The underlying principle of Beyond Access is that public libraries should be a development partner. Those of us in the program’s organizing coalition believe this idea is applicable pretty much everywhere. We often say that you can’t talk about development in the 21st century without talking about access to information. And if you’re talking about access to information, there’s no better institution to start from than the public library. Our map shows that libraries as a concept exist in nearly every corner of the world.
But often what we’ve heard when we’ve raised the idea of the modern library as a relevant, integral institution around the world, we’ve heard that libraries aren’t relevant because “our country doesn’t have a reading culture”. Today, on the first day of our Beyond Access visit to Thailand, we heard the same thing several times. It’s typically not uttered as a rejection of the concept, but more as an explanation of why things are as they are now, with public libraries generally neglected and underused.
I’m not quite sure how to respond to the statement when it’s made. How does one quantify a “reading culture”? In countries where I’ve heard this, there are newsstands lining the streets. There are strong universities who put out competent professionals. People are often absorbed by their smartphones. There must be reading going on, people are getting information. At the same time, if there isn’t a “reading culture” – or people don’t think there is – does that mean libraries are an inappropriate institution to meet the country’s needs?
While acknowledging my subjectivity – I work on Beyond Access, after all – I find it hard to buy into that possibility. Whether people think of reading as a favored leisure-time activity or not, everyone needs information. Whether a local book-publishing industry thrives or not, prosperity in the 21st century depends on knowledge-economy job skills, on creating efficiency by performing essential tasks online, and on being able to find answers to questions quickly and accurately.
The two libraries in Bangkok we visited today seemed to support this theory. First, Bob Reno and I visited the TK Park – a super-modern information hub located on the top floor of one of Bangkok’s glitziest malls. Opened in 2005, it was the brainchild of a couple of Thai librarians who were studying for their PhDs in France, witnessed Paris’s Centre Pompidou and decided to bring the idea back home. Boasting the latest technology, neatly arranged stacks, a user-driven layout and librarians trained in customer service, the TK Park isn’t the kind of small, local community partner we normally talk about as part of Beyond Access (it also charges a small admission fee, though does have concessions for those who can’t afford it). But its presence, and its popularity – 500 to 1000 visitors a day – point to the fact that when libraries are well-conceived and properly adapted to local demand and culture, they succeed. Reading culture or not, the TK Park is a dynamic, fun place in which anyone would feel welcome, and where anyone can find what they need to thrive in Thailand’s humming economy. Proving the point, its managers are now responding to new demand from around the country – helping local administrations around Thailand replicate the concept. They are helping design and train staff for 15 more parks, including in some of Thailand’s most marginalized regions.
Later, we visited the Lumpini Municipal Library, a modest building located in a big park in central Bangkok. Though it was early evening and though it lacked any of the flashy tech or design sported by its downtown counterpart, the library was full of people – of all ages, both reading and using the internet on the computers. Perhaps not representative of the full spectrum of Bangkok’s residents, the library was still clearly useful and used, again attesting to its validity for Thailand.
My experience with Thailand’s society and libraries after one day of a visit is still only a tiny sliver of the whole. But what I saw today suggests that there appears to be a place for libraries in 21st century Thailand. Tomorrow, at our Beyond Access salon in Bangkok, I hope to learn more. In the meantime, I put out the question – does a country need a “reading culture” in order for libraries to be relevant?