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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Once a Reference Librarian, always a Reference Point

For me, my journey as a librarian started with cataloguing work at the Institute of Education (IE), Singapore, in August 1982.

The Institute of Education Library at that time was at Bukit Timah Campus, a new home to all the teacher trainees and staff, who had fond memories of TTC (Teachers'  Training College) at Paterson campus.

Mrs Wang-Chen Hsiu Chin (1922-1983) whom I met at Paterson Campus in 1981 was the Chief Librarian who recruited me.

I was very grateful to receive a letter from IE, with confirmation for my Library post  (Assistant Librarian) one day before I took the examination in the summer of 1982.

The only condition stated in the letter was: you have to pass your Postgraduate Diploma examination before your you can report to work.

I still remember the joyful scene of sharing the good news with classmates, Ms Foo Yan Chuin and housemates Nancy Chan, Sharopa & others on that summer evening at Padan House, Aberystwyth, the night before my first examination paper for Librarianship.

After I returned to Singapore with a Postgraduate Diploma in Librarianship from College of Librarianship Wales (CLW), Aberystwyth, I reported to work at IE and Mrs Wang-Chen Hsiu Chin and Mr Ng Soo Kwee were my two immediate bosses.

Before IE became NIE (National Institute of Education) in 1991, my library professional role in IE Library changed from Cataloguing to Reference in 1984, and I discovered with joy that reference work is much more interesting and rewarding than any other professional jobs in the library.

I served for 12 years at Reference in NIE Library, and a lot more roles were added over the decade.

I learned to oversee the Readers Services which includes circulation (loan issues), membership services, user education, library promotion and exhibitions, etc...

Conducting instructional programmes for different user groups, i.e., PGDE, HOD, Master In Education, Ph.D candidates and academic staff etc... became my working routine which I enjoyed very much.
In these 12 years of reference journey in IE/NIE, I was supported by my successor in Cataloguing Unit, Ms Yvonne Yin, who did the job with great insight and enthusiasm.

Yvonne's interest in reading and knowledge of history and many other subjects, like sports, made her a great counterpart to work with.  I frequently solved my reference puzzles and answered my reference enquiries with her help.

I am very grateful to her for her quick response whenever I see the need to correct or amend entries in some cataloguing records.

Two heads are always better than one, and we always look forward to sharing and unlocking our thoughts over the short 15 minutes tea break in the morning and in the afternoon on most working days!
I am grateful to Mr Jim Davies and Mr Ng Soo Kwee for their recommendations for me to pursue the Masters Degree in Information Science at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee from 1989 to 1990.  With the added academic credentials, I started to explore and expand online searching using Dialog Information Service and spent a lot of time searching ERIC database and Dissertations Abstracts. 

The standing order to purchase and subscribe to microfiche ED (Eric Documents) collection was then introduced in NIE Library with the recommendation of Mr Philip Wong, NICER, PS (Psychology Studies) Department, NIE. NIE became the first library in the Southeast Asia region to house the ERIC Documents produced by 16 ERIC Clearinghouses from the USA.

Before the ED standing order were initiated in 1991/2?, NIE Library only purchased print or microform (microfiche or microfilm) copies of ED based on users' request.

Even with the help of email, which was just starting to be a popular means of communication, items ordered via email were still being shipped by surface mail/post.  Usually, there was a waiting time of over 2-4 weeks before the item arrived.  It was rather hard for some research projects which had pressing needs in terms of time frame.
In April 1996, I joined Temasek Polytechnic and became a lecturer in the Department of Information Studies, ITAS (School of Information Technology and Applied Science). The course I was first involved in was RTK (Recording and Transferring of Knowledge), which covered over 10 citation formats, like books (monographs or monograph series), newspapers and journal articles, conference proceedings, patents documents, legal documents like white papers, bills and acts etc... 

To me, the contents of RTK were like the by-products of cataloguing and reference works with more varieties in terms of document types.  In compiling the course materials and notes for RTK, my years of experience in cataloguing and reference at IE/NIE became very handy and useful.

Knowledge accumulated through years of working in the library, be it over the reference desk or in the technical service, all will come in handy when you need it.
I enjoyed having a cataloguing mindset, with the complex rules of AACR2 as our bible.

The clear and strict rules helped to create order in bibliographic control and I am grateful to have all the long hours of coaching at Paterson Campus by Mr Ng Soo Kwee, the Chief Cataloguer and Head of Technical services before I went for my first overseas course, even though I was not an IE staff, way back in July 1981.

As someone who was on "pre-course attachment" before I went for UK studies, I was very much amazed by the contents of the 3" by 5" catalogue card, of which main entry was created and added entries were added by duplicating the same white card using stencilling machines.

With the two weeks of the pre-course attachment in IE at Paterson Campus, I gained some basic understand of library work, and the study in Wales added the foundation in Librarianship and allowed me to sail far in the ocean of knowledge world.


I enjoyed Cataloguing work and saw the beauty of the MARC coding format. Nevertheless, I identified myself more as a reference librarian than as a cataloguer.

In the small library circle in Singapore, among peers and counterparts in library work, I am still being introduced as the former Reference Librarian from NIE.

By now, it has been over 20 years since I unloaded my reference title, yet from time to time, I receive reference enquiries from peers in the library circle and I am glad I can serve as a Reference Point until today.

Appended here is a write-up of a recent case:


Reference & Friends [title based on the news/talk program Fox & Friends]

ReferenceFriend (RF for short): Hi Reference, I have an enquiry from a retiree who would like to contact Librarian A, who I know is also retired. I understand Librarian A wrote a short biography of the retiree's father. Do you know Librarian A personally?

Reference: No, sorry! Contact her old library, Library B!

(Library B was duly contacted, and the request kindly forwarded. Librarian A very kindly answered the enquiry, which pertained to an interview held decades ago).

The info was then relayed:

Very Grateful Enquirer: That is a real mystery solved! Thank you so much!

RF: Oh, you are most welcome, it's a small thing really --

Very Grateful Enquirer: I've got you a box of chocolates! And come over to my place for lunch! See you!


RF (to Reference): ....and that's the story. Thanks so much for answering so quickly --

Reference: Hoi, I am a Reference librarian! Enquiries must be answered quickly, immediately, straightaway! Oh, I would like a write-up, please. I will give you  a whole 2 days, which is plenty time in Reference terms. Submit before the LAS AGM!



1.  Mrs Wang-Chen Hsiu Chin (1922-1983) was the University Librarian of the former University of Singapore, the predecessor institution of NUS. Mrs Wang joined the library in 1955 and retired as its head in 1978. She obtained both her MA in Political Science and Master of Librarianship from the University of Washington in Seattle. Prior to that, she had worked with a leading local Chinese newspaper, Nanyang Siang Pau, as a journalist and as the head of its resource centre.

The Straits Times, in reporting her passing in 1983, described Mrs Wang as “the woman who helped build the then University of Singapore’s library into one of the best in this region.” (S.T. 11.5.1983).
Source of information:

2. Mr Jim Davies from UK was appointed as Chief Librarian of IE in 1983. He left in 1992/3?.

3. Mr Ng Soo Kwee, retired from the NIE Chief Librarian post in 1994.

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