• English

ChewLeng Beh shares his thoughts on libraries, OCLC and the future

The first Global Council President from the Asia Pacific Region, ChewLeng is Senior Director, Library and Professional Services, National Library Board in Singapore. He was elected Vice President/President-Elect of OCLC Global Council in April 2011 and began his term as President of Global Council on July 1, 2012. ChewLeng also is a member of the Asia Pacific Regional Council Executive Committee and has participated on the Global Council Task Force on Cost Sharing and Pricing Strategy.

How did you initially become involved with OCLC?

Before the year 2000, our library was building our own version of WorldCat by requesting bib records from the Library of Congress, the British Library and the Australian National Library. The records were delivered on tape, usually late and sometimes we never got them! We were dependent on our computer department to load the records into our WLN system. Hits were low. When I took over the management of SILAS in 2000, I learned that OCLC had the world’s largest bibliographic database, which was available online through the Internet. Andrew Wang, Vice President, OCLC Asia Pacific, did not have to do much to convince me that that was the way to go.

I negotiated with Andrew for a consortial subscription for SILAS for almost all the libraries in Singapore, including about 400 schools. As part of the deal, we loaded all of the available SILAS holdings into WorldCat in 2002. I was invited by Andrew to give a talk in Dublin, Ohio, on the development of the national library and the public libraries in Singapore, which became my first trip to OCLC. That is how it all started. Later I was elected as an alternate and then a delegate to what was then Member’s Council (now Global Council).

Tell us about the libraries in Singapore.

The national library and all of the public libraries in Singapore are managed by the National Library Board since its formation in 1995. All of the libraries share a single network using one library management system. Collection development, procurement, cataloging, processing and distribution are centrally managed. Our collections are in four languages—English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

The National Library Board began humbly with only a National Library, a regional library and 12 community libraries. Today we are a wellspring of social capital and a much loved community with a comprehensive network that includes the National Library, three regional libraries and 20 public libraries.

In terms of library usage, we have come a long way, too. We have a population of 5.18 million in Singapore and last year, the NLB network of libraries received about 36 million visitors and circulation registered a new record of 33 million transactions. Electronic visits rose to about 8 million—an increase of 33 percent from the previous year. The number of electronic retrievals was about 47 million. NLB also organized over 6,300 programs and exhibitions, which attracted over 9 million participants. Library membership has steadily increased over the years to over 2 million.

In our efforts to integrate social media technologies into our service delivery, we broke new ground with a myLibrary application on Facebook. This was our first application to seamlessly integrate library accounts and services with a social networking site. Library members access library resources and services on Facebook while sharing recommendations with their social networks.

What is your vision for OCLC in the Asia Pacific region?

I would like to see libraries in this region offer world-class library services by taking advantage of the many shared information resources and the affordable delivery technologies that are so pervasive nowadays.

Many countries in the Asia Pacific region are lagging behind in the making access to information to their people. This could be due to economic, cultural or language reasons.

“If library services were readily accessible to all people, people could improve themselves in a social and economic sense. I believe that if people were better off in these respects, there will be less tension among people politically, and the region and the world would be a more harmonious one.”

What is needed is for those who believe in the equity of access to information to come forward to lead the transformation.

Tell us about the Global Council action plan you are working on.

It will be in three areas: (1) communicating the shared values of OCLC to those who are not aware or do not understand them; (2) strengthening the relationship among members through more knowledge sharing; and (3) developing a sustainable business model so that OCLC can continue its mission and realize its vision.

In order to become a network of the libraries of the world, OCLC has started its journey of globalization. It is a new path the cooperative is embarking on. We have realized that we need to learn to communicate better, otherwise there will be confusion that could lead to losing members. If this is not corrected quickly, the business is not going to be sustainable. We have seen many profit and nonprofit organizations fail in this manner.

OCLC was able to become what it is today because of the shared values that bind members together and form a trusting relationship. Anything that jeopardizes the trust needs to be corrected immediately. Since this is a nonprofit organization, the incentive for coming together is the sharing of knowledge.

Currently, OCLC is being challenged by many disruptive technologies and game-changers. The business model that has worked well in the past and sustained the cooperative may well have to change in the future. We see many organizations come and go very quickly because they are not quick enough to respond to the new challenges. We will have to work fast, hard and be innovative about it.

Describe the challenges of setting up a meeting for such a large, diverse region.

The Asia Pacific is a very large geographical region separated by oceans, seas and mountains. Transportation and communication are not that convenient. Culturally and language-wise, it is a very diverse region. We do not have a big enough administrative support unit to help in the organization of the meeting. We have to rely on partners and the goodwill of membership organizations. Sometimes we have to do translation for the benefit of some of the attendees.

Despite all these challenges, I am happy to see that attendance to the Asia Pacific Regional conference is getting better and better each year. This year, 291 attended from 17 countries, which is almost three times that of the inaugural conference in Beijing four years ago.

What are the three top priorities you would like to accomplish as President of Global Council?

  1. Communicate the values of OCLC through success stories

  2. Effective knowledge sharing among members for better services to their customers

  3. Develop a sustainable business model for OCLC so that it can continue its mission for the long term and achieve its vision.

The 2012 Asia Pacific Regional Council Membership Conference, hosted by the National Library of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, incorporated several displays of Malaysian traditions.