On the way into BTC (by car, at least), there’s a series of banners featuring NUS student and staff, including a particular librarian from the NUS Central Library. The faint memory of this banner, combined with a newfound desire to interview different subjects outside of just professors and students, cumulates into an idea of interviewing our very own librarians. I chide Natasha to email them, to which she enthusiastically mass emails every librarian on the CJ Koh Law Library website. The replies are prompt, and (surprisingly) consistent.

“Hi Natasha,

Thanks for asking and taking an interest in the librarians, but I lead a rather boring life.

Siu Chen will represent the law librarians.

Regards.”

And also:

“Hi Natasha,

My life is rather uneventful so I like to decline the request. However,  I learn that my colleague, Lim Siu Chen, has agreed to be interviewed.

I wish you all the best!”

We gather from the emails (of collective rejection) that Siu Chen is a recent NUS Law graduate, who has returned to work at the library. She is, in the words of the other librarians, a “more interesting” subject. As our first non-student interview of the term, we were slightly nervous and unsure as to what to expect. Stumbling around awkwardly around the front desk (while also not being entirely sure where to find her), we are greeted by a fresh-faced Siu Chen, who we knew was a recent NUS Law graduate – but not that recent. Fast forward half an hour later, she’s brought us to the conference room on the third floor of the library.

Copyright © 2017 Allen Sng Kiat Peng, image reproduced with permission. (Click here for more photos!)

We assure her that it’s going to be casual – so we start off the interview with asking: “What is it like, working in the law library?”

“Well,” Siu Chen pauses to think. “Working here is really nice, it’s one of those places where the people and the nature of the job itself, and the environment allows me to grow, as a person, and professionally.” We tell her that the average stereotype of a librarian – shelving books, sorting by numbers – can’t possibly be applicable in the law library, so we ask her to elaborates on the nature of her job – “what do librarians do?”. It was time to correct the assumption.

Siu Chen tells us that it is all about helping people, which she prefers. As a librarian, she explains that most of the time, being a librarian is a people-centric job, with their main focus centred on connecting people to the information that they need. “Though, generally people can do this themselves, through Google.” We all laugh at this. “But… sometimes there are things which cannot be found.” At other times, Siu Chen will help people who approach them with all sorts of questions – with many of them related to directions, understandable in the sprawling layout of C J Koh. “This is why I like my job, a lot of it is helping.”

This is entirely true. We tell her that sometimes, when we encounter difficulties in the process of legal research, or if we have trouble finding someone on LawNet, the professors will say, “Oh, go ask the librarian – they’re like magicians!” Siu Chen laughs at this, pondering out loud on whether it’s true, evidently flattered.

“Wouldn’t the job be difficult, though, connecting people with information they can’t locate themselves?” Siu Chen explains that being a librarian requires a decent depth of understanding of the library resources and a proficiency with the resources available, which she admits is something gained with practice and something the older librarians are definitely better at. “Every job has its challenges,” she says somberly. “Somehow, it’s more difficult to be dealing with people -I mean –  the best part about my job is people, but they can also be the most difficult!”

Upon further prodding, Siu Chen tells us the reason she finds people difficult sometimes. “There are times where people don’t treat us respectfully. For instance, treating us in a very entitled manner.” We wonder aloud if it might be due to the service-based nature of the industry, a suggestion that Siu Chen nods slowly too. “But… I don’t know, it’s nice to just be grateful to each other.” We ask if such behaviour is common here – to which she assures us the students, for the most part, tend to be really nice, but shy at times. Regardless, she reinforces again that the librarians are here to help – and there’s no need to be shy!

Copyright © 2017 Allen Sng Kiat Peng, image reproduced with permission. (Click here for more photos!)

One other responsibility that the librarians have is to compile and facilitate research guides. Siu Chen also shares with us that students can do attachments with the library if they wish and that it isn’t unprecedented. In fact, one of the previous student assistants played a role in helping to create and update the existing library guides available on how to use the library resources.

“What guide?” We ask, forgetting ever receiving anything like that. As Siu Chen describes the typical contents of a research guide, we (AY16/17) experience Vietnam-war style flashbacks to the booklets handed out to us during our first LARC lecture, and also for the library treasure hunt (which, for many students, is the first ever time they’ve stepped foot in the Law Library… and for some of them, unfortunately, the last).

“Remember? There was a whole page about how to use the library?”

“Oh, online right?”

“No, it was printed for us. It came in a file.”

Siu Chen looks as though she just received some sort of epiphany. “Oh yeah! That library file. Yeah, so we have librarians working on those things also, how to find information, but we need more librarians too.” With the modernisation of the reading world, Siu Chen explains that the general form of how information presents itself has also changed – things are doing digital. “People’s reading and writing habits are changing: not everything is in print.” As librarians, the job description which attaches them to physical, tangible, books, they are facing a period of uncertainty regarding their role as the format of information changes in this digital revolution. “This transition into the digital, it’s uncertain. Yet it’s also quite exciting in a way because everything is undefined, so librarians as a whole are trying to figure out and try to find meaning in what’s happening – when the format changes, the nature of our work naturally changes also.”

We hit the point in our interview where Siu Chen becomes a bit philosophical. “What are the core values we retain as librarians?” is the main question she asks, while also wondering if maybe librarians won’t be, or can’t be, librarians anymore, and instead become something else. She explains that these questions run through her mind like a subconscious buzzing in the background as she works.

“Is your job being threatened?”

Siu Chen explains that since she started working at C J Koh, they’ve sent her to get a Masters in Information Studies at NTU, a degree required to be a law librarian on top of her bachelors in law. “So, there are two tracks,” she explains. “There is the library track, but there’s also the information analytics track, where librarianship is going towards.” With regard to her studies at NTU, she discloses sheepishly that she’s just finished her thesis. “I’m waiting to know whether I will pass or not.” She says, laughing.

“When will it be out?” 

“In a matter of weeks, I just handed it in.” She completed her Masters at NTU working on her thesis, and at this job, concurrently. While some part of her feels like she’s been through hell, she explains that it’s not that bad – “It helps to be in the library, and working because all the information is there. Literally, at your fingertips.”

The interview derails very quickly into something more of a conversation. We exchange personal anecdotes, as though we were all studying together in the same batch, and Siu Chen begins to tell us that during her time at university, she stayed at Hall.

“Raffles Hall,” she said. “So I studied at the music library a lot. Basically any library but the law library.” Regarding the reasons she chose to stay at all, we find out that she didn’t have a choice – Siu Chen is originally Malaysian, and here to study. She describes the people she met at Raffles Hall as something of a “really nice surrogate family” – which was a great comfort, seeing that she didn’t go back during the weekends.

“Didn’t it get really lonely?”

“No, because most of the other Malaysians are there too, so they’ll be my friends.” Siu Chen leans back, laughing. “Actually, not just friends – sometimes, it’s so close you almost become like family.” She talks about how they shared everything – food, space… and even the toilet. “It’s really family.” She admits.

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Since she stayed at Raffles Hall, of course, she would have been at the music library. “I spent many hours mugging away in the music library, and the central library…” She continues listing some other libraries before trailing off. She tells us that the only time she would come to the law library was during the holidays, to borrow books or photocopy chapters at the start of the term.

We giggle at a bit at the irony before Siu Chen interjects. “I wouldn’t say to follow my example though! Because, well… ” she laughs, and doesn’t finish her objection.

We carry on, lulled into the casual, laid-back tone of our interview. We exchange more anecdotes here and there, with Siu Chen talking about her teacher husband, her recent marriage, and whether we would consider working in the library. Eventually, we realise that the interview recording has been running for over 45 minutes now, and decide to end off with our classic question – “Do you have any advice for students?” The cliche-ness of this question amuses Siu Chen, and she jests that she has to find a way to sound inspirational.

Siu Chen tells us that she often thinks of her mother’s advice, which is to take everything as a learning experience. “Especially when I’m down or feel like I’ve failed in life, I’m then reminded of what she says: everything is a learning experience, and you should just see what can be learnt from this.” It makes sense, she says, to see life as a process, as opposed to little ends. “Of course, there are milestones, but it’s a long-term thing. We don’t see the things that we do or the things that happen to us as failures. Rather, these things show us what we need to learn in the future. It’s a learning experience!” She explains, looking quite proud that she’s said something so genuinely profound.

Having started on an advice stint, Siu Chen shares with us one more piece of advice from her mother – “Don’t compare yourself to others.” Siu Chen then recounts a conversation she had with a senior librarian (who she mentions is about 20 years older – she tells us that more or less the gaps between new law librarian hires tends to be two decades) when she first began work in the library. “She’d bring me around the library and show me the ropes, and she’d always ask me why I wanted to be a librarian. She would ask whether I was okay working in the library, as I had just completed my law degree and the rest of my peers had begun practice. Of course, Siu Chen is comfortable with this.

To Siu Chen’s response, the librarian would advise her (at this point, Siu Chen does her best impression of an elderly woman from Hong Kong): “It is very important to live a simple life!” To which Siu Chen’s first impression was something along the lines of – wow, so profound, though she admits, she doesn’t quite know what the definition of a simple life is. “But when I look at her, it’s true, she doesn’t compare herself to others or try and keep up with the Joneses: she’s happy doing what she’s doing, helping people.” We can tell Siu Chen really admires this librarian – her humbleness, and her attitude towards learning from things. “She doesn’t let things get her down and yeah, it’s nice to have examples like that in the workplace. Or just in life, really.”

As we follow Siu Chen around the library looking for good photo spots (which we find, with surprisingly good lighting) she drops a simple – “Do you want to see the basement?” To which the both of us exclaim (in shock and excitement), surprised that there was: first, a basement in the library, and second, that we get to see it. Descending the stairs into the basement office, we find some of the other library staff (this is where they hide), who greet us and question if we’re the ones coming to interview Siu Chen today. Leading us through the office, Siu Chen brings us to a square room with faded beige walls and a concrete flooring, a bicycle tucked into the wall corner. She turns on a few lights and then turns the handle on a series of heavy metal doors, painted in dark colours, and then switches on an entire panel of lights. Pushing the door open, she reveals to us the store for older – almost antique – law journals, stored on heavy metal shelves with the ability to shift back and forth on the push of a button (which we happily press, causing the shelves to rumble and shriek as they sway forward).

Afterwards, we exit by the other door in the concrete-floored room, and we are surprised to find ourselves at the locked door labelled “Library Drop Off Point” behind the cement C J Koh Library sign. After some direction, we take a photo of Siu Chen sitting atop the sign, and bid her farewell.

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