Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Zero to Sixty at the Library

Some of you may be wondering how on earth my sabbatical work here in the library is going. I haven't written a whole lot about that except for a few things about my commute and my experience singing for librarians. For those of you who aren't wondering about the state of libraries in Viet Nam and care primarily about descriptions of food, pagodas and Karst landscapes, you may want to skip this posting. I promise I will get back to those things. (For instance, my recent lunch of large snails from West Lake stewed in lemongrass, lime leaves and chile-tamarind sauce deserves attention.)

Well, I really wasn't sure what to expect of my work here. My initial emails with a librarian here were very promising. There seemed to be so many areas of overlap between my expertise and the vision of the librarian with whom I'd been in contact, especially in the areas of information literacy and the development of reference services. Just before I came I was informed that this librarian had left for the World Bank. Even before I arrived I sensed a vacuum left by her departure. (As an aside, why does the World Bank skim off the most talented, the most visionary and create a brain drain from the very infrastructure they are trying to develop?) In any case, the projects we agreed several months ago I'd be working on include: the introduction of reference services, the development of information literacy instruction, and my participation in a programme to teach English to librarians from across Viet Nam (this last project is now complete).

I was warned by several people that things move very slowly here, and not to expect huge changes. I was told to take whatever goals I have and only expect to accomplish half of them. It helps to be laid back and able to roll with the punches. At the same time I was also told that other changes can come suddenly and things can be implemented overnight before you can stop them. Changes come in these two flavours: glacial and decisive. My first few weeks gave me a feel for the glacial. Now things are moving full steam ahead.

The English for Librarians training is now over and I have turned my attention to the development of library services. This is proving to be fascinating and frustrating at the same time. The Library Director has been pushing for me to run a workshop on reference services. In theory this is a great idea, but I have come to question the purpose of this. There seems to be an assumption that all that is needed is a staff training, a desk and a schedule. On paper this will indeed look like a reference service, and the management is all for anything that looks like a Western-style library. The problem is that reference services cannot be introduced in a vacuum. Public services only work in a service culture. There must be some kind of shared understanding between users and staff about what constitutes a service. It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem: you can't expect reference questions to appear without an expectation of service from the user. And it's difficult to justify a new reference point without a prior demand. One solution is to get library skills embedded somewhere in the curriculum so that the demand is created.

My Australian colleague Stephen and I are of like minds and we regularly escape to the campus guesthouse for iced black coffees (den da has become my drug). We do our best thinking there, but often we get all worked up and then return to the office and feel a kind of inertia set in. It is very difficult to initiate anything without an ability to communicate with the Director (no English) and without clear reporting structures. At times our suggestions are greeted with the dreaded smile, nod and "okay". What this means is: Yes, I acknowledge what are you saying and affirm your existence, but I reserve the right not to respond directly to your idea.

All this changed last Thursday. We got a call from an Australian woman who is deeply connected on campus and who was in discussion with the Dean of a new programme about partnering with librarians to teach information literacy modules for her students. The idea is not simply that we would provide a few classes, but that we would be fully integrated into the entire two year programme. For those of you not up on the current state of academic librarianship, curriculum integration is one of the holy grails of the profession. So you can imagine our surprise after weeks of brainstorming incremental changes with Stephen, we are presented with the end goal. Not only is the idea big, but it is to happen immediately. We caught wind of this last Thursday and already less that a week later, Stephen and I have taught over 300 students.

The problem is that this did not come from a library vision - and this is where it gets interesting. This idea came from an Australian-educated Dean who was deeply influenced by the role of Australian academic libraries in teaching information literacy. She wants to do the same thing here but the library administration doesn't quite seem to get the whole concept. This is one of those cases of leapfrog development. Ideas that took a long time to develop elsewhere in the world get implemented without any of the intermediate steps. The question is, how necessary are these intermediate steps, or can we go skip straight to the last page? So far the answer seems, no, we cannot just skip to the end. This project appears to be opening up many cans of worms.

To begin with Vietnamese education is still deeply Confucian when it comes down to it. One could describe the model crudely as a "banking theory" of education. The teacher invests knowledge in the students who learn by rote. The knowledge is later reproduced by the students in examination. Education is not about transformation, but about reproducing ideas and traditions. Libraries in Vietnam have not traditionally been about independent inquiry, but about storing and protecting ideas. Most libraries here have closed stacks and the role of librarians are generally as bookkeepers.

The library here is very progressive by these standards. We have open stacks which is still a radical idea in most of Viet Nam. But in the process of planning a library class, we discovered that in fact there is a regulation that requires students take a library orientation and pass a test before being allowed to have a library card. Unfortunately it appears the orientation sessions and tests are usually just offered at the beginning of term. God forbid that you actually identify a need to use the library half way through the term.

We've also discovered that innovative projects that create new work are sometimes frowned upon unless they are accompanied by some sort of "personal incentive". You can't get something for nothing. And collaborations with other units are a questionable idea because that might involve a loss of control or at least the optics of that. We get the feeling that our partnership with a dean is seen suspiciously because it looks like we are doing work for her and she has co-opting the library's agenda. It will be challenging to convince the library that this partnership actually benefits the library and is helping us achieve goals such as the creation of reference services.

So you can begin to see how this curriculum integration project is ruffling some feathers.

The other fascinating thing Stephen and I are discovering is that book ownership seems to be a highly charged matter. The library unfortunately has no acquisitions budget. Everything has been acquired by donation. (And you should see some of the crap that "generous" libraries think is appropriate for donation to the developing world. How about "Choose Your Own Adventure Books", Minitab software manuals from the late 80s, and copies of old state tax regulations? I also came across a Jane Fonda Workout book, but somehow it seemed appropriate to have Hanoi Jane's later career represented on the bookshelves.) Despite this sad situation, it appears that departments have traditionally had their own separate acquisitions budget for their own departmental resource centres. If only this money were pooled to become the library budget. On the other hand, the background here is that probably most professors can't afford too many of their own books and so the departmental collections function the way the faculty's private office collections do in West. After all, a nice new academic title can easily cost $100, and that is actually about a month's salary for instructors. (We recently learned that the workers installing metal screens in the library were making about as much as some of the university's top administrators. Everyone has some kind of sideline in order to survive.) So maybe departments began pooling resources out of necessity. And I can't imagine any library in the West letting students take out a book on loan that was worth a VP's monthly salary.

Despite all of this, the library here has made some great strides. It is easy to get frustrated and yet I have to remind myself that the modern academic library that they want, cannot just appear out of nowhere. There are all sorts of issues that the institution must work out for itself. And maybe in the end, the institution that will evolve will in fact be different from what we are used to. But clearly they want changes, and I guess my role is to poke around and challenge and raise some issues so that the library can move beyond its current state.

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Blogger Brent wood said...

Brent Wood remarks:
Read with great interest, Mark.I sense the challenge, excitement, opportunities, and major frustrations.I'm sure progress in your reaching your objectives requires insight, patience,timing-- and luck.What seems in evidence is some "fusion of horizons", to use Gadamer's apt phrase. Keep us posted.

4:00 PM

Blogger Khoi Gallub-Ho said...


It is such an interesting entry. I must say, I read it backward.

I saw Brent's comment first and read it then decided that it might be interesting to read. Not that your other entries are just as fascinating...snails and nuoc mam cay sounds good right about now. 1pm Friday

Vietnam can be a frustrating place to work and I was thinking about all of that before you left. I held my tounge and wait to see what your experience maybe like. My view of Vietnamese officials and the like maybe a bit onesided.

It is very rewarding to see that you are able to help in your own way contributing to a culture that you find fascinating.

Words can not describe how good it feels to know that there are people who cares about other people. Care enough to fight for knowledge...because knowledge is power. To know your enemy, you have a chance of winnning, to know yourself as well, you are sure to be victorious!

You are fighting for generations to come to be able to check out a book from a library as a reference for a great thesis. Some thoughts/ideas that may challenge conventional thinking...Not Minitab software manual!

1:06 PM


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