Last spring I was invited to give a virtual talk at Yale’s Southeast Asia Seminar. It was an honor to present a portion of my manuscript Misreading at the Yale seminar, and to be part of the vibrant Q&A, which due to its virtual format spanned institutions and continents. Thank you to Quan Tran for the talk moderation, Yale’s Council on Southeast Asian Studies for the kind invitation, and to all who were able to attend.
This talk examines the role of state-sponsored libraries within the landscape of print culture and reading public in late colonial Vietnam. I consider how library administrators and government officials defined ‘good reading’ as didactic, politically safe, and vulgarizing reading matter. Through the specific project of the Cochinchina Library bibliobus or xe sách [book wagon],* I reveal how colonial print control and book distribution drew inspiration from the Dutch East Indies Balai Pustaka and American libraries and publishing initiatives. This talk contributes two major interventions in the history of libraries and colonialism in Vietnam. Firstly, it situates the library within the landscape of print culture and peripheries of colonial control, and secondly it points to the administrative exchanges between imperial projects and international library sciences. This talk is part of my book manuscript Misreading: Social Life of Libraries and Colonial Control in Vietnam, 1865-1958. I examine the mechanics, discourse, and everyday practice of the library to fulfill its role as an official governmental institution, resource of public education, and cultural space for the practice of collective responsibility, urban civility, and public reading. I embed libraries within the multilayered landscape of print control—the politics of production, dissemination, and preservation of print matter. I follow the dynamic debates on print control among French colonial and post-colonial government administrators, librarians, archivists, translators, publishers, and readers. These diverse actors investigated the content, language, and influence of ‘good reading’ and initiated projects to disseminate reading matter through translation, publishing, and libraries.
This is a teaching module I designed for my course, “Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina” at Brown University, Fall 2019. [See below for full teaching module or Download Teaching Module Update: Remote Virtual Revised version below or Download Remote Teaching Module] I connected with an ambitious, award winning project “Virtual Angkor” which brings the 13th century Cambodian metropolis of Angkor to life through virtual reality and 3D simulation. Led by the talented team of Tom Chandler, Adam Clulow, Bernard Keo, Mike Yeates, and Martin Polkinghorne (SensiLab, Monash University, UT Austin, Flinders University), Virtual Angkor allows students to experience and pose questions about Angkor’s social life, trade networks, structure of power and kingship, as well as architectural layout.
This seminar explores the history of French colonial Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) from 1858 to 1945. Challenging Euro-centric narratives of colonialism, we will critically analyze the colonial encounter as complex exchanges, geographically diverse, and socially uneven. We will examine the mechanisms and limitations of the colonial state, capitalism, administration and institutions, and science and technology (maps, communications, transportation, medicine). Rather than position colonialism as an external agent of change, this seminar dedicates attention to local agency, and social and cultural transformations. We will focus on the creative production of new ideas, print media, and urban and religious communities especially in 1920s to 1940s Hanoi, Saigon, and Phnom Penh. By reading primary sources, we will consider how historical actors experienced and understood colonialism and social transformation. Key historical and theoretical debates addressed include the production and legacies of colonial knowledge, construction of modernity and civilization, development of civil societies, transformations of religious communities, and articulations of identities around gender, class, revolution, and nation. The final session will consider the legacies of colonialism on language, race, nationalism, and identity. A close analysis of French colonial Indochina will serve as a framework for a cultural and politically situated history of empire in Southeast Asia and beyond.