The Politics of ‘Good Reading’: Libraries and the Public in Late Colonial Vietnam Talk at Yale

Politics of ‘Good Reading’ Talk at Yale’s Southeast Asia Seminar

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. 

Link to Recording of Talk >

Why Study the History of Colonial Indochina? Talk at Middlesex Community College 2020

I recently delivered a talk  to 150 college students at Middlesex college through the Asian Studies Development Program. I was encouraged to prepare a talk which spoke to diverse students who might not have a background on Asian history. In preparing for the talk, I took a long time reflecting on the simple question, “Why study the history of colonial Indochina.” In the talk I explain three reasons:

  1. It is important.
  2. I am constantly learning and unlearning.
  3. It is hard.

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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.

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Hello, Dissertation.

Libraries and reading in colonial Vietnam

Today I started writing the beast of the dissertation on Vietnamese libraries. “Builders and Users: Creating the Vietnamese Library 1887-1986”

The Vietnamese library was never quiet.

Readers flooded the reading room of the Central Library to escape the heat in the summers, and lovers huddled in corners during the unforgiving Hanoi winters. Frequent library patrons complained loudly to library staff and the public press about the lack of chairs for readers and unfair borrowing privileges between Vietnamese and Europeans. Everyday incidents between workers and readers, French and Vietnamese, coalesced into the ever so frequent epic library drama: a slap to the face, a lifetime revocation of library privileges, and a mysterious death reported as a suicide.

Dissertation Research & Methods Presentation: Lịch sử thư viện Việt nam 1887-1986 – Phương pháp tiếp cận nghiên cứu của đại học Hoa kỳ

If you google ‘Vietnam,’ what are the results? Vietnam War, Vietnamese food, tourism

I recently had the opportunty to present my research and research methods at my Fulbright host institution, Vietnam National University – Social Sciences & Humanities University (Đại học Quốc gia Hà Nội – Trường Đại học Khoa học Xã hội và Nhân văn). The audience included professors, lecturers, researchers, and students from the department of history and libraries and information, senior professors on libraries, and a few archives personnel from the Hán-Nom research institute (Viện nghiên cứu Hán nôm).

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A Humanist Does Data Science: ‘Deconstructing’ Libraries Project

Library of Congress Main Reading Room
Library of Congress Main Reading Room

Spring of 2016 I enrolled in my first ever graduate level data science course at the School of Information at UC Berkeley. The course ‘Deconstrucing Data Science’ investigated quantitative methods of machine learning and data analysis. Coming from a humanist background, the course challenged me to think in drastically different ways about evidence, data, and argument. In the process of learning new data science methods, we reflected on experimental design and challenged the underlying assumptions of empirical methods. These critical reflections resonated with similar debates around the ‘scientific’ character of history and the social sciences to draw informed conclusions about the past and society.

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(Digital) Humanities: It’s all one in the same in my research

The map interface for searching materials. The Vietnam Project MSU Archive


While writing about my data science course at the School of Information in the spring of 2016, I realized that I needed a long preface to explain why it was that a historian of Vietnam was using computational methods in their research. My long engagement with the world of ‘tech’ has become less of a dabbling and more of a blurry (exciting) amalgamation where all of my work in history, digital humanities, quantitative methods, data science, and information science have converged.

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‘A Xu/sou for the Students’: A Discourse Analysis of Vietnamese Student Migration to France in the Late Colonial Period

This was originally published as a book chapter in Nguyen, Cindy A. 2015. “‘A Xu/sou for the Students’: A Discourse Analysis of Vietnamese Student Migration to France in the Late Colonial Period”. In Transnational Migration and Asia: The Question of Return, edited by Michiel Baas, 135–56. Amsterdam University Press.

Below is an early proof version of my chapter:


“’A Xu/Sou for the Students:’

A Discourse Analysis of Vietnamese Student Migration to France in the Late Colonial Period”

Cindy A. Nguyen


This chapter examines the physical and emotional experience and representation of Vietnamese student migrants between metrópole and home within the first decades of the twentieth century. Amongst the circulation of ideas on civilization, individualism, and nationalism, newspaper debates questioned the meaning and role of ‘the student’ within a rapidly changing, modern and one-day independent Vietnamese nation. However, rather than assume colonial study as simply a producer of radical intelligentsia, this chapter considers how the discourse of ‘the student’ was shaped both by the obligation to return to Vietnam and the students’ rejection of that cultural world. For some individuals, civilizational discourse and the opportunity for education abroad was the emancipation from both family and outmoded social expectations. For others, this sense of individuality inherent within student migration, reified the feeling of apartness brought by physical distance and cultural estrangement. Through studying the rhetoric of sending Vietnamese abroad, this chapter demonstrates the symbolic power and responsibility that an educated youth carried in relation to shifting definitions of the home—both familial and national.

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Generational Identities and Cultural Politics: A Historiography of Vietnamese 1920’s and 1930’s Student Movements

The procession and student rally around the funeral of Phan Chu Trinh in 1926
The procession and student rally around the funeral of Phan Chu Trinh in 1926

Below is a paper I wrote for Professor Alexander Cook’s Chinese Socialism in Global Perspective class Spring 2014. I discuss the historiography of Vietnamese youth and student movements and generational politics in the early twentieth century.

This paper examines the historiography of Vietnamese youth and student movements in the first half of the twentieth century. Given that the literature on Vietnamese student movements is relatively limited, I examine how student­­­s and youth movements are discussed in larger studies on the political atmosphere of 1920-1945 Vietnam. From these studies, I highlight how research on modern Vietnam has often been framed through the lens of generational politics—where political actors respond to the inadequacies of previous generations and intellectual shifts moves historical time forward. The first half of this paper examines the work of foundational scholars in modern Vietnamese history, Hue-Tam Ho Tai, David Marr, Pierre Brocheux, and Daniel Hémery, and explores their use of periodization and generations to discuss students and political radicalization. The second half explores the categorization of students in the work of Scott McConnell and historian of China Fabian Lanza. Drawing briefly from two monographs by Richard Wolin and Arif Dirlik, I conclude with some reflections on student movements and cultural politics of Vietnam on a comparative and thematic level.[1]

In the following examination of texts, I also ask the following methodological questions regarding writing histories of movements and ideology. How do scholars understand historical origins and legacies of ideology and movements without falling into teleology and simplistic causation? For example, how do scholars write the political history of early twentieth century Vietnam without framing a Marxist-Leninist style revolution as historically inevitable? How have scholars positioned debates in culture in the understanding of revolution? Does the historical categorization of ‘student’ and generational politics reveal or obscure our understanding of the Vietnamese revolution?

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Expressions of Borders and Place through the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 1.46.30 PM

Below is a old paper I found when I was writing through ideas of place, nation, and pre/early modern Vietnamese history. From the work of Liam Kelley’s Beyond the Bronze Pillars, I question how understandings of place shape concepts of nation and boundary. I wrote this paper in a class with Professors John Whitmore and Victor Lieberman at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

For more on Vietnamese geography, and map-making, see

Expressions of Borders and Place through the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship

Throughout the late colonial period and increasingly afterwards, questions of the modern sovereign nation have permeated political debates and academic studies on Southeast Asia. More recent scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Victor Lieberman examine even further the global nuances and multifaceted processes that encompass the development of a theoretical political identity, characterized as an “imagined community” or “political ethnicity.”[1] In particular, Lieberman’s forthcoming book challenges the problematic circumscription of the relatively modern European concepts of ‘nation’ and instead considers early modern understandings of ‘political ethnicity’ in a study of synchronous political development in Eurasia.

While incredibly important, the debate on the foundational meanings of political communities is beyond the scope of this paper. Rather, this paper attempts to contribute a facet of political identity through a study on the sense of belonging to and perception of ‘place.’ Here I use a theoretical understanding of place as an intimate relationship between individual and geographical space: “For humans, both the effects of space on our behavior and our use of space are mediated by place.” [2] I highlight the experience and construct of place mediated through the movement away from one’s place of familiarity. Specifically this paper explores the travels of Vietnamese envoys to China in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries and the poetry they composed along their journeys. The sources examined in this paper are based primarily on Liam Kelley’s book, Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship, where Kelley provides a historical framework and extensive translations of sixteenth to nineteenth century Vietnamese envoy poetry.[3]

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