If you were born in the 90s like me, the memory of the National Library would probably be that of the modern glass building located between Bugis Junction and Bras Basah Complex at 100, Victoria Street.
However, just in the not too distant 9 years ago, the National Library building was actually an iconic red-bricked building that probably would have stood out of today’s modern Singapore landscape with its striking British architectural design of the 1950s.
The library was first known as Raffles Library, in commemoration of Stamford Raffles who started the first library in Singapore Institution (now known as Raffles institution) due to his belief in the importance of education, having been a self-made man. It was then renamed as Shonan Library during the Japanese Occupation. Despite the war, the library building managed to remain largely unscathed and intact, with only some 500 books looted compared to other libraries in Malaya which saw nearly half their collection lost. The survival of the war further cemented its role in the public as an ‘emblem of Singapore’s cultural heritage’ and ‘an epitome of commitment by all to consolidate society through shared knowledge and experience’. In the 1950s following the calls for a free public library, with the generous donation of $350,000 from Lee Kong Chian, a renowned Chinese community leader and philanthropist, the old National Library building was set for construction at Stamford Road. The red-brick building was officially opened and christened as the National Library on 12 November 1960s, by the head of state, Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak.
Since then, the library has held many collections of books of the languages of all four races in Singapore and also initiated many activities such as story-telling sessions for children which are still carried out in various libraries today. Apart from just being a place to satisfy every Singaporean’s thirst for knowledge, it was also a place to satisfy your hunger to fuel through all the gruelling studying. After all, even SM Goh and many other Ministers used to frequent the famous Wanton Mee stall by Old Mdm Leong at the S11 coffeeshop beside it (which makes me wonder other than it being really delicious, does it also give you some extra brain power? ;)).
For those who visited the library after its renovation in 1997, you may also have fond memories of chilling at the The Courtyard Café and The Fountain, whilst soaking in the atmosphere of the early Renaissance.
In 31 March 2004, the red-bricked Old National Library was closed and to be demolished to make way for part of the Singapore Management University’s city campus. In its place, the new National Library was opened in 22 July 2005 at Victoria Street.
It was a pity that I had never been to the Old National Library before it was demolished, but thankfully there are still two red-bricked entrance pillars of the library kept near the Fort Canning Tunnel. Regretfully, I have never once noticed it despite walking past it numerous times while I was in that area. Perhaps, it is time we spend less time looking at our phone screens, and more on our surroundings to appreciate Singapore’s landscape, architecture and heritage and maybe, we might discover more interesting pieces of Singapore’s history that we have never bothered to notice around us.