Sitting in a “presentation room” in the new INSPIRE library, looking at the array of security tools attached to the door to the room, I thought: These are not just barriers to keep people out and to limit or control access. They are also a defensive armory to keep something in, to protect something – to preserve the integrity of some whole.
What is that “whole”?
One of those buttons opens the door from inside, so you can let someone in to join your group. But if you step outside yourself and the door closes (beeping all the while) and no one is in the room to let you back in, you will have to go find a librarian with a card to let you in. Another set of buttons is the climate control. Yet another probably has something to do with the password for the computer screen that is set up (and can’t be moved) directly in front of the white board – which you can’t write on until you get the markers from a librarian. Using the room means booking it in advance, and the door unlocks electronically so if you have booked for 10:30 and come at 10;29 the door will not open.
Before going on to other mysteries of access that have become embodied in the physical realization of this library, I must jump to the other side of the issue: First, that despite a thousand features that cry “Hard to use!!! Do not even try!” this library is the most attractive place on campus. Students love it. It is jammed. They are everywhere, using everything — the booths, the pillows, the computers, the elevators, the windows, the lockers in the basement, the front entrance with its grand staircase (see photos from August posts) which is the photo op venue of choice for graduating seniors. They pose for boyfriend/girlfriend photos next to it. They even seem to dress up a bit to go to to this library. And the cafeteria has the best food, albeit a bit more expensive, on campus, so there is always a line out the door. When we go to the library cafeteria, students are remarkably polite, offering us chairs at a shared table. Their manners are dressed up, too. I can’t help noticing that there are no other lecturers around, however. I wonder if there is some rule about this that we are unaware of?
That, come to think of it, is one of our basic questions about interactions in Viet Nam.
So what is going on?
I am used to city libraries that are quiet, so overstocked with books that some stay on trolleys forever, smell a little moldy, but whose main purpose, expressed in every physical design or staffing decision, is to get the books out the door. Share information! Give it to the curious reader, quick!! Even the 12-year old who wants to read a sexy novel — check the book out! Show them how to use the computer, forgive the overdue fine, manufacture the library replacement card in a matter of minutes (we have been here 10 weeks and do not have library cards, although we have been photographed and sent in our application). When I walk into the Berkeley Public Library, I see smiling faces like front desk employees at a 5-star hotel: How can I help you? How can I shovel information in your direction fast enough? Want to order something from somewhere else? We can get you things from all over the place!
When I am not treated like the user they have been waiting for all their lives — as at the UC Berkeley Library, where the librarian had to tell me that as an alum, but not a faculty member, I could not have online access to journals – I feel as if my patrimony has been swiped. But I go to the U of Illinois library, on line or by phone, and there I am again: welcome home! How can I help you? The message I get from even the physical design of a city library in the US expresses the mentality and vocational passion I associate with all librarians — the truth shall make you free, and here’s as much truth as I can pile onto you, as fast as possible.
In the libraries I am used to, the only security is the electronic eye that makes sure that any books you’ve got in your backpack as you leave have been checked out. There is no security on who comes in.
That was a digression. I have not even come to the point that I started out to make: that I realized that these barriers are not just to keep people out, but to keep something in.
So the real point is access, but not access to the building
Here is a place that is loaded with barriers to access, yet students are sucked toward it as if magnetized. They are not bothered by these barriers. I think that one of the things that draws them toward it is the sense that it is a safe place. That is rather like the whole campus; the fence around it (except for the side of campus along the canal) with the guard gates, the fact that when a friend of ours tried to drive in with a motorcycle, he was stopped. And late at night (meaning 9 pm) when I walk back to our from from my Vietnamese class, there are girls out playing badminton or hackey-sac under the streetlights; no sense of any kind of threat or lurking danger.
How about faculty? Faculty are under great pressure to do research and publish. True, the only journals that “count’ are ISI/Scopus journals, which reminds me of the U of Illinois where they did not want to count publications in education or history journals. But the pressure on the university as a whole to demonstrate its success as a model (autonomous private, fiscally independent but receiving large amounts of money from the government nonetheless) by ranking high on the basis of published articles is enormous. Since current faculty are teaching huge workloads (four or five classes per semester, with 80-90 students per class) their chances of being able to get research done (much less learn how to do it) are faint, so the university hires academics from other universities on year-long contracts and then counts their publications as TDTs for the purpose of rising in the rankings. We have talked with some of these “foreign” faculty and they themselves are not confused about what is going on. But their presence has a secondary effect — it interleaves the body of the teaching workforce with people who are in the habit of doing research and who generate discussions. Like the journal club, of which more later.
Another sign of pressure: Rankings
We learned that the research group that did the rankings posted in the University World News bulletin, which listed TDT as the Number 2 university in Viet Nam, was funded by the World Bank and the United Nations. The study was carried out by some economists on the basis of an assignment from MOET (Ministry of Education and Training — note loss of accuracy due to translation problems here). Apparently all government agencies have their own research centers. These research centers were originally totally-government funded but now have to search for their own funding, which they get from places like the ILO, the UN, Oxfam, Scandinavian NGOs, etc. ) The reason for the survey which led to the rankings was, apparently (and we have heard this plenty of times to be sure that it is a generally held opinion) that the quality of teaching in Vietnamese higher education was “so bad.” The research, then, was intended to be positively provocative: to stimulate a discussion that would reflect on the problem. “We are from a command economy for 50 years. These universities are so safe, they do not ….” The research on rankings was done entirely on the basis of whatever was available on the web; no one came around to any of the universities and did observations, etc.
Back to the issue of the tension between access and the powerful attraction created by the library
I got irritated about having to put on the special shoes down in the basement, and showed my irritation to the young woman who came to let me in past the 2nd floor gates with her card. Realizing she did not understand my irritation, I backed off as fast as I could and asked her if she was a librarian. She said yes, although it turned out she was a freshman studying business administration –but yes, she was a librarian, as if it were a vocation, loved the library, had worked here ever since it opened in August, and would like to spend her life here. She said,”When I read a book, my mind becomes empty!’ and the most beautiful smile spread over her face.
I will represent this tension, the tension between access and protecting what is inside the library, with the following photo. A tug of war, favorite game, just outside our dormitory room: the guy in the green shirt is I think the director of sports, and he is also quite a famous martial arts practitioner.
What the library keeps in
First, it keeps its own existence. It’s new, and a couple of months ago, it didn’t exist. There was a floor in one of the buildings that was called “the library” when we were here in 2015-16, but no one treated it like a library. This is completely different. Furthermore, the existence of this library is necessary, because you can’t have a TOP 100 university without a library, and it even has to support research because TOP 100 universities are research universities, so there has to be a public face of some sort that affirms a commitment to research even if the actual permanent faculty don’t have time to do research and the visiting faculty who are getting paid for publications are using the resources of other universities to do their work. But this library has to be here. A university can’t be a research university without a library. And it’s new. How many of the old city libraries in the US that i am comparing it with are less than 100 years old? And how about the Harvard library at 400 years, or even the Berkeley library at a a little over 100?
So, if we follow the logic of Viet Nam’s national ambition to produce its own well-educated, internationally respected college and university graduates, and TDT’s ambition to be a leader among Viet Nam’s universities, including reporting such high numbers of journals published by faculty in ISI/Scopus journals that it gets ranked as #2 in the nation, everything leads to the fact that there must be a library and it must be a research library.
So it has to exist, period. The status of the university depends on it.
So what would threaten its existence? Why would anything threaten it?
Well, just about everything about the library — except the requirement that patrons of the library put on plastic-soled shoes before entering — is politically sensitive, and therefore could threaten the existence of the library, or at least damage it seriously. Which is the explanation for the photo of the tug of war, above.
Airport security: A parallel
We talk about how one of the functions of airport security in the US is to teach people to stand in line, take off our shoes, belts and jackets, allow people to x-ray us and pat us down and empty our pockets without ever expressing irritation, to keep us familiar with an attitude of obedience and submission.
So every time I join the crowds of students in the basement, hunting for a pair of size 43 plastic clogs, I am being reminded of how precious and vulnerable even getting physical access to a library is. It is a way to prepare me to bring an attitude of respect to the problem that the library is trying to address.