Cindy Nguyen is a Postdoctoral Fellow in International Humanities with the History Department at Brown University. She earned her Ph.D. in History at University of California, Berkeley (2019). She specializes in the history of Vietnam, Southeast Asia print culture, and libraries. Her book manuscript, “Reading and Misreading: The Social Life of Libraries and Colonial Control in Vietnam, 1865-1958” examines the cultural and political history of libraries in Hanoi and Saigon from the French colonial period through to the decolonization of libraries. She examines the institution of the libraries through the lens of cultural imperialism, national legitimacy, and social practices of public reading. Through her historical study, she reveals how the library reading room became a space of urban sociability, literary cosmopolitanism, and self-directed education. She approaches history through a critical lens of ‘builders and users’ to understand the multifaceted roles of library actors (librarians, readers, technicians, administrators) to shape meanings of libraries, the public, and literacy in 20th century Vietnam. Her research topic and theoretical approach draws from an interdisciplinary training and work experience—as an area studies specialist, multilingual scholar, and digital humanist (information science, libraries, and archives work experience). Her other interests include memory and translation, arts activism, information literacy, and digital humanities.
Reading and Misreading: The Social Life of Libraries and Colonial Control in Vietnam, 1865-1958
Reading and Misreading examines the cultural and political history of French colonial libraries and print control in Vietnam from 1865 to 1958. I analyze the changing mission of colonial libraries as a hybrid of state documentation and public space for self-directed education and social life. I also 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 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. Administrators also policed cases of ‘misreading,’ the violation of proper library decorum or consumption of politically subversive texts.
The chapters follow a historical and thematic chronology: the builders, the readers, print industry, print control, and decolonization. Focused primarily on the state-initiated Central Library in Hanoi and Saigon, this dissertation advances a two-part argument on the history of colonial libraries and print control in Indochina. First, to build libraries is to build the state. Libraries legitimized the authority of the state as infrastructures of symbolic modernity, print control, and documentary heritage. Second, library users shaped the everyday mission and social function of the library beyond the hegemonic aspirations of colonial and post-colonial states. As seen in the Hanoi and Saigon Central Library Reading Rooms in 1920s to 1950s, readers transformed the tranquil space intended for administrative research into a dynamic public space for study and social life. This two-part argument reveals the significance of the library as an institution of state-building, print control, and public reading culture.
I am principal investigator of the Social Library database and project, funded in part by the Social Science Research Council IDRF and Institute for East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. The Social Library project will be a database and analysis of the books available to and demanded by users of the libraries–especially during the 1920’s rise of print capitalism and the 1960’s state building in Communist North Vietnam and non-Communist South Vietnam. The Social Library will reveal important bottom-up perspectives on readers, their literary tastes, and social practices of reading. However, no one has systematically analyzed library collections and readership. By recreating library holdings and requests by time, location, language, and topic, I can inquire into the circulation of ideas such as nationalism, Communism, and modernity in Southeast and East Asia. The Social Library project emerged from my work dissertation research in the colonial archives in Aix-en-Provence, France and in the graduate class “Deconstructing Data Science” with Professor David Bamman at the School of Information.
Since 2014, I have been co-principal investigator on the DH at Berkeley Mellon funded project Vietnamese Intellectual Networks Database (VIND) along with collaborator Matthew Berry. VIND provides detailed historical data regarding key Vietnamese intellectuals, their geographic movement, and their intellectual networks. In the future, VIND will function as a collaborative resource for researchers, educators, and those interested in Vietnamese history.
In 2014-2015 I was the Digital Humanities Assistant and co-convener of the Digital Humanities Working Group. I contributed to the development of the DH at Berkeley program, working group events in the Berkeley community, and was the coordinator of Berkeley DH Faire (April 7-8, 2015).
In 2012-2013 I was involved in digital humanities projects such as the creation of the MSU Vietnam Group Archive led by the digital humanities center MATRIX and University Archives at my Master’s degree institution Michigan State University. While at MSU, I participated the CHI fieldschool on data visualization and digital humanities and helped to build Detroit Digital.
Mission: Education, Open Source, and Sharing
Often the ivory tower of academia is portrayed as self-serving and removed from the larger community. Pushing against the image of the isolated ivory tower of intellectualism, I aspire to make the research, reading, and writing process more transparent through my own work. My mission for my website consists of two parts:
- Contribute to diversify the body of online knowledge about Vietnam.
- Share my experience as a graduate student and researcher as a process of exploration, experimentation, and communication.
I want to contribute to a culture of sharing things in progress. Working papers, thoughts, typos, unpolished ideas. Join me on this online community of open knowledge, discussion, and sharing.
All of my project files are available on GitHub–access, share, and contribute to improving my projects and datasets.
Distributing Revolution: Propaganda, Statistics, and Information in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1955-1975)
Distributing Revolution is an information history of propaganda production, distribution, and reception. My project argues that the DRV state created an ‘information order’—an elaborate infrastructure to distribute propaganda, collect statistics, and monitor its citizens. Furthermore, I will demonstrate how the institutions and technologies of measurement such as the Central Distributor [sở phát hành sách trung ương] operated to increase governmental legitimacy and to quantify social, cultural, and economic transformation under socialism.