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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> Singapore > When it is cool to greet with Vanakkam?
Tamils - a Nation without a State
Library Provision to the Tamil Community in Singapore
Nanyang Technological University,
Susan E. Higgins,
Charles Sturt University,
School of Information Studies,
Courtesy: LIBRES, Library & Information Science Research Electronic Journal
As social institutions, public libraries have always had the responsibility of assimilating minority groups into the mainstream society. The Library 2000 Report (1992) of Singapore described this responsibility in the following way: “there is a need to establish specialised information services to preserve, promote the literary heritage and to encourage local communities to flourish and develop their own unique characteristics” (p.8). A steady drop in the number of Tamil speaking households from 52 percent of all Indian households in 1980 to 44 percent in 1990 exacerbates the problem of preserving this language's unique characteristics (Nirmala, 1995). Such statistics may indicate a need to improve the provision of library services to the Tamil community in Singapore.
Today the National Library Board of Singapore operates a system of the National Reference Library, two Regional Libraries, 18 Community Libraries and 46 Community Children's Libraries. Currently, 160,197 books and 17,351 serials are available in Tamil (http://www.nlb.gov.sg). According to the reading survey conducted by Survey Research Singapore in 1992/1993 of book readers above 13 years old, 2 percent read in Tamil (Building the Tamil Collection, internal NLB report, 1997). The Tamil loans constituted an average of 1.16 percent of the total loans as compared to 2.69 percent of the total collection in the National Library Board from financial year 1995 to 1998. Within the Tamil collection, 56.44 percent were adult books, 38.31 percent children’s books, and 5.25 percent young people’s books. Among the Tamil readers, 73 percent were adults, 24.35 percent were children, and 2.65 percent were young people. The most popular books were fiction, health and fitness, computer, and self-improvement. Tamil magazines were also among the favourites (National Library Report, 1999).
The following research questions formed the basis of this study:
The study was limited to the Tamil community and did not include the Indian community at large. The Tamil community represents 64 percent of the Indian population in Singapore.
Library Services to Ethnic Minorities
A minority group of people such as the Tamil-speaking Singaporeans differ in some ways from the principal group in a society in that they are small in numerical strength and have fewer economic, political, and social opportunities than members of the dominant groups. It is the belief of some researchers that libraries should help the ethnic community regain their cultural identity, no matter how small the community, because libraries are supported by the tax dollars of the whole community (Carroll, 1985).
The Tamil Community
Provision of Tamil Script Library Materials in Singapore
The Raffles National Library in Singapore in 1960 was the first public library that provided collections in three important local languages on a large scale. At that time, the greatest problem faced by the National library was the recruitment of a sufficient number of qualified bilingual librarians to meet the demands of the vernacular materials (Anuar, 1960).
A significant Tamil collection exists at the Umar Pullavar Tamil Language Centre, which serves students studying Tamil as a second language. Students are allowed to borrow reference books for their projects in schools, and this library has promoted usage through various library activities, for example, a presentation entitled “The Usage of Library In Second Language” (Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre, Souvenir Magazine, 1989, p. 20).
A limitation of the focus group, however, lies in the difficulties of interpreting the immense data. This pool of information must be deciphered carefully to avoid quoting comments out of context. Also, the researcher may arrive at premature conclusions because the moderator can influence the respondents by probing to attain the desired answers.
Focus Group Participants
The respondents were all regular library users who had patronised the Tamil collection in the libraries of the National Library Board of Singapore. The youngest interviewee was 14 years old; the eldest was 65. All of the participants are Tamils ethnically; have studied the Tamil language in schools; and are able to converse, read, and write in Tamil. There were five males and seven females.
The participants were recruited through the researcher’s contacts from civic and media organizations, recommendations from former colleagues, library users from community libraries, and others recommended by personal friends.
Conducting the Sessions
The sessions were conducted in English, and each meeting lasted no more than two hours. Participants were requested to wear nametags and mingle with one another before the meeting began. At the start of the sessions, the researcher explained the objectives of the focus group meetings and how the participants as regular users of the library could benefit from the meetings. All names were held confidential.
The researcher used an interview guide to direct the discussion. Open-ended questions were designed, pre-tested, and piloted by non-selected investigators. These questions became useful in manipulating and stimulating discussion when responses opened new avenues for data collection. The researcher used the emerging and recurrent themes from the first discussion to facilitate the second and third focus group sessions while remaining on the topic. Frequently, one participant’s comment led to chains of response from the others.
The researcher transcribed the recorded transcripts after each session and made phone calls or sent e-mail messages to several participants to clarify some responses. As the information collected was extensive, a non-linear, reiterative process of returning to the data became necessary. Moreover, the researcher employed emerging themes and patterns from the data as a means of re-organising the information gathered. Themes and patterns defined a set of coding categories based on the actual data, i.e., the answers posed to the questions in the interview guide. This coding factor represented thematically cohesive content found within the narratives and, once analysed, provided a data reduction technique (Moen & McClure, 1997). Qualitative information concerning expected user benefits of Tamil collections in Singapore's public libraries, lessons learned through experience, and perceived barriers or threats to the success of the Tamil collection were all noted.
Many participants rated reading as one of their favorite pastimes and indicated that their reading inclined towards English materials. All twelve participants visited the library at least once a month, demonstrating that all of them were library users. This study concurred with the research done by Mani and Gopinath (1983) on linguistic trends. They stated that “each population census has clearly indicated literacy rates are higher among the Indians when compared to Chinese, Malays and others in Singapore” (p.105).
Evaluation of Tamil Collection
The participants also proposed that all magazines be placed in the lending section instead of being located in the reference collection. In order to extend the access of such popular Tamil magazines as the Indian Movie News, some libraries have placed them in the reference collection for internal library use. This allows more users to read the latest issues. The researcher proposed that more varieties be added to the Tamil magazine collection.
The participants considered newspaper reading unpopular. In fact, there was only one participant who read the Tamil newspaper to keep abreast of developments in the Tamil community. The researcher deduced that more detailed information is easily available in the English newspapers and that perhaps the Tamil newspaper is not packaged attractively enough to lure young readers. An improvement in the physical presentation and quality of newspaper might attract readers.
Tamil Fiction Books
Some participants read mostly fiction in Tamil from such popular authors as Mu Va, Agilan, and Kalki. One participant suggested that the library buy more copies of these authors’ books while another proposed that more varieties of popular fiction written by young authors would be preferable to those by old writers.
One participant suggested that the library highlight local authors to combat the more India-based novels and stories, which the locals may find difficult to relate to. To address this problem, the library might encourage local publishing output for the Tamil community; however, whether a small population base such as that of the Tamil community could justify a major publishing effort is another point of consideration.
Tamil Non-Fiction Books
One participant rated the contents in the Tamil computer magazines to be on a par with the English magazines. He concluded that it was easier to read in Tamil for the information he needed than to read it in English and then to translate it.
Most participants were not satisfied with the adult non-fiction books as there is a real need to enlarge the collection. Moreover, there is also a need to highlight the Tamil adult non-fiction books. Many Tamil users have the notion that the content or information presented in the Tamil books is inferior to that in English books. Then again, it can be argued that the Tamil books may be poorly packaged but need not suffer from a lack of content-rich materials.
According to the National Readership Survey conducted by Forbes Research, Indians constituted the highest proportion of those who read English newspapers with understanding and comprised the lowest proportion of those who could read their mother-tongue language or Tamil as compared to the Chinese and the Malay (Development of the NLB Indian Collection, NLB Internal Report). Improving the children’s collection is the first step in reversing this trend.
The participants offered such useful suggestions as the translation of popular English works such as folklore, fairytales, and other stories into Tamil, retaining the illustrations from the English books. They believed that this would help to address the shortage of colorful and attractive books. Moreover, many who are familiar with the English language can relate to the stories better when read in Tamil.
Another recommendation put forth by the focus group was to get writers of children’s literature from all over “the world to write in Tamil and then publish them either in print or by electronic media.” There are many Tamil writers who live in and out of India who can be a good resource to develop the Tamil children’s literature collection.
Four participants felt that the library could develop non-print materials for children in Tamil. Perhaps the library could develop Tamil audio and visual materials as well as Internet resources. With a proper provision of materials in Tamil for children, it would encourage them to use the collections and patronise the Tamil collections.
One suggestion was to recruit a Tamil-speaking children’s librarian in all the libraries to concentrate on collections and services pertaining to Tamil. Presently, the National Library Board is developing children’s services in Woodlands Regional Library. The researcher recommends that services for the Tamil children be included in this effort as children's services would challenge them to read, learn, use, and appreciate Tamil.
Young People’s Collections
Many participants rated the young people’s collections as the poorest among the Tamil collections, mainly because these collections failed to meet the educational, functional, recreational, and personal needs of young people. There is also a dearth of materials appropriate for the young. Moreover, most books from these collections are placed with the adult collections, making their accessibility even more difficult. Participants suggested that the library include more interesting subject areas such as Tamil music, fashion, and cinema to attract the Tamil youths. Many young people use the Tamil collections only if they have to do school projects. The challenge for the library is to retain these users by providing materials that will continually attract them.
One other participant recommended adopting an exchange of information program with some of the best Tamil libraries in the world. Another wished to see Singapore become the hub for “Tamil language in the region” by developing reference collections of world class standards. One participant stated, “The reference collections in Tamil must be a showcase— something that shows our history, culture, traditions and so forth.”
The participants stated that they needed the bilingual collection to enable non-Indian readers to acquire knowledge about their ethnic group. Providing English materials about the Indian community would be useful in helping the rest of the population comprehend the minority segment. The bilingual collection would help create deeper understanding among the various sub ethnic groups in the Indian community and create more tolerance.
Audio and Video Collection
The participants suggested that the National Library Board could acquire a non-print collection that depicts the richness of the ancient Tamil tradition. They felt that such a provision would also help other segments of the population to respect each other’s culture and traditions.
One participant would like to see the development of an oral history collection in Tamil. Such a collection would be timely, especially when the elderly Tamil population consists of the first generation of immigrants.
Implementing Tamil videos for lending is another way to add value to the services the library can offer to the Tamil community. At the moment, the service is available only in English, Chinese, and Malay.
Collection of the Fine Arts
Some participants expressed interest in developing music, dance, and art collections for Tamil users. It was agreed that the library, by displaying mural collections, could promote ethnic values. Knowledge of the Indian civilization’s paintings and musical instruments will help the Tamil community to regain their cultural values.
There is a dire need to develop the heritage collection. Indians, as
early immigrants to Singapore, have contributed significantly to
nation building. Information about the history of the Indian
settlers—their culture, literary and art traditions—can be collected
in a systematic manner in the library.
Most participants agreed that the Tamil collections were flawed in many ways. They were not satisfied with the collections as a whole, including the classification and the location of these materials in the library. They also found the Tamil books unattractive, old, and outdated. The lack of materials in Tamil and the library’s inadequacy in satisfying their information needs had invariably failed to encourage them to use the Tamil language progressively. This may have contributed to the decreasing usage of the Tamil language in Singapore. The 1990 population census showed that there was an 8 per cent drop in the number of Tamil speaking households compared to 1980. A three-year survey conducted from 1989-92 on Tamil language usage reinforced the drastic picture of the community losing touch with the Tamil language (Nirmala, 1995). The survey also revealed a trend among the Tamil community to use English at home to the exclusion of Tamil.
Four out of twelve participants said they would not read in Tamil even if they could. They found no leisure time to read, and Tamil was not relevant to them because it was difficult to read and they were not proficient. They added that not enough Tamil books were available that would interest them. On one hand, the community might cite the library for not promoting the Tamil language enough to sustain its extensive usage. On the other hand, there are other reasons for the low usage of the language. Mani and Gopinath (1983) noted that the Indian community in Singapore has not acknowledged Tamil as the intra-ethnic language. Tamil is only one of many Indian languages and cannot be regarded as the language of communication. Other Indians in Singapore are also very proud of their own languages such as Malaylam, Telegu, Punjabi, Gujerati, Sindhi, and Hindi and would like to keep their languages alive as well.
Perhaps many Tamils perceive the Tamil language as having little use in multilingual Singapore. Mani and Gopinath (1983) noted that the Tamils had belittled the value of the Tamil language as a result of their high participation in English-medium education.
There is indeed a mixed perception of the usage of Tamil in Singapore. While there is a decreasing usage of the Tamil language, it is nonetheless a functional language as it is recognized as one of the four official languages in Singapore and is used in government campaigns, public education programs, and public functions.
Further, Tamil is widely offered as a second language in most schools in Singapore (The Singapore Ministry of Education website-http://www.moe.com.sg/).
· 148 primary schools offer Tamil as a second language
Out of twelve participants, eight felt the need to read in Tamil
despite poor provisions and services to the Tamil community. The
reasons cited were
All twelve participants felt that the library could do much more to stop the deterioration in the use of the Tamil language. Many expressed their opinion that by resource collection and service provision to the Tamil community, the library would not only help them regain their cultural identities but also assist them to reposition themselves positively in the society.
General Perception of the Library
Recommendations to Improve Library Services to the Tamil Community
Participants in the focus group noted that books for children were unattractive, the collection size was small, and the books were published with poor quality paper and inferior printing and binding compared with books in English. The absence of reviewing journals and other reference tools had further made the selection process of Tamil materials difficult. Special features such as indexes, bibliographies, and illustrations were lacking. Tamil book publishing tends to be unbalanced, especially in the area of non-fiction. While there is a preponderance of books on literature, there seems to be a dearth of books on computers, self-improvement, and other subjects.
Although the participants were generally satisfied with the library
in the fulfillment of their information needs, those needs
pertaining to the provision of library services to encourage the
usage of Tamil were inadequately provided for.
· To revamp the Tamil collection to tailor to the needs of the
Mobile Libraries for Tamil Collections
Home Delivery Services for Tamil Books
The majority of the participants indicated their interest in home
delivery services for Tamil books. They stated that it would be one
good way to circulate the Tamil collection. Some said the library
could even charge a nominal fee for the service.
An electronic village or virtual community that can provide Internet resources would help the community to have links with the Tamil language. Via the Web, the library can inter-connect with other resources in the Tamil language as well as libraries throughout the world with the best Tamil collections.
Eleven participants were in favor of this idea. They would like to be exposed to more electronic resources in Tamil. They felt that ongoing technological changes could result in higher levels of services to the Tamil community. The Tamil collection needs to keep abreast of technological advances or will have to risk being irrelevant to Tamil users. Many traditional and new forms of information in Tamil could be collected, stored, and transmitted in digital forms.
One Regional Centre for Tamil Studies
There is a dire need to consolidate all the Tamil resources in one place. Many participants would like to see a regional centre for Tamil studies. One participant stated, “There is [are] Chinese studies, Malay studies, but no Tamil studies in the local Universities." Another said, “There is no single Tamil book in the libraries of National University of Singapore.”
One way to encourage the continued learning of the ethnic language is to provide resources in such higher institutions as universities. The findings of this study indicate a need to offer Tamil studies as a subject in the local universities. Mani (1993) stated that there is an urgent need to adopt a promotional policy of the Tamil language: “a systemic development of Tamil language as a literary studies [program] at the highest academic levels would uplift the status of the use of Tamil language” (p.115).
The findings suggest that there was no adequate provision of library services to the Tamil community and that such provision would enhance the use of Tamil language in Singapore by having a significant impact on the perceptions and expectations of the user.
Conclusions Based on the Focus Group
This study of the Tamil community’s expectations of services designed for them concurs with the literature that provision of library services for the ethnic minority is essential in order to develop professional library service.
Since there are myriad Indian languages in Singapore, the requirement to meet the language needs of all in the Indian community in Singapore is a concern for the future. The needs of those who are fluent and seek materials in other Indian languages such as Hindi and Punjabi will have to be addressed accordingly.
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