READING AND MISREADING – Presentation at ARI NUS, Singapore July 2018

This paper was presented at the 13th Annual Singapore Graduate Forum on Southeast Asian Studies on July 25, 2018 at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Presentation title: Reading and Misreading: From Temple of European Knowledge to Public Space of Vietnamese Modernity and Social Life, 1919-1941

Slides: Cindy Nguyen Hanoi Central Library Reading Room ARI NUS July 2018 Final

Please cite all images and parts of the paper to Cindy A. Nguyen

Video of Presentation:



This talk examines the transformation of library reading in colonial Vietnam from a symbol of French modernity to an everyday practice of Vietnamese modernity and social life. Focused on the 1920’s and 1930’s Central Library Reading Room in Hanoi, I demonstrate the ways in which Vietnamese students, urban readers, and administrators challenged and redefined the meaning of the library into a Vietnamese space of public sociability, self-learning, and global knowledge.

This talk is part of my longer dissertation chapter “Documenting Readers and Reading: Catalogs, Statistics, and the Social Life of Reading, 1908-1941” which examines ‘reading’ as 1) a practice of ‘modern’ learning and leisure; 2) a market of commodified exchanges determined by the high costs of books, storage, space, transportation, and conservation; 3) a political technology of documentation and information control through library sciences and reader statistics. The French colonial government curated libraries based on a regime of Western science, modernity, and civilization. After registering for a reader card, the reader entered into the library system – an elaborate but unevenly implemented apparatus of surveillance and control. Central to the function of a library is ‘control work’– the documentary monitoring of its collections and its users. The technologies of control included catalogs, reader cards, record keeping, and reports used to evaluate the library collection conditions and justify its purpose to the government and larger public. However, a close analysis of ‘control work’ reveals the pervasiveness of ‘misreading’—users violating library rules, library personnel neglecting their responsibilities, or rambunctious student readers taking over the Hanoi Reading Room initially reserved for ‘serious’ research.

My dissertation “Builders and Users: Education, Modernity, and the Nation through the Vietnamese Library (1887-1975)” examines the history of Vietnamese libraries from the colonial to post-colonial period. Existing studies of the library lack historical context and theoretical complexity, providing only narrow institutional histories. Through a longue duréestudy of the library, I illuminate the dialectics between builders and users of the library. The builders of libraries—state officials, administrators, teachers, and librarians—contributed to state, cultural, and educational projects to curate and disseminate knowledge. In comparison, borrowing patterns and demands from readers shed light upon the reading tastes and political leanings of the diverse users of libraries—the educated elite, administrators, and students. My top-down and bottom-up analysis of the use and visions of libraries provides a dynamic understanding of Vietnamese reading practices and state policies on education and information access.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s