The custodian of rare historial documents

Makeswary Periasamy, 48, wants people to connect with Singapore’s history
 

 

There are two things Makeswary Periasamy is passionate about: books and ancient history.

Just as well, then, that her job marries these two great loves. Makeswary is one of four trained librarians overseeing the National Library’s Rare Materials Collection. They handle titles published in Singapore and Southeast Asia before 1945, and old handwritten journals, maps and manuscripts. “I could be handling something that is 200 to 300 years old. It’s no ordinary book – it’s a unique item with historical significance,” she says.

Age has made these materials so fragile that light, moisture and fluctuating temperatures could cause the paper to disintegrate. That’s why they’re stored behind glass in dark, climate-controlled rooms – a move implemented by Makeswary, who’s led major conservation and preservation efforts since 2002 to ensure that these rare materials are properly protected. The materials also have to be handled delicately. Gloves must be worn before touching the books to prevent finger grease from transferring onto the pages, and they have to be opened very carefully so the spines are not damaged.

Makeswary also helps to expand the library’s collection, combing through catalogues from antiquarian dealers, and finding rare items. Her area of expertise is maps – something she’s come to love, having spent years handling queries from researchers and academics, who seek her advice on reading early maps of Singapore. She also researches and writes both articles and social media posts about the rare materials in the library’s collection.

Tethering people to their roots is one of the reasons why Makeswary loves what she does. “I want people to connect with Singapore’s past and its rich history, and not just think of it as a red dot on a map,” she says.

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In collaboration with the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI)