Notes from the Field

Unlocking the Potential of Vietnam’s Libraries

September 7, 2011

Stories of Vietnam’s rapid development make headlines in local and international media regularly these days. In 1985, the average per-capita income in Vietnam was $130, making it one of the five poorest countries in the world. Now, with average incomes over $1,000, Vietnam’s highly literate population (over 90 percent) is absorbing and searching for more information to improve their lives, from education and career opportunities to health and business. Although internet penetration is increasing in Vietnam (over 25 million Vietnamese now regularly use the internet) and the region, there remains a great demand for print publications – particularly foreign-language materials.

Vietnam library

Despite rising internet penetration throughout Vietnam, there is still a high demand for print books and materials at libraries. Photo by Justin Mott/Getty Images.

Vietnam’s citizens have a longstanding passion for reading – evident on the many street corners and parks filled with people deeply engrossed in the daily newspaper or a magazine. This appreciation for reading is also evident in the country’s extensive and well-established public library system, with nearly 2,000 commune-level libraries, 613 district libraries, 63 provincial libraries, and a national library. Public libraries in Vietnam are free to the public, open for long hours, and employ relatively well-qualified personnel. At the grassroots level, public libraries, if properly maintained, can play an important role in complementing the formal education system.

However, libraries in Vietnam tend to focus only on those people who specifically request their services, rather than proactively reaching out to the general public. As such, the poor and disadvantaged populations are far less likely to access and take advantage of public libraries. In addition, many Vietnamese librarians are well-trained in library science but not trained with skills that would help them relate to their clients and reach out to new groups in the community, such as retirees, housewives, the unemployed, household businesses, and farmers. Often, when I visit libraries here, I find that they are less responsive than they could be to the needs of the communities that they serve. The fact that Vietnam’s extensive public library system is seriously underused suggests a significant lack of public awareness about the system’s resources and potential contributions.

In 2009, The Asia Foundation started a project, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to strengthen the public library institutions by creating a more welcoming and accessible library environment in select pilot sites in Thai Nguyen, Nghe An, and Tra Vinh provinces. At this time, we pioneered the first-ever public library staff training that focused on effective service provision, roles and responsibilities in a new IT environment, enhanced communication and counselling skills, and outreach to different communities.

In the past, library training gave little attention to improving service provision skills, such as communication skills to improve service quality, public service, business acumen, professional guidance, and advocacy. We worked closely with local trainers to develop participatory methodologies to create an interactive learning environment where all participants have an opportunity to contribute, participate, and put into practice the new skills that they have acquired. The trainings focused on the skills of client-friendly service provision, professional guidance skills and advocacy skills for public library institutions’ activities, and information-searching skills.

Since then, feedback from the librarians who have participated has been remarkable. Nguyen Thi Dzung, head of Public Service Section of Thai Nguyen Provincial Library, said that “after the training course, I realized the services we provided to users at the library was insufficient, and we would need to change ourselves to better meet the need of our users. I will definitely change my communications with users to be friendlier and more understanding of their needs to bring about positive change.”

Nguyen Tu Anh, deputy director of the Nghe An Public Library, said she found the training courses had a significant, positive impact on her staff’s quality of work and their desire to create a more welcoming environment, and has since improved the services to their library patrons.

With this success, we decided to replicate the same training in Ho Chi Minh City for 50 library staff from 43 of our Books for Asia recipient public and university libraries in the South and South Central Coast.

For Pham Thi Kiem from Ho Chi Minh City Banking University, the workshop helped her to realize the importance of counseling skills to maximize the use of available materials. “The most important thing is not necessarily how many books we have available at the library but how we can engage readers to use these books, and that will be up to us, the librarians, to make it work,” she said.

Pleased with this great news, I wondered how the librarians trained under the earlier pilot project were doing now. To find out, I traveled to Tra Vinh province, 200 km away from Ho Chi Minh City.
When I last went to Tra Vinh Provincial Library in 2009, all of the reading rooms were set up very simply and were quite drab. The children’s reading room was old, with peeling paint and rickety furniture, just a few simple chairs, tables, and a couple of book shelves. On my return recently, I was in for a shock. The room was beautiful, with colorful furniture and filled book shelves within easy reach of the children. Ms. Le Thi My Ha, director of Tra Vinh Provincial Library told me: “Since the training in 2009, we have encouraged our staff to be friendlier in their communication and interaction with readers. At the same time, we try our best within our budget to give a new look to the existing facility. There are still a lot of things to do but this is a good start.” According to Ha, children’s visits to the library have risen from about 20 to 30 kids per day to 50 to 60 per day.

We also checked in with the Duyen Hai District Library, a district in southeastern Tra Vinh – one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam. Before 2009, the library was just a corner in the office of the District Department of Culture. In 2011, it was moved to a newly built facility to become a district library. According to the librarian there, more and more local people are also using the library for work, study, and entertainment. Students at a nearby primary school told me that they went to the library whenever they have free time to use the books and the computers, and that the librarians were always very friendly and nice.

Although public resources are scarce in a place like Tra Vinh, it is rewarding to see how existing capacities and the passion that the librarians have can be better leveraged to serve the public. I am heartened by what is possible with such improvements, and while our Books for Asia program in Vietnam cannot solve all the challenges that the Vietnamese library system faces, we can kick-start changes that will make them much more welcoming places for the Vietnamese reading public.

The Asia Foundation has worked with the National Library of Vietnam to develop Vietnamese libraries since 1993, providing over 400,000 English-language books to more than 120 institutions, and has carried out a series of capacity building programs aimed at developing a network of public libraries more connected to and capable of servicing the needs of their communities. Read more about The Asia Foundation in Vietnam.

Dinh Kieu Nhung is The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program officer in Vietnam. She can be reached at dknhung@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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