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Greetings colleagues,

My January visit to libraries was to two countries: Laos and Cambodia.

Understanding the library and educational situation in these two countries requires a little historical background. Following the pullout of the United States from Southeast Asia in 1975, both countries, like Vietnam, changed to communist governments. For Laos, it was to the very bureaucratic Soviet Union-style rule, where the Lao communist party and government ministries centrally controlled everything. That style has continued until today; in fact, the communist flag (hammer and sickle) still flies everywhere throughout Laos.

Unfortunately, this old-style bureaucracy has been slow in making progress for libraries and education. In the case of Cambodia, the change in 1975 was even more extreme. The communist change was in the form of the Khmer Rouge, which forced a cultural revolution back to peasantry -- schools and libraries were closed, intellectuals were executed and urban populations were relocated to the country. It was a terrible reign of terror (with lasting effects on libraries and education) for the rest of the decade until another faction -- still communist, but more sane -- took over.

As for current library conditions in both countries, they are lacking.

LAOS: Laos has one university, located in the capitol of Vientiane. Although called a "university," its facilities are more similar to a community college in the United States. The library has some electronic resources (databases) and many shelves of books, but they are old, with little budget for new titles -- the current set of encyclopedias is more than a decade out of date.
In the 1990s, the government began allowing private colleges as an alternative to the state university. There are about five in Vientiane and they are often more popular than the state university due to higher quality -- more money from tuition. But their libraries are equally underdeveloped. Many are just shelves of textbooks and most do not offer databases. Most, despite charging tuition, do not have budgets for substantial buying and instead, rely on donations from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or duplicates/withdrawals from universities in other countries.

One particular college is rising above the rest by hosting the "American Corner" -- a section of the library with books/Internet/databases provided by the U.S. Embassy. In the north and south of Laos, two new state-run universities are currently under construction, and they have temporary libraries. However, their collections are very inadequate -- currently just older donated books and textbooks.

CAMBODIA: Despite the terrible years of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has made strides toward a comeback. There are seven state-run universities, all in Phnom Penh: one general and six specializing in fields -- management, technology, etc. Each has a library with many shelves of books, and some with e-resources.

Dewey is the common classification system (Dewey has become somewhat analogous to English -- a common international choice). However, like Laos, their budgets are either token or nothing, and their acquisitions are heavily reliant on donations from NGOs or partner universities' donations.

There are also private universities, and like Laos, these private options are often more popular. However, their libraries face the same dilemma: some with just shelves of textbooks, others with only older donations from NGOs or foreign universities. One exception is the private university that Cal State Fullerton has partnered with: Pannasastra University. Pannasastra's library is striving to follow a U.S. library model, choosing Library of Congress classification and hosting the U.S. Embassy's "American Corner" collection (see http://www.pannasastra.org/American_Corner.htm and http://phnompenh.usembassy.gov/american_corners.html).

As for library services in Laos and Cambodia, they are lacking. Circulation service does exist, but is typically manual (card) check-outs. Reference service is usually just library staff helping students locate a book, due to the lack of professional librarians. Advanced reference service (detailed research questions) is very rare -- this is a reflection of the overall educational system in general: heavily "memorize-and-take-an-exam," rather than independent research. User education service is equally rare -- brief orientations may occur, but detailed library instruction sessions (except at a few progressive libraries) do not.

School and public libraries are also lacking. Of the secondary schools I visited in both countries, urban ones mainly just had a room of textbooks with a few NGO-donated leisure books, and rural ones had either nothing or just a storeroom. I found two public libraries in Laos, existing only due to NGO donations, and none in Cambodia. The irony of this condition is that while both countries have attempted to make strides in literacy (yes, there are public schools everywhere), the prevalence of libraries -- to make that literacy realized -- is almost nonexistent.

Overall, there is still much improvement needed for libraries in Laos and Cambodia. Donations from NGOs/outside sources can be a help, but relying entirely on them will not bring the progress needed. A fundamental recognition of the importance of libraries and a financial commitment to them by both countries' governments (ministries of education, etc.) is needed.

I hope all is well at CSUF. Take care, and look for my February from my next location: Vietnam.

Regards from Asia,