What does Singapore public libraries’ Chief Innovation Officer do?

By Yogesh Hirdaramani

In the second part of GovInsider's feature of Singapore’s libraries, Gene Tan, Chief Innovation Officer at Singapore’s National Library Board demystifies what the job entails.

Chief Librarian/Chief Innovation Officer Gene Tan (back row, second from right) with NLB Chief Executive Ng Cher Pong (back row, third from right) and the team behind the Comics Library. Photo credit: National Library Board.

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

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Gene Tan, Chief Innovation Officer at Singapore’s Library Board is equal parts librarian and equal parts creative director. 


Tan has played a pivotal role in orchestrating large-scale historical events, such as the Singapore Bicentennial project, the SG50 capstone exhibition, The Future of Us, and the Singapore Memory Project, all the while keeping Singapore’s libraries innovative and forward-looking.


GovInsider speaks to Tan to learn more about what his role as Chief Innovation Officer at Singapore’s libraries entail, and the role libraries play in sustaining Singapore’s national memory.


1. Tell us a bit about your role as a Chief Innovation Officer: what does cultivating innovation in libraries look like?


I have been in NLB long enough to see how innovations have transformed us and our standing in the world. After all, I witnessed and participated in the 1998 implementation of the world’s first electronic library management system using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) for borrowing and returning of our materials.


Coming back now to be the Chief Innovation Officer is coming full circle for me. I see myself as playing three roles – sensemaker, agent provocateur and facilitator.


Sensemaker. Together with my team, the Innovation Office and all my colleagues at NLB, we look at the world inside and especially outside libraries and archives and ask ourselves where things are headed, in terms of how content is produced and distributed and evolving alongside the consumption patterns of users.


Agent Provocateur. Then we ask ourselves tough questions that sometimes get at the core of what we do. Are we about books and magazines alone? Are we even just about reading?


Facilitator. My team and I then work with teams in NLB to chart possible shifts in our offerings through what we call strategy workouts. While there is a method to the madness in the frenetic sessions we have, we don’t always know where we will get to until the end. That is the fun of it, I guess.


2. You have a rich background in national heritage and memory projects. How has that influenced your role and your approach to innovation in Singapore’s libraries?


When I stepped out of the library and archives world to manage national projects like the Singapore Bicentennial and SG50’s The Future of Us, I held on to my training as an organiser of content, though I took it to the level of choreographing them for more emotional experiences so that the users can find a little bit more of themselves as well as that of their community, and ultimately the nation.


Coming back to NLB, I constantly think about how content can be experienced, both in terms of its modality and channels, and how it can be with yourself as well as with others. One thing I am certain of – it is no longer enough for the libraries and archives to just provide seamless transactions.


3. Why do libraries need a Chief Innovation Officer today?


Innovation has been in NLB’s DNA since our inception in 1995. That heralded a huge infrastructural transformation of our libraries. Our users have changed and so has the entire content and learning landscape. I am not sure NLB needs a Chief Innovation Officer as much as I am sure we need innovation if only to keep pace with these changes and with the ever-changing needs of our users. 


Besides driving the development of innovation offerings to stay in our users’ hearts and minds, I see myself as a cheerleader to rally the teams in NLB and to connect with our friends and partners outside NLB to offer something of great value that libraries and archives are still in the best place to provide.


4. What role will libraries play in the next chapter of the Singapore Story?


The National Library and National Archives of Singapore are key memory institutions holding and continuing to collect a significant portion of our national legacy.


The next chapter of the Singapore Story can be guided by the stories and experiences from our past, and our role as a keeper, connector and teller of those stories can be a driving force for that. 


Singaporeans and anyone interested in Singapore can benefit from that to preserve and create stories about Singapore and, in a way, discover what made us Singapore and how the Singaporean identity will continue to evolve.


This journey of discovery can be powered by NLB not only through our considerable content collections but also through virtual and physical experiences of Singapore’s past and present. Ultimately, it is about the curation and choreography of the content in a way that will connect to Singaporeans and help Singaporeans connect to each other.


The desired goal for NLB for the next chapter of the Singapore Story? Singapore stories.


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