Makeswary Periasamy (or ‘Mages’ for short) is a Senior Librarian at the National Library taking care of the Rare Materials Collection. She was featured in the March 2018 issue of Her World (pg. 180) as “The Custodian of Rare Historical Documents”. In this edition of our “In Conversation” series, the LAS Publications Committee interviews her to find out more about the collection and what she does.
1. What made you want to become a “rare” librarian?
When I was asked to be in charge of managing the heritage collections at the National Library of Singapore many years ago, I was particularly impressed with the care and maintenance its collections required. This was especially so for its Rare Materials Collection, a wonderful trove of research materials on early Singapore and Southeast Asia.
Besides finding collections work and research enjoyable, I love studying rare and historically significant materials. It intrigues me that old printed maps of Southeast Asia tended to feature Singapore under various names, such as Cingatola or Pulo Panjang (Pulau Panjang in Malay means “Long Island”). And it always fascinates me when I come across an early illustration of the Singapore river or town, or a panoramic view of early Singapore from Fort Canning. I like reading early accounts of the region as they described Singapore and Southeast Asia in those days, and it amazes me to see how much Singapore and the region has developed over the years.
2. How different is it from other librarian roles? What do you do in your day-to-day work?
Rare materials require special handling as well as secure and proper storage. Unlike open-shelf library materials, rare materials are treated as artefacts which need to be preserved for posterity and for access by future generations. As a rare librarian, I have to ensure that the rare materials are properly handled during access and that regular checks are conducted to assess their condition.
In order to further develop both my subject expertise and the collection, I also conduct research on these historically unique materials in order to interpret them and promote them to researchers and the general public. I help to publicise the rare collection by writing about it in articles, books, exhibitions and displays as well as by giving public talks on the historically interesting items. I also assist patrons with their enquiries on the various titles in the rare collection.
Quite a number of the materials on Southeast Asia prior to the 19th century was printed or produced in European languages. As such, an understanding of the various languages or how to interpret them is also important. As we are constantly looking to enhance our Singapore and Southeast Asian materials in the Rare Materials Collection, I source for significant titles on the region and research on them to justify their acquisition. As the rare team also handles the procurement for rare materials, I have to spend time ensuring that we follow the proper procedures.
By sharing my knowledge on rare and heritage collections with my colleagues and the public, I get to apply what I have learnt over the years and at the same time, to deepen my knowledge and subject expertise further.
3. How are rare librarians different from conservators/ archivists?
Rare librarians, archivists and conservators all deal with special collections which are historically significant. The three roles require an understanding of the printing history and the different printing methods used in the past. You would also need to know the various types of paper or media on which the content was printed and the various formats that content can come in. Most importantly, you would need to be able to appreciate the value of an item, not just in terms of pricing but also its historical significance and provenance.
However, there are differences. A conservator ensures the proper repair and preservation of historical items. Rare librarians and archivists are information professionals who research on the collections they manage, build up their subject expertise and answer enquiries pertaining to them. Generally, an archivist works in archives and manages unpublished materials while a rare librarian works in a library and manages published materials.
4. Understand you specialise in maps. Why maps? What’s so special about the rare maps that National Library collects?
Well, I do like illustrations and colourful images and maps are often beautifully engraved, sometimes with lots of colour. Maps are also very interesting objects. Although they are mainly non-textual, just like pictures, maps usually “speak a thousand words”.
The maps in the National Library’s Rare Materials Collection are an important part of the documentary record of the history of Singapore and the region for researchers, as well as a source of historical reference and information for the Singapore public. Maps and charts provide an alternative but important historical source of research information on early Singapore and Southeast Asia.
The oldest title in the Rare Materials Collection is a map of Southeast Asia printed in Rome in 1478. The National Library’s rare maps collection holds some of the earliest printed maps of the region, with early references to “Singapore” under various toponyms, such as Samgepura, Sincapur, Cingatola, C. Cinca Pula, etc.
5. What are some of the interesting enquiries you have handled from researchers with regards to the rare collection?
One of the more interesting enquiries I have handled would be the research done to commemorate the closure of the docks at Keppel and Tanjong Pagar. I have also helped a patron, staying at Seletar, who was researching the history of Seletar and its early communities, including the Orang Seletar.
In my early days as a rare librarian several years ago, I helped with a family history research which opened my eyes to the diverse materials available in the library’s rare and heritage collections.
6. What are some things that most people do not know about the rare collections at the National Library?
The Rare Materials Collection at the National Library comprises the rarest, most interesting or significant items relating to Singapore’s and Southeast Asia’s past. It consists of mainly printed materials, with the earliest item printed in the late 15th century.
The collection contains items that are scarce and of historical significance – mostly Singapore/Malaya/Straits Settlements titles that were printed before 1945 as well as Southeast Asia/Asia titles printed before 1900. Besides books, periodicals and maps, the National Library’s rare collection also contains manuscript works, letters, photographs and other unpublished materials pertaining to Singapore and Southeast Asia. Most of the older materials were inherited from the National Library’s predecessors, namely the Singapore Library and the Raffles Library.
Besides researchers, we also welcome the public to view the collection, even though the rare items are kept in secure storage for their long-term preservation. Patrons are generally encouraged to use surrogate copies where available. For those who need to access the original item, they can always put in a request in writing. We also regularly feature these rare materials in the National Library’s exhibitions, share them on social media and also feature them in BiblioAsia, which is the National Library’s quarterly journal.
Singaporeans will find that the Rare Materials Collection is a treasure trove of information that can help them connect with Singapore’s past and the island’s rich history.
7. Can you share some of the projects you have done with the rare materials in the collection?
One of my most memorable projects was the design and development of the Rare Materials Collection room at the current National Library Building where the rare materials are housed. I recall researching on the type of specifications required and working closely with the building team to ensure that suitable construction materials were used for the room.
I have also been involved in major preservation and restoration projects since 2002 to ensure that rare items are properly housed and preserved. I am happy to say that an outcome of the projects was the establishment of the first Preservation and Conservation Studio at NLB, headed by a staff trained in library conservation work.
8. What are some of the challenges you face and how have you overcome them?
I usually treat the challenges I face at work as new learning opportunities. Managing the rare and special collections requires specialised skills, such as knowledge of book history, printing and publishing history, as well as preservation skills.
As the area of librarianship in rare and special collections is still budding in Singapore, most of these skills had to be learnt on-the-job and through our own research and reading. It also helps that the libraries around the world share their knowledge online, making this information easily accessible. Besides that, I also subscribe to several mailing lists online to learn about new ideas from librarians around the world.
9. How can one access the rare collections at the National Library?
One can write in to Reference Point (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the details of their research and the item(s) they wish to access. Permission to view is granted on a need basis.
Due to preservation considerations, most of the rare items have been either microfilmed or digitised. Users are encouraged to look at the surrogate copies either on the BookSG website for the digitised copy or at Level 11 of the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library for the microfilmed copy.
Contributed by Makeswary Periasamy
Senior Librarian, Content & Services (SingSEA & Exhibitions)
Interviewed by Kong Leng Foong, Editor