The Evolving Life of a Librarian

Information Technology has changed the contents kept in libraries from 100% print to a mix of digital and print. How does this affect how a librarian thinks and works?


Dr Rashidah Begum bt Fazal Mohamed.

Picture a librarian. Many of us would imagine her (it’s often “her”) to be spending most of her time arranging books back onto the shelves. Is there more to a librarian’s role than cataloguing and stacking books? Of course there is. Neil Gaiman had this to say about the librarians: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers; a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Recently, Penang Monthly met Dr Rashidah Begum bt Fazal Mohamed, the former president of the Librarians Association of Malaysia and presently the chief librarian of Disted College, to get a glimpse into the modern life of a librarian.

A Librarian’s Accomplishments

Rashidah began her five-decade-long career as a librarian in 1973 when she joined Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), the second oldest public university in the country.

She has a degree and postgraduate diploma in Library Science, and the early part of her career was focused on developing her expertise in serials management, collection development, readers’ services and library automation.

She once served as the head of the Automation Division and coordinator of the Malaysian Machine Readable Cataloguing (Malmarc) system, the largest centralised machine-readable cataloguing service in the region. The experience enabled her to assist other libraries in and outside the country in their library automation and computerisation plans. “It also allowed me to prepare USM library staff to successfully enter the stage of digital and networked information in the early 21st century,”she says. At that time, she was the Chief Librarian at USM.

At the poster exhibit on "Every Baby a Book” at the World Library and Information Congress in Durban, South Africa in 2007. This exhibit was based on a Penang State Public Library Programme and won third prize in the competition. (Left to right) Rashidah Bolhassan, director of Pustaka Sarawak; Datin Seri Zainab Kader, chairman of the programme's working committee; and Dr Rashidah Begum bt Fazal Mohamed.

Her journey continues today with Disted College, where she strives to modernise the library with online systems and access to networked electronic resources, and serve as mentor for younger librarians both within and outside her workplace.

Besides, she is also one of the trainers for various regional and international librarian associations and programmes. Her experience was recognised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which invited her to be on the Advisory Panel for the Bill and Melinda Gates Library award (which offers US$1mil to the winning public library).

She is active on other fronts as well. She was previously president of the Convent Green Lane Parent-Teacher Association, USM Women’s Association and Penang Botanic Garden Society. Furthermore, she was awarded the Outstanding Librarian award by the Librarians Association of Malaysia in 2011, as well as the Silver Prize Congress of Southeast Asian Librarians (Consal) Outstanding Librarian Award in June 2015.

The Role of a Librarian

In the old days, Rashidah reminisced, libraries used to be a lot dimmer and stored 100% print matter. By contrast, computers and online resources are an indispensable presence in today’s modern library.


The role of a librarian is transformed accordingly. Now, librarians are more like mediators. They seek to empower users to be independent; they guide users through the database and channel for the right information. The librarian is basically moulding the users to be less reliant on him or her.

So, what motivated Rashidah to get into the profession in the first place? “Books have always been a part of my life. My parents, as Muslims, had great reverence for books and learning, and at home, we were always surrounded by books.

“I was also a very regular user of the United States Information Service (Usis) Library which was located in India House on Lebuh Pantai. It existed from 1952 until the 1960s. I remember how we would wait for new books to arrive and rush to borrow them before they even reached the shelves,” she recounts.

Later, she joined the Penang public library and volunteered to work there during her school breaks.

“Reading books is many things to me. It increases my understanding of whatever I wish to learn, deepens my understanding of human relationships, emotions and society, and provides solace. The library, through its books, also lets us into the minds of the greatest thinkers, statesmen and writers, and provides inspiration and motivation. I love working with people and my profession allows me to share my passion for books with whoever I interact with. I see the library as a place full of TV channels – each book is a different channel.”

The Collective Memory of the Community

“A major function of the library is to provide information to the community. This is information that enriches lives,” says Rashidah.

“One thing that has led libraries to renew themselves has been the expansion of new technologies. Libraries are no longer dark and silent places but bright and colourful spaces with many computers, facilities to plug in laptops and other personal devices, and Wi-Fi is a basic expectation. There are quiet study zones, group study areas, discussion rooms and lounges for relaxing, and some libraries even have cafes located within.”

She also discussed the evolution of the public library in Penang, whose beginnings date back to 1817.

“It is carrying out its functions as a public library very well as it has service points distributed very evenly throughout the state of Penang,” she explains. “It also works with other agencies including government departments, the business community and the many NGOs in the state. It actively engages, partners and networks with all these groups to create a reading society.”

Libraries for Everybody

She is particularly impressed that the Penang public library has over the years built up a network of more than 100 service points throughout the state. “Services are delivered through a Central Library in Seberang Jaya; branch libraries in George Town, Balik Pulau, Jawi, Bukit Mertajam and Bertam; the Children’s Library in Scotland Road; a digital library in Tasek Gelugor; two town libraries in Bagan Ajam and Simpang Empat; mall libraries in Komtar, Mayang Mall in Bayan Baru and the Aeon Mall in Bukit Mertajam; and 76 village/cyber community libraries located throughout the island and on the mainland. In addition, it has 12 mobile libraries, two of which are dedicated to services to the disadvantaged. These mobile libraries make stops at about 240 locations throughout the state on a fortnightly cycle.”

With members of the Council of Persatuan Pustakawan Malaysia and the Library Association of Singapore at a PPM/LAS joint conference in Malacca in 2012.

A Friends of Penang Botanic Gardens Society participation at the Giant Green Awareness Campaign, with honorary secretary of the society Chiam Kok Heng.

Mobile libraries, as well as occasional workshops and reading events, are part and parcel of the library’s connection to its local community. R a s h i d a h emphasises that interaction with users is paramount to the survival of a library. “The library is well endowed with print and information resources, and is open to all people irrespective of age, gender, race, social status, religious affiliation and citizenship status,” she continues.

“Some of the libraries, especially village libraries, are located in very unusual but interesting places, even near the beach, and all of them look very inviting and draw good crowds regularly.

“The Penang Public Library possesses very unique collections of historic materials, including old local papers which are no longer in print, and personal correspondences of prominent local personalities such as that of Dr Wu Lien Teh. Another one treasure (stored in a public library) is a Bible in Malay, printed by Oxford University printers and published by the East India Company in 1667.


“It also has a gallery for the legendary P. Ramlee. You can listen to his songs, see his movies and also view some of his personal belongings, such as his guitar and bicycle. Libraries also preserve the cultural heritage of the community. They contribute to the protection of the copyright of its collections. A library holds the memory of a place,” she adds.

As a takeaway to budding and aspiring librarians, she has this to say about a librarian’s most important duty: “Provide access to a collection that your community needs. Librarians cannot be judgemental about the information or the person we are giving the information to. Our personal beliefs and interests must not interfere with our delivery of information. People have to continue learning, and the library door is always open to them. Lifelong learning is key to success,” she concludes.

Ooi Kok Hin is a research analyst at Penang Institute and president of Universiti Terbuka Anak Muda (Utam). He graduated from The Ohio State University with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy, and is also the author of the book, Aku Kafir, Kau Siapa, published by DuBook Press.

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