“We are entering the fourth age of libraries” – Singapore libraries’ Chief Innovation Officer

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

From generative AI tools to library offshoots in train stations, Singapore’s libraries have been transforming at a rapid pace. GovInsider speaks to Gene Tan, Chief Innovation Officer, to understand what the library of the future will look like.

Punggol Regional Library, Singapore's largest public library, is designed with dedicated zones for young children, teenagers, entrepreneurs, and more. Image: The National Library Board

This is the first of a two-part story on Singapore’s libraries. The second part of this story can be read here

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It has never been a more exciting time for libraries in Singapore: the country’s National Library Board launched the biggest library in Singapore last April, and library nodes have popped up at bus stations, malls, and hospitals throughout 2023.


On 12 January this month, Singapore’s Central Public Library reopened after being closed for a revamp since 2022. Along with the reopening, library users can expect the launch of three new tech prototypes powered by emerging technologies like generative AI – such as a chatbot that lets users have a conversation with books.


But how does the library board keep on top of trends and continue serving the public in a time when books seem passé? GovInsider reached out to Gene Tan, Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Librarian, to learn more about how the agency keeps Singapore’s libraries relevant and vibrant for the public in this two-part story.


Tell us about some of the innovations in place at Singapore’s newest libraries – what stands out to you, and which will be the gamechangers?


NLB has pushed ahead with many exciting innovative initiatives over the years. One of the most recent has been to see what we can do with Generative AI. Many are already seeing what it can do in different aspects of our lives, such as generating videos, visuals, text and other material very quickly.

We asked ourselves the question: how can we leverage Gen AI to draw from our wealth of resources from our libraries and archives – published books, research materials, and other trustworthy sources – to answer any questions that patrons may have?

So, we came up with a prototype called ChatBook – a Gen AI-powered chat service. It draws upon the material we have, to provide patrons with reliable responses to their questions. 


Beyond the chat service, we are also developing new prototypes such as Glue and StoryGen which leverage technology and our resources to offer our patrons immersive multimedia experiences that aim to inspire a deeper appreciation of our collective experience.

We intend to pilot the three tech prototypes – ChatBook, Glue and StoryGen – in the coming months. Through our rapid prototyping approach, we will learn quickly from failures and fine-tune successful pilots that have the potential to enhance the learning experiences of our patrons.


In the spirit of experimentation and innovation, we have also rolled out new ways for Singaporeans to engage with NLB. These include nodes in parks, malls, train and bus stations, and hospitals for people to access our material anywhere and anytime. 

The National Library Board's fully self-service Comics Library is decorated with vintage comics, reminiscent of the pop art movement. Image: The National Library Board

Our latest pop-up Comics Library is a fully self-service library featuring NLB’s Grab-n-Go service, which is an automated self-checkout gantry that leverages Ultra-High Frequency Radio Frequency Identification technology to enable the seamless borrowing of books.  These offerings will be refined as we study the feedback and responses to these experiments.

Besides tapping on new and emerging technologies in our offerings, we also continue to innovate the patron's experience in our public libraries. Our fourth regional library, and our biggest public library to date, the Punggol Regional Library is a platform for many new services that demonstrate our innovative mindset and spirit across our LAB25 (Libraries and Archives Blueprint 2025) roles. 

Patrons can walk or wheel through the new Borrow and Go service, which can scan items automatically. Image: The National Library Board

For example, we have piloted new accessible services like Borrow and Go, which enables patrons to walk or wheel through a borrowing booth that will scan items automatically; and Calm Pods, which are specially designed spaces to help patrons to settle their emotions down. 


We had a very encouraging response from the public, and the library has welcomed more than a million visitors since its opening, making it the most visited library in our network this year.


What does the library of the future look like?


Libraries have gone through different ages. The first age of libraries was about acquisitions – acquiring as big and as unique a collection as possible. The second was about access – providing access to the content collected. The third was about creation. Most libraries around the world are about that now – for instance, many, including NLB, are providing maker and tinkering spaces for patrons to develop products like 3D printed materials.


I believe we are entering the fourth age of libraries – the generative library.

The library of the future will be generative, says Gene Tan, Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Librarian of Singapore's National Library Board. Image: The National Library Board

I am not just talking about Gen AI, though that would be a major engine of this. It is about people coming together to generate new content that did not exist before. It is also about generating new connections and opportunities that did not exist before, especially for people who are somehow always one step behind others.


Libraries can be platforms to equalise individuals and communities through providing these opportunities for reading, learning or just to be better. Our experiments such as ExperienceIT help to connect people to emerging technologies that some might otherwise find puzzling or even intimidating.


Also, it can be the social connector – connecting across different communities, demographics and even differences. We have always done so by building communities within libraries like our still thriving book clubs. We can go further. We can become a library of not just books and magazines but of communities. So, you can find communities to join, and communities can find you. Our libraries can be the meeting and collaborative spaces for you to take it further.


The biggest advantage that libraries have is the low barrier to entry, where anyone is welcomed regardless of who you are, who you know or how much you have.


What are the kinds of collaborations that lead to successful libraries?


Our LAB25 plan really says it all. It is an invitation to like-minded individuals, communities and organisers to embark on a journey of experimentation and reimagine libraries and archives of the future.


We are very open to collaboration, ideas and feedback, and you can see how we have done it together with the community.


For the Punggol Regional Library, we engaged the disability community and the Advisory Committee to get their input and feedback on spaces and services that could make the library more accessible for persons with disabilities. This is translated into specific infrastructural spaces such as the Calm Pods and other offerings such as the Accessible Collection, programmes that are adapted to provide easier access for persons with disabilities, and accessible technology devices for them to enjoy NLB’s learning resources and services more easily.

NLB has partnered with SMRT, a public transport operator in Singapore, to launch "library nodes" for citizens on the go. Image: The National Library Board

In September 2023, we launched NLB-SMRT Nodes in partnership with SMRT, as part of our ongoing efforts to bring the library experience beyond its physical facilities, and to make learning and discovery accessible in everyday public transport spaces.


To be truly a generative library and archives, we welcome content creators, community drivers and tech developers, among many others, to work with us on rapid prototypes to see what the defining services of the future could possibly be.


Also read: How library tech is keeping up with the changing role of libraries in society