THE READING AMBASSADOR

Over her 40-year career, Mrs Kiang-Koh Lai Lin
has been an enthusiastic advocate of the joys
of reading, sharing her passion for books
with both young and old.

Over her 40-year career, Mrs Kiang-Koh Lai Lin has been an enthusiastic advocate of the joys of reading, sharing her passion for books with both young and old.

In mid-2006, Mrs Kiang got her hair trimmed at a different salon every two to three weeks.


It wasn’t that her hair was growing too fast. It was all in the name of the nationwide Read! Singapore campaign. That year, Mrs Kiang and her team sought to get more hairdressers reading.

As Director, Reading Initiatives, at the National Library Board (NLB), Mrs Kiang had tried walking into salons to share her books. But most hairdressers turned her down flat. So haircuts were Mrs Kiang’s recourse. “Sitting there getting a trim, I could chat with the hairdressers about books and invite them to reading clubs,” she recalls.

Mrs Kiang’s locks weren’t snipped in vain; in due course, she was able to organise two hairdressers’ reading clubs. This was just another example of the lengths she’ll go to in order to promote reading.

For the first edition of Read! Singapore, in 2005, supper was Mrs Kiang’s secret weapon. Through a radio programme, NLB invited taxi drivers to Ang Mo Kio Public Library. By midnight, about 100 had turned up for a book chat – and a late-night supper of Teochew porridge. Having started with 15 members, the Taxi Sifu Reading Club continues to meet every month at Ang Mo Kio Public Library.

Children's Library Hours, programme conducted for children, 1982

Children's Library Hours, programme conducted for children, 1982

Nurturing readers has been the life’s work of Mrs Kiang, an avid reader who counts Claire Tham, Anita Desai and You Jin among her favourite writers. “Our goal is to foster a nation of readers – people who not only read,” she says, “but who also come together to share ideas and enrich one another’s lives.”

Mrs Kiang started out as a library officer at the Department of Statistics in 1973 before moving to the National Library at Stamford Road in 1976. Put in charge of the Chinese Youth Club, she introduced books to youths and also organised talks, drama classes and creative writing workshops.

These days, Mrs Kiang joins a group of seniors at Clementi Community Club for book discussions after their Saturday qigong session as well as the Adult Read! at Kolam Ayer Whampoa South RC Centre. She also meets with the Friends of Queenstown Library reading club, which she helped form after these former volunteers reunited for the library’s 40th anniversary.

These days, Mrs Kiang joins a group of seniors at Clementi Community Club for book discussions after their Saturday qigong session as well as the Adult Read! at Kolam Ayer Whampoa South RC Centre. She also meets with the Friends of Queenstown Library reading club, which she helped form after these former volunteers reunited for the library’s 40th anniversary.

“The National Library was like our second home, and Mrs Kiang was like a big sister who always encouraged us,” says Mr Seow Kit Chuan, 56, a former member of the Chinese Youth Club. “Even now, if something has happened in our lives, she’s still one of the first people we’ll call.”

These bonds are still strong, with former library-goers visiting Mrs Kiang during Chinese New Year. “The only difference is that now they bring their spouses and children,” she says.

After a stint at Queenstown Public Library, Mrs Kiang served at Bukit Merah Public Library. There, she helped develop the resource collections and organised exhibitions on the histories of constituencies such as Alexandra and Bukit Merah. For 13 years, Mrs Kiang also conducted a weekly storytelling session that attracted dozens of preschoolers, toddlers and parents each time. Even if she was on leave, Mrs Kiang would make it back so as not to disappoint the children.

“Grown-ups have stopped me in the streets to ask, ‘Are you Auntie Kiang?’ That’s when I knew they’d attended my storytelling sessions when they were little,” she says.

At Bukit Merah, Mrs Kiang had also learnt that children from low income families didn’t use the library for various practical reasons. Their parents, who worked long hours, didn’t take them. Even if they visited the library, parents would tell their children not to borrow any books, to avoid paying late fines or replacement fees. “It wasn’t easy to reach out to these children,” recalls Mrs Kiang.

That’s why she jumped at the chance to be involved when the kidsREAD programme was launched in 2004. “It’s a great idea because it brings the library to disadvantaged children – at schools, community clubs, void decks and preschool centres, for example.”

Since its launch, kidsREAD has helped more than 20,000 children. Parents and teachers of former kidsREAD members who’d passed their Primary School Leaving Examinations would call to thank Mrs Kiang and her fellow librarians for instilling in them a love of books. “Moments like these reminded us that we were doing meaningful work,” she says.

Mrs Kiang retired from NLB in 2014. Now a Consultant at the National Archives of Singapore (NAS), she conducts oral history interviews while also managing volunteers for NAS. Looking back at her 40 years as a librarian, Mrs Kiang says she has enjoyed every page of her career. “The Library Service is really about people. I’m glad to have met so many and shared my love of books with them,” she says. “If I were to choose my career all over again, it would still be the library.”