from knowledge co-curation to technology exploration to science experiments and more. Libraries have transformed from information hubs to knowledge hubs in which people and minds converge in the pursuit of knowledge and learning. In Singapore. The education ministry’s School Library Committee has had a longstanding partnership with software company Civica, which has been awarded the contract three times in the past 17 years. Civica deploys its software seamlessly across schools, offers them staff to run their libraries, and trains personnel to create an inviting ambience for students. Dr Samson Tan, Civica’s Head of Strategic Development for Libraries and Education, says libraries can help students acquire  21st-century skills. “One possibility is to integrate the [Ministry of Education’s] library system with the student learning space so that teachers and students enjoy a seamless experience teaching and learning,” he says. “The technology is available for creating that kind of seamless learning environment. It’s a great, grand idea to encourage students to read widely.” So how can we continue supporting librarians in managing our libraries? Experts from Civica explain how digital tools and data analytics can help us reimagine the possibilities that library systems can offer.

Curation: An art supported by science

Content curation is the art of combing through thousands of resources online and picking the right content for users, says Civica’s Head of Product and Innovation, Prabu S/O Sangar. “But the life of a librarian does not stop at curation, it revolves around understanding who the patrons are, what are the trends and how they can be amalgamated so that just-in-time service can be provided”, Prabu says. As a librarian, Prabu believes that library management systems can do a lot more to automate processes for librarians, allowing them to focus on prioritising engagements with students instead of being preoccupied with administrative tasks. Libraries of all types across Singapore are all based on the same system – Civica’s library management system, Spydus. “Whichever sector the library is in, they’re using Spydus,” Dr Tan says. Once information is entered into Spydus, it becomes discoverable by students on the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), through which students can search for and borrow library resources. “We have different avenues on the OPAC to make content discoverable. The concept of discoverability allows users to search across different media and topics,” says Prabu, likening it to the way in which Netflix presents its content to users. In support of the education ministry’s digital transformation initiative, which started in 2015, Civica has partnered with Microsoft to integrate data visualisation product PowerBI into its library management systems. Teachers need to understand what kinds of books to buy for an estimated 300,000 students, and accurate trend reporting based on 5 million records is crucial. The data are analysed and interpreted by Civica’s professional librarians, who are also skilled in collection development, to provide valuable insights into this. “The thing about data is that it becomes valuable only when it can provide useful insights and tells a story that can help decision-makers to make better decisions,” says Prabu. PowerBI does just that. Using the software, librarians can find out how many people borrow books in a given month, what types of materials they are borrowing, and whether the library’s current collection is sufficient and sufficiently up-to-date to support users. This helps to create an environment in which “decisions are made based on data, instead of feelings or ‘guts’,” Prabu says.

Pandemic pivot

Civica says the digital transformation of Singapore’s school systems did not come without certain difficulties, but the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the need for library resources to be readily available, particularly when students and teachers were unable to physically access libraries. One key programme that the Civica team developed was the School E-Resource Repository (SERR), a digital library for schools that uses library data and which curates and catalogues freely available resources for students based on their syllabuses. SERR aims to promote recreational reading as well as support learning for students across various subject areas. “When the government made the announcement on home-based learning in April 2020, teachers were left with a situation whereby they [didn’t] have sufficient materials to do online learning with their students,” says Rohaya Bte Mohammed, Director of Customer Engagement for Libraries at Civica. “It was a huge adjustment for everyone [in the education sector], and was also a game-changer that forced us to rethink how lessons could be done differently.” SERR doesn’t stop at the classroom curriculum, but also extends to non-curricular activities. During the school holiday period, SERR switches its recommended selection to extracurricular themes, such as science, technology, humanities and mathematics, and to e-magazines for leisure reading, Prabu says.

Benefits of clouds

Civica’s Spydus system began life in a data centre, but using cloud-based library management systems provides additional data security. Data stored in thumb drives and data centres have single points of failure, Prabu says, meaning that there is a risk of all the data they hold being lost if one part of the system stops working. Data stored on a cloud server, however, is less vulnerable to system failures. “Even if one cloud fails, you have another cloud to back up [the data],” Prabu explains. In the case of a power outage or a computer failure, the library data will still be safely stored in the cloud. Ensuring data privacy is also a key concern, given that personal data such as students’ names and ages is stored in library management systems when they borrow books. Civica works closely with the Ministry of Education and state technology agency GovTech to ensure that strong security measures and firewalls are in place to secure students’ data. “We make sure that the data we’re providing to the school is carefully analysed without [including] personal data,” Prabu says. Civica ensures that Spydus, which is used by about 350 schools in Singapore, is able to handle the huge demand during peak periods so the borrowing system is not disrupted and students can continue borrowing books. “Remember, we are responsible for ensuring the experience of 300,000 students using the library is positive and that is our commitment," Prabu says.

Future learning

Working with many stakeholders in the education sector, Civica is in a strategic position to provide a holistic overview of the needs of education providers and those they serve. “There’s a whole lot of rich data that sits in our system, but the data belongs to our customers. For them to be able to cross-share, we have to have deep discussions about the future of libraries and learning, and what these possibilities are going to look like,” Dr Tan says. “We’re future-proofing libraries with innovation and solutions to support communities and libraries,” Prabu says. With the help of digital and labour solutions, school libraries can enrich students’ learning and nurture a love of reading.