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Urban Library Journal 15.2 2009
MOLLY®, When Will You Come Again? :
A mobile library service for the less privileged
Krist Chan is a Children’s Librarian working with National Library Board Singapore. She served at a regional library to develop the collection, reading and outreach programs, and services for the juvenile section. She is now the librarian for the mobile library after obtaining her Masters of Science (Information Studies) from Nanyang Technological University.
The National Library Board (NLB) launched a new mobile library service in Singapore on April 3, 2008. MOLLY® (mobile library), a mobile library bus, is the latest project to run on the streets of the island bringing library services to people not utilizing the extensive network of public libraries. After a comparative overview of different mobile library models in various countries, this paper introduces MOLLY® the prototype project and covers key aspects such as the conceptualization and objectives, special target user segments, outreach methodology and core activities.Keywords: Mobile library service, disadvantaged, special needs children, community service, outreach
The mobile library service is no stranger to Singapore. More than 40 years ago, the mobile library service was initiated, chiefly to alleviate the demands for library services at the main library in Stamford Road and to reach out to the juvenile population after several part-time branches closed. These part-time libraries were important because they catered to the needs of students in rural schools. With more than half of the population then being 20 years old and younger (Seet, 1983), it was crucial to ensure the students’ continued access to library spaces and materials for education and enrichment.
The service took the physical format of a modified van purchased in 1958 with a US$2,000 donation from UNESCO for the purchase of children’s mobile libraries. The government later bought two trailers, which were used separately in 1967 and 1968. The mobile library service operated based on fixed service points across the island, with a total of twelve service points established mainly at community centers from 1960. At the initial stage, students from 35 rural schools used the mobile library services on a fortnightly basis. With the government’s approval, more full-time branch libraries were constructed around Singapore and that gradually brought an end to the network of mobile library service points. In 1991, the last mobile library service point terminated (Seet, 1983).
Today, with a network of one reference library, three regional libraries and nineteen community libraries serving a population of 4.84 million (June 2008) (Statistics Singapore, 2007), library collections, facilities and services have never been within easier reach. However, more than 50% of Singapore’s population remain inactive library users, with only approximately 2 million library members making library transactions within the past 5 years (Yearbook of Statistics Singapore, 2008). As part of the efforts to reach out, the National Library Board (NLB) continuously explores different outreach strategies to connect this pool of potential library users to the library.
Across the globe, countries with varied geographic, social, economic and demographic conditions implement different models of mobile library service. Nevertheless, these mobile library services can largely be seen as unified by a common goal of realizing the fairness of access to available information resources. In Vietnam, for example, mobile libraries in their numerous formats are key to providing equal access to culture and information (The Khang, 2001) particularly in rural, mountainous regions where libraries are absent or areas with poor libraries. Knight and Makin (2006) stress the importance of mobile libraries in actualizing “equity of access” in Australia. The Australian mobile library developments also focus on people of district and rural areas where library services are scarce. In New Zealand, bookmobiles that traveled to suburban areas started in the early 1930s when building permits, for the construction of permanent libraries, were hard to obtain (Hawke and Jenks, 2005). These bookmobiles provided a channel through which library services were delivered to rural dwellers denied new branch libraries within reasonable proximity.
Another recognizable goal of different mobile library systems is the reduction of the illiteracy rate and improvement of cultural life in developing countries such as Thailand (Butdisuwan, 2000) and Vietnam (The Khang, 2001). In South Africa, a significant illiteracy rate among adults of more than 30% (less than 7 years of formal schooling) has propelled the Department of Education to introduce literacy and reading programs through its Mobile Library Service of the Library and Information Service Unit (Niemand and Dlamini, 2004). Schools, 73% of which lack libraries, form the core target group of the mobile library vehicles.
Butdisuwan (2000) defines mobile library as “traveling or movable library activities in any format that visit rural districts or remote areas, where there is no other library service, on a specific schedule.” The physical formats of mobile libraries are not restricted to modified land vehicles, but also include a diversity of formats ranging from book bags and bookcases, to horse carts. Depending on the circumstances of each country or region, different formats are developed. For examples, to boost cultural life among people living on banks of rivers such as Chao Phraya (Thailand) and those in the Cuulong Delta area (Vietnam), boats are converted into mobile floating libraries or “culture boats” that make designated stops to provide not only book loan services, but also art performances (The Khang, 2001).
The operational models of mobile libraries implemented necessarily vary among different countries. In relation to mobile bus libraries in Thailand, the Department of Non-Formal Education devised a five-bus strategy with each bus dedicated to meet the needs of specific groups including children and youths living in slum areas and construction sites (Butdisuwan, 2000). Each bus functions like a niche library with a customized set of resources and thematic activities for its intended users. The mobile library service in South Africa also specializes in a similar mode. Instead of multiple buses, one bus refreshes and stocks up its resources according to the specific requirements of each school to be visited (Niemand and Dlamini, 2004). In countries such as Australia and the United States, mobile libraries comprising tractor-trailer, bus-type, and van-type vehicles cater primarily to communities with low population density. In these rural and remote areas, the mobile libraries often morph into social spaces where residents meet and obtain local community information disseminated by the libraries (Kenneally et al., 2000).
Mobile library developments have seen the transformation of rudimentary bookmobiles to cultural and information mobiles. The mobile library service is seen and relied on as an informal education system, crucial in creating a society of informed individuals. Programming, involving a creative suite of activities such as information literacy workshops, lectures, group discussions and forums, competitions, exhibitions, literary and art performances, is now an integral part of mobile library services. The basic delivery of books to a local district is also increasingly insufficient as the information landscape evolves and rapid advancements in information technology increase people’s access to information from home. Today, real-time data transfer for library and information services and online access to new formats of electronic resources (Knight and Makin, 2006) are vital to mobile libraries seeking to stay relevant.
In an effort to extend the NLB’s reach beyond those already being served, it was clear that a new approach was needed. To devise a fitting strategy, a clear identification of community segments not using the libraries and services was made at the planning stage. Focus was given to four main segments recognized for the various social, economic and physical constraints that hindered the use of libraries. These are: children, youths and adults in welfare homes and orphanages, students in special education schools and primary schools, and senior citizens. Several assumptions made about people in these segments included:
In late 2005, a new mobile library project team was formed to mobilize and bring library services and programs to these groups largely “un-served” or “underserved” by the libraries. Conceptualized as a community service, the key objectives of the new mobile library are:
Transformation and Innovation
MOLLY® gradually materialized after more than a year of planning and obtaining the necessary funding and permits. With successful sponsorship by the major bus operator in Singapore, SBS Transit, a public transport bus measuring 11 meters (length) x 2.2 meters (width) x 2.1 meters (height) was converted into a mobile library with the retro-fitting of shelves, air-conditioner, generator, retractable awning and exterior decal.
Although the mobile library carries 3000 books at any one time, it has more than 25,000 books in its entire collection stored off-site, which allows the mobile library to update its collection on board when necessary. As the mobile library adopts the operational blueprint of a branch library, the acquisition of materials is also centralized at a library supply centre. This ensures the consistent classification of books and the availability of the latest titles acquired for the public libraries, which is crucial in the user-familiarization process.
Figure 1: The mobile library with a new exterior decal.
Figure 2: Out with the old passenger seats, in with brand new bookshelves.
Figure 3: The MOLLY® logo
Figure 4: Learning to borrow books at the borrowing station
Apart from keeping MOLLY® up to date with the technological advancements of NLB, the mobile library provides users with a holistic library experience with its outreach methodology. With a tag line “Go Places with MOLLY® on a Journey of Discovery”, MOLLY® began its service on 3 April 2008 after a launch ceremony at a special education school. At any service point, a team comprising the bus driver, a full-time librarian, a library officer and a library assistant operate the mobile library. Apart from the bus driver, all have numerous years’ of experience serving the public in libraries.
Collaboration & Customization
The mobile library also visits places, such as rehabilitation and prison centers, which fit the working assumptions listed above. At prison centers, for example, the mobile library serves visiting children who may be deprived of library visits and reading activities while their parents are serving a jail term. Reading and literacy related events are also platforms where MOLLY® promotes libraries and reading to the general public. In addition, the mobile library also collaborates with reading clubs such as KidsREAD, a reading program initiated by the National Library Board and organized for children from lower-income families. Other meaningful ways through which the mobile library has reached out to the disadvantaged groups include a day-out at Singapore Zoological Gardens, when the zoo invited children for an educational visit, librarian’s storytelling sessions and an opportunity to experience the mobile library. Through the collaboration, the mobile library reached out to two groups of children including those from a home and a child development centre that integrates children with special learning needs into its mainstream curriculum.
Figure 5: Reaching out to the physically disabled
Each place the mobile library visits is unique in its requirements in terms of its activities, operational mode and capabilities and interests of members, residents or students. To adapt the service, the mobile library adopts a flexible approach in customizing the visit schedule and books available on board. As a single visit by the mobile library is ineffective in achieving its objectives and does not allow ample time for users to get accustomed, the mobile library schedule repeat visits of varied frequency. Special education schools are typically visited once in three weeks to allow students sufficient time to enjoy the books, but schools without a library can request more frequent visits to meet the reading needs of students. At these schools, MOLLY® also provides an interaction space – an extension of the classroom that teachers utilize to instruct and students to explore and learn.
Books are made available based on the different learning needs. Picture books with less complex illustrations and words, and information books with many photographs, for example, are selected for a class at the preparatory level, while more board books are made available for students who are low-functioning (e.g. difficulties in turning book pages). With repeated visits, the mobile library staff builds up relationships with the students, residents, members, teachers and caregivers, and gains a better understanding of their reading capabilities and interest areas. Over time, staff recognizes individual users and ensures sufficient books for their interests are brought along. For many users who may not be able to visit the public libraries due to more severe disabilities or restricted movement in homes, the mobile library has become an essential supply of their personal reading or flipping favorites. In addition, teachers can inform the librarian in advance of the curriculum themes or list of materials required. Working files detailing the overall profile of each unique school or site, including age and intellectual level of users, are also kept.
Service and Programming
Apart from regular storytelling, read-aloud sessions and user-education programs where new users are introduced to different aspects of using a library, a spectrum of programs is also conducted by both librarians and specialized program providers in order to enrich the lives of target users, and to spark and sustain their interest in the mobile library and reading. This is especially critical when the novelty of the service wears out with repeated visits.
Workshops such as literacy workshops, resume writing for inmates, room decoration for teenage girls and introduction to children’s literature, and performances such as dramatizations of Asian folktales and magic shows are examples of programs the mobile library has provided together with its visits to the disadvantaged groups. Unlike programming at the branch libraries, programs sourced and conducted under MOLLY® are adapted to the intellectual and cognitive levels of the target audience, with special attention paid to group sensitivities.
Figure 7: Storytelling session by librarian at a special education school
Apart from the delivery of the mobile library service and programs, MOLLY® maintains active partnerships through different creative approaches such as storybook creation and art competition. Children from several special education schools have been invited to co-create stories about MOLLY®, which are scheduled to be published in the form of picture books in 2009. Despite the learning and writing challenges faced by these children, imagination and creativity were clearly present in the story ideas they contributed. In essence, these projects are important in recognizing and conveying messages to society about what these special children can do.
Figure 8: Art works from children with autism
Building lasting ties with the community is an important facet of the mobile library service. These partnerships, established and sustained, are key to inculcating the habit of reading and promoting the utilization of library information services for individual and societal progress. The relationship MOLLY® shares with the community with which it interacts is two-way. As the mobile library continues to serve and benefit the less privileged, staff working on board gain invaluable lessons in serving all library users with respect, sensitivity and sincerity, and have come to be driven by three key motivators:
Figures 9 & 10: Family bonding through books
Operational goals aside, the intangible value of a social space for bonding and learning that the mobile library provides is evident and an important indicator of the significance of MOLLY® to many users. This is a crucial facet that attributes meaning to the job of the mobile library staff as a facilitator of social bonding.
Equality of access to books
The mobile library is currently in service for an average of 6 to 8 hours a day bringing books and programs to its target groups. It does not discriminate among groups to serve based on anticipated conventional “benefits” they may reap from books. A significant portion of MOLLY® users is intellectually challenged and may never utilize books the way most readers do. Nevertheless, an opportunity to explore and choose the books to flip, the solace and joy in doing so, and the excitement in recognizing words and objects in pictures are strong reasons for reaching out to them.
Values of the service
Apart from the close ties built between the mobile library staff and users, MOLLY® provides the opportunity for schools and organizations to reinforce important values. For example, an administrator at a home for intellectually challenged adults supports the individual loan of books, as it is through the process of taking care of one’s own books that the sense of responsibility is slowly reinforced. The “normalization” of special needs children is another aspect that the mobile library supports. As a principal from a special education school points out, this can happen when students maintain regular contact with people (mobile library staff) and learn to perform tasks to serve themselves (e.g. ensuring they bring along their library membership cards and making simple library transactions such as borrowing books).
To date, more than 40,000 people have visited the mobile library, which operates from 2 to 10 hours daily depending on the nature and expected number of users at each site. On average, it serves 200 -300 students from a special education school each time.
Other vital figures include 1,167 new library membership sign-ups and more than 54,000 books borrowed from the mobile library. Although these figures are insufficient in determining the success of the prototype, particularly when the number of books read on MOLLY® is not captured, they indicate a high utilization rate of the service.
Although the mobile library is a platform for learning about libraries and services, not everyone views it as a “real” library. To one coordinator, it is not really a library but “a magical bus experience.” Nevertheless, it is an important “training ground” for students and residents who have not visited a library before. This is especially crucial to children with special needs. A coordinator says, “We want the special needs students to be exposed to the normal things in life, like going to a library.” A teacher at a special education school mentions, “Then they will know how they should behave when they venture into the actual library.” For one of these schools, visits to the bigger libraries are actually being planned when the students are more familiar with the library setting.
The mobile library is a great joy to less mobile users who do not venture independently beyond the homes. It is also a needed solution at one special education school, “We have been looking for something like that for a long time – to bring the library to our children. We do have traveling sessions where we bring the students to the library, but the library has its restrictions.”
The mobile library also compensates for the lack of space for libraries in some of the homes and schools. A coordinator comments, “Even when NLB lends us books (bulk loan for the residents’ or students’ use), we do not have the facilities to keep them.” Some libraries in homes or special education schools are converted into other types of spaces such as computer labs.
The novelty of the mobile library is seen by many teachers as a major stimulant for students and residents to see reading as interesting and attractive. A decision-maker at a special education school says, “We want to entice them with big and colourful things (like the bus)… to instill a love for books.” Other teachers echo the sentiment about MOLLY®’s ability to generate the excitement that sparks the children’s interest in books.
From the survey results, it can be seen that MOLLY® is generally well received by its users. Some observations made by caregivers, teachers and decision-makers are:
The lack of space to read and time to explore the mobile library is another aspect some coordinators have highlighted. This relate to the operation of MOLLY®. Typically, depending on the total school population and duration of MOLLY®’s visit, each class is allocated 30 minutes to utilize the library. As the number of children and classes in a school increase, the amount of space and utilization time decrease in order to cater to all. This continues to be a challenge as MOLLY® is the only mobile library regularly serving a monthly average of 12 different organizations.
Since its launch less than a year ago, MOLLY® has been actively going places, focusing on parts of the community that are underserved by libraries in Singapore. Key partners have acknowledged its contributions to children with special needs. A testimonial from a school principal highlights the increased awareness of libraries that MOLLY® has provided, as well as its instrumental role in instilling in students the qualities that are essential for learning. Such affirmation is critical in motivating MOLLY®’s staff in delivering the mobile library service.
It has been a continuous learning journey for the team and there are several crucial steps to take in future. A key step is to enhance the quality of customer service on board the mobile library. Although the team has the necessary skills to operate MOLLY® as a standalone library, the unique nature of MOLLY®’s core clientele requires specialized handling. Currently, the team models its interaction and communication techniques based on what is observed from teachers, caregivers and therapists. Efforts are also made to gain understanding from these professionals about the characteristics of different persons with special needs. These, in addition to many months of exposure and practice, have equipped the team with a functional set of skills in handling different users. However as MOLLY® progresses, it is important for the team to be more concretely trained in terms of seminars and workshops conducted by the key organizations.
Another crucial step lies in collection development. MOLLY®’s key users possess a diverse range of reading abilities and interests. Every site is unique and it is a challenge meeting these needs. Together with in-depth knowledge of the type of books suitable for each group and constant analyses of book loan statistics, the librarian needs to proactively build a highly relevant collection in order engage MOLLY® users. Gathering feedback from users is a constant practice, which greatly helps to upgrade the collection. Books with CD recordings, for example, are now available. Practical operational tools such as book lists and student profiles used to customize MOLLY®’s collection accordingly are also to be continuously updated.
Finally, the mobility of MOLLY® gives it huge potential for generating a deep interest in reading and learning. Moving forward, the mobile library service can extend beyond its current scope of service, which is fundamentally giving the less privileged an equal access to information materials. Holistic reading programs or schemes can be planned together with organizations, particularly schools, to create a bigger impact. As the novelty of the service wears off, its sustainability will depend greatly on value-added programming.
For MOLLY®’s long-term success, conversations with the community and continuous evaluation of the service will be the key.
Figure 11: Reaching out to the less privileged
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last updated 03/19/2009