I came across a very cute little library whilst I was travelling in Laos this week.
I was in Pakse, one of the largest cities/towns in the less-developed south of the country. An extreme version of being laid back is part of the culture of Laos – the official name of the country is Laos PDR (Laos People’s Democratic Republic), but any guidebook will tell you that another acronym which works well is Laos – Please Don’t Rush. However, Laos is also economically underdeveloped, with a population of 6.2 million and a GDP of 5.94 (US$, millions) – compare that to Thailand, with a population of 67.2 million, and a GDP of 263.77. Yes, I double-checked those decimal points were right. There are varying statistics on the literacy rate in Laos, but they are all around about 70-75% (higher in the capital, lowest in ethnic groups in the south). Sadly, I think Laos is a country where public libraries could make a massive difference to education and training, but it’s also a country that’s unlikely to have a strong public library system in the near future.
Inside, the library was well-staffed, and well-organised, but we were the only visitors. Here are some photos to give you an idea, with the kind permission of the friendly library staff. I’m afraid I didn’t get their names, as there was a major language barrier (though there are enough similarities between Thai and Laos that I should have had a go).
As I looked more closely at the shelves I could tell that much of the stock had been donated, and that pretty much any donations had been accepted. In a library that I would estimate had about 6-8,000 books, there were no less than 5 languages represented; a good chunk of books in Lao, Thai and English (each with separate non-fiction sequences in dewey order), plus a fair handful of Vietnamese books (10% of the Laos population is Vietnamese), and even the odd French book. Given that the first five of those languages all use different scripts, this must make the library a bit intimidating for the average user.
I think this is a case of a lovely little building, good staff and good intentions, but not enough stock and infrastructure to have the impact it could have. I guess there are libraries like that in many countries, and at the rate England is going that could probably describe many of our public libraries in the near future.
However, there are some very positive signs for future literacy in Laos. These are about developing the publishing industry as much as promoting reading to children and families. My favourite one of these is the Big Brother Mouse who publish and distribute Lao books to children in Laos. They are a Laos-based organisation, and they do a lot to make reading appealing and fun to children who may never have had access to books in Lao before.
They mainly operate in the North, and when I was in Luang Prabang, I could visit their centre buy two of their books (very cheaply) and then put them in a box, to go out to their next school visit. I think this organisation are doing great work, and I hope that if I get to go back to the South of Laos in a few years time, Big Brother Mouse will be doing their outreach work there too. If anyone is looking for a literacy organisation for their school/university to support, I think Big Brother Mouse would be a superb organisation to get involved with.
What would be your approach to the language decisions that literacy programs in Laos have to make? If you could set up a school library in Laos, what language would you go for? 100% Lao, or a proportion of English in there? Would you justify including Vietnamese books for the 10% of the population that are of Vietnamese origin? If someone donated a batch of Thai books would you accept them?
Statistics on Thailand and Laous from worldbank.org