The Library (2)

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 defensive, to keep something in, – to protect the integrity of some whole.

What is that “whole”?

library barriers

In a presentation room: 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.

However, the fact is that despite a thousand features that cry “Hard to use!!! Do not even try!” this library is the most attractive place on campus.  It is jammed.Students love it. 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 offer 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, even along the canal, that opens only at the guard gates, where a friend of ours who tried to drive in with a motorcycle was stopped and had to call us on his cell phone.  And late at night (meaning 9 pm) when I walk back to our room 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.

Still asking the question about the relation of this library to the whole that it has been created to represent and defend: How about faculty? Faculty are under great pressure to publish. True, the only journals that “count’ are ISI/Scopus journals, which reminds me a bit of the U of Illinois. But the pressure on the university to demonstrate its success as a model (public but autonmous in the sense of fiscally independent but receiving large amounts of money such as for buildings from the government nonetheless) by ranking high on the basis of published articles is enormous, and this pressure gets passed down. 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. On the other hand, our 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.

The library  (and the university) has not found a way to get around the high cost of “buying” access to journal articles. We told them about JSTOR and the “free article” function (thanks to Aron Swartz).

More about free access is at

But even that is limited. So researchers based here are pretty much boxed in.


Recently a set of rankings of universities was published in the University World News bulletin and TDT came up #2 in Viet Nam. We  learned when we were in Hanoi that the research group that did the rankings 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 work hard or learn new things.” 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.

But what kind of information about a university is posted on the web?

Back to the tension between access and the powerful attraction of 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.

lbrary shoe crowd

These are students lined up to get keys for the lockers banked in another room in the basement, into which they can put their street shoes when they exchange them for the plastic shoes that they will wear when they enter the library.  When the library opened, there was a man at a desk who handed you the right size plastic shoe and you left your street shoes on the floor. Then there was no man, but there were plastic baskets labeled by shoe size, which soon did not contain shoes of the correct size. Then there were the banks of lockers, and people started leaving both their personal and their plastic shoes in the lockers. Then there was another desk, with special cubbyholes for the lecturers who are supposed to be able to get shoes faster. At this point I lost track (see line above). Now it appears that lecturers carry their plastic shoes around with them in a bag and switch them elsewhere.

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? They have hundreds of years — this library opened in August.

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?

It’s not just that, as I was told, the presence of a library also attracts adults from the nearby neighborhood of wealthy Korean managers, who want to get in and use it. It is also that just about everything about the library — except the requirement that patrons of the library put on those 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.

The Sixth Floor

I spent that first morning with the two young men librarians and then Joe and I went over there a second time to take them up on their invitation to visit the 6th floor. I have heard about the 6th floor. It is the place where 6,000 to 8,000 books – more than are downstairs – are stored. Certain people, like us, can get permission to take a book out from the 6th floor. But why are those books there?

We changed our shoes (the librarian had special pairs ready for us) and went up to the 6th floor in the elevator.

I assumed that they would be locked up because they are “politically sensitive” but that’s a gross simplification.  These are books that have been donated, in one way or another. Yes, one source of donation is from the big library that the Americans built in Saigon, filled with books that promoted, in all different kinds of ways, the American way of life and political system. I have heard this described as “The CIA library,” and also the US AID library, also known as the Abraham Lincoln Library. The story told to us by the librarians is that at the end of the war, many books were taken from the library and piled in the street and burned, but some were saved and these are the ones that were saved.

Quite a few of them are 1950s and 1960s liberal democracy books. Some are really good books:



Others are just anti-communist ranting. But they are all mixed in together. Looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers you can see that a lot of them are Social Science (300-399) and History and BIography (900-999), or at least that’s how they were classified back in the 1960s, and then there’s one in the picture that’s Religion (200-299). But this library does not use the Dewey Decimal system, as I mentioned earlier, and they shelve the English language books by title, not author. So the information provided by these numbers probably doesn’t make much difference.

shelf of books

Then there literally thousands of books that are donated by a US NGO that the librarians say is run by overseas Vietnamese (Viet-Khieu), who raise money to buy books and send them to the library. These are the ones that look new and don’t have Dewey Decimal System numbers on them. Among them, Clan of the Cave Bear.

books shelv

And the Republic of Plato, all right, and Showdown in Gucci Gulch, along with  Derek Bok’s Universities and the Marketplace.

new book donations

I got quite emotional when I saw Little Women, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Plato’s Republic on the shelf. The idea that those books would be sequestered for any reason started to get me upset. I began explaining what these books were and why they could not possibly be a problem.

But that was also when I understood that political sensitivity is just a small part of the problem. There are 15 library employees, total. Many of them are young students, or at most in their thirties. Only a few read English, and those are busy doing other things. They can’t spend all day sitting and reading Little Women to see what it’s about, much less try to figure out whether or not it would fit into a curriculum somewhere.  Someone has to actually look at these books one by one, find out something about them, and make a decision about releasing them into the general collection. Just because friendly people in the US sent them here doesn’t mean that they can  go right out into the general collection. That’s just not going to happen.

It is an enormous task, but progress is being made

Then we went across the hall to the room where books that have been approved are shelved and are one at a time getting entered into the database and given an electronic sticker so that they can be checked out. I am very happy to report that the shelves of  English language books that have been approved has a lot of books on it and they are good books; it’s as if someone who knew what they were doing had done the selection. For example, there were five or six side-by-side that have to do with African American history or literature — Zora Neale Hurston, for example, was there.

This is not a job that anyone else can do. A friendly American volunteer cannot spend a day on the 6th floor and come up with forty books that are “OK.” While I don’t know who is doing it, it’s getting done, and done right, but slowly.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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