The Singapore Library, 1845-1873

The Singapore Library forms just one small part of our larger, cross-regional study of how the holdings of libraries in the colonial southern hemisphere and Straits Settlements changed over space and time, but this case study is especially important for the history of books and reading in colonial Singapore because the library eventually evolved into the state’s national public library: first, as the Raffles Library and Museum (1874-1960) and then as the National Library of Singapore (1960-).

The Singapore Library opened on 22 January 1845 on the premises of the Singapore Institution, originally founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1823, which from 1837 also housed the Singapore Institution Free School (Report SL 1845: 4-5). It inherited the holdings of the Singapore Free School Library, approximately 433 titles by 1843, mainly comprised of primers, grammars, biographies/ lives, and histories, with only 3 novels (all by Walter Scott), Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Tales or Fairy Legends and Traditions of South Ireland (1834), and a small number of poetic works (Report SIFS 1842-3: 13-18).

As was common with subscription libraries in the colonies, a sum of money (in this case 220 pounds) was paid to London booksellers for a stock of books and periodicals, and a standing order of 10 pounds per annum was placed with the publisher and bookseller Smith, Elder & Co. (Report SL 1845: 3). With the holdings of the Free School Library and some purchases and donations by prominent residents (approximately 54 titles), the library opened with an initial stock of around 500 titles (Report SL 1845: 11), to which 617 titles (excluding periodical purchases) were added over the course of the following year (Report SL 1846: 6).

The General Rules for 1846 listed the following classes of works as of particular interest to the library:

The monthly supplies shall consist of the following classes of works: –

  1. – The leading Reviews and Magazines etc. and two or more leading Weekly or Monthly London Newspapers

  2. – Approved new Novels, Voyages, Travels and other popular new works of General Literature.

The Friend of India, and a leading weekly Bombay and Madras paper shall also be procured. (Report SL 1846: 12)

By 1863 the library had approximately 1842 titles; and novels and histories each amounted to a third of its holdings (Catalogue SL 1863).

Like most of the subscription libraries in the colonies, the library was funded, patronized, and controlled by the educated or upper middle classes (bankers, doctors, engineers, administrators, lawyers, and in particular in this case, merchants). Of the founding proprietors of the library, only two were non-European (Parsee Indian and Armenian). There were four classes of subscribers with fluctuating fees: class 1 (proprietors, who paid around $2 Spanish dollars per month); class 2 (resident non-proprietors, who paid around $2.50 Spanish dollars per month); class 3 (temporary residents, who paid around $2.50 Spanish dollars per month); and (from 1848) class 4 (residents who paid a reduced fee of $1 Spanish dollar per month). In 1850, the library reverted to three classes of subscribers by making it mandatory for all resident subscribers to become proprietary subscribers (Report SL 1850: 6-7). The number of subscribers peaked at 67 in 1851.

In 1852, there were only 3 female subscribers to the library, all in class 3, which was the cheaper subscription class with fewer borrowing privileges (Report SL 1852: np). But despite the all-male nature of the library’s share-holders and Management Committee,female novelists are exceptionally well-represented in the library and account for 7 of the 20 best-represented authors in its 1863 catalogue. The library was also well-stocked with authors like Burney, Inchbald, Radcliffe, Austen, Charlotte Smith, Sophia Lee, Jane Porter, Sydney Owenson, Mary Shelley, Harriet Martineu and then later Gaskell, George Eliot, and the Brontes (Catalogue SL 1860, 1863).

While the catalogue of fiction holdings in 1863 seems to reflect the values of the mid-Victorian British middle-classes, the library’s history holdings makes one stop to think about the apparently metropolitan nature of colonial libraries: not only were a relatively large proportion of regional periodicals stocked in the library – 14 out of a total of 45 periodicals were printed in the colonies or ex-colonies (North America, India, or the Malay Archipelago) – but the library’s acquisition policies specifically targeted books relating to South Asia. The Management Report for 1850 notes that ‘any valuable new publications on India, China, or other Eastern British Settlement’ are ‘to have the first consideration on all occasions’ (Report 1850: 7). Books are even classified in the 1860 and 1863 catalogues according to colonial places and spaces, suggesting the ways in which libraries played a vital role in the study of comparative ethnologies by making newly textualized or mapped knowledge available to local readers (Ballantyne 2014: 43). By the 1890’s the Raffles Library was considered one of the largest and best collections of Asian history and ethnography in the British-controlled East (Luyt 2008; Lee 2016).

Works Cited

Ballantyne, Tony. Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2014.

Catalogue of Books in the Singapore Library with Regulations and By-Laws September 1860. Singapore: Mission Press, 1860.

Catalogue of Books in the Singapore Library with Regulations and By-Laws January 1863. Singapore: Mission Press, 1863.

Lee, Gracie. ‘Collecting the Scattered Remains: The Raffles Library and Museum’. BiblioAsia (2016) 12.1: np. Accessed online 18 April 2017.

— ‘The First Public Library’. BiblioAsia (2016) 11.4: np. Accessed online 18 April 2017.

Lyut, Brendan. ‘Centres of Calcuation and Unruly Colonists: The Colonial Library in Singapore and its Users, 1874-1900’. Journal of Documentation (2008) 64.3: 386-396.

 Reports of the Singapore Library. Singapore: Mission Press, 1844-1860.

Reports of the Singapore Institution Free School. Singapore: Singapore Free Press Office/ Mission Press: 1834-1862.

Porscha Fermanis is Professor of Romantic Literature at University College Dublin. Her research interests include global Romanticisms and colonial book history; Romantic historicism and the philosophy of history; the relationship between Enlightenment and Romanticism; and the work of John Keats. Her current research for the SouthHem project focuses on literary appreciation and the history of reading in the Straits Settlements. 

Cover image is an engraving entitled ‘Singapore’ by Fredrick Grosse (1866). Image provided courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

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