Notes from the Field

The Challenge: Increasing Access to Information and Internet in Vietnam

August 19, 2009

Vietnam’s citizens have a great passion for reading, and public libraries in Vietnam are free for users, open for long hours, and have relatively well-qualified personnel to support patrons. The country’s public library system is extensive: the National Library of Vietnam in Hanoi functions as a repository for all Vietnamese publications. The network includes 64 provincial/city libraries, 623 district libraries, and 8,677 libraries and reading rooms at the commune and village level. To supplement the public library system, the government provides 10,000 legal book collections throughout the country to ensure that people can access the most basic legal information. They have also opened more than 8,000 Cultural Post Offices (CPOs) at the commune/ward level.

The CPOs are an interesting Vietnamese institution. Started in 1998, CPOs are established and operated by the Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group, a state-owned conglomerate, which combine the provision of post and telecommunication services, as well as social and cultural information to rural populations. Since 2003, a growing number of CPOs have also been equipped with computers and Internet connection as part of the government’s push to broaden Internet access throughout the country.

A CPO in Tra Vinh province

A CPO in Tra Vinh province

A CPO in Nghe An province

A CPO in Nghe An province

Despite these impressive efforts to provide a nation-wide public library system and a network of CPOs reaching most rural and remote areas, their effectiveness in actually connecting the wider public to information and Internet access is limited. In a research report done for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation by a committed group of Vietnamese library professionals in 2007, the group found that only 2.3 percent of the total population uses public libraries, while the rest have never used public library services. This is an astoundingly low figure given the existence of such an extensive network of public libraries in the country. As for the CPOs, there is little connection between CPOs and the public library system so the initial small collection of books and journals available in CPOs is not often refreshed. It is clearly challenging to balance the CPO’s commercial mandate with the socio-cultural goal.

With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Asia Foundation is working closely with our long term partner, the National Library of Vietnam, to expand Internet access in Vietnam to the largest number of citizens and create a more welcoming and accessible library environment, and, through mass media, public campaigns, and community events, to promote public access to computers and the Internet. The project complements, reinforces, and broadens a concurrent planning grant from the Gates Foundation to Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) to test effective models for public Internet access in libraries and in CPOs.

In order to establish the baseline capacity of public libraries in pilot sites, The Foundation carried out an extensive needs assessment at provincial, district, and commune levels through face-to-face interviews with library and CPO staff, as well as current and potential users of public libraries and CPOs. The assessment evaluated information and Internet service infrastructure, staff capacity and training needs, and user needs. The information gathered has given us a good look at the needs across Vietnam. For instance, 78 percent of library and CPO users said they know of the libraries or CPOs only because they pass by these places often or because they live nearby, but the libraries and CPOs themselves do no community outreach. Of all those interviewed who have never used any library or CPO services, 67 percent said they had no idea of their existence. 80 percent of CPO users thought of CPOs only as places to make phone calls and send mail, while just 17 percent knew these places also provided Internet access. The majority of Internet users were school pupils who mainly used the Internet to play games or chat with friends.

An in-depth analysis of the critical information gathered during the needs assessment coupled with additional research done by the Foundation’s team in Vietnam is now informing the Foundation’s effort to design an effective training program for library and CPO staff.

Interested readers can access the full needs assessment report as well as the report’s key findings on The Asia Foundation’s website as well as on the Gates Foundation’s website.

Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Vietnam. She can be reached at kninh@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Kim N. B. Ninh | Bio

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