by Thu Hang
"I never get bored at the library," said Le Hong Phuc, who is studying for a master's degree in Australia.
This observation surprised me because I had rarely seen Phuc at a library when we studied together at the HCM City University of Pedagogy a few years ago.
But then she told me the library facilities at her Australian college were far better than those in Viet Nam.
She said the library in Australia was equipped with reading rooms, including one for disabled users, a group study room and a multimedia learning centre as well as a wireless network.
"The library holds a wide variety of books on various subjects and contains invaluable resources," Phuc told me, adding that the library had saved her money on books and course materials.
What a difference to our university experience in Viet Nam where we visited the cramped, hot, ill-equipped library only 10 times in four years. We borrowed books necessary for our assignments and nothing else.
On those few occasions, if we could not find books we needed we had to run to the HCM City General Sciences Library, the city's largest, where the number of book titles was insufficient for growing demand.
Libraries in Viet Nam are unattractive and under-resourced to meet the tremendous demand for study and research, let alone entertainment.
HCM City University of Social Sciences and Humanities student Vu Thi Ngoc said reading was one of her favourite activities but there was no point in going to the university library.
"Most of the books in the library are old textbooks and specialist books, so I go to a store and stand for hours to read my favourite book," Ngoc said.
Also, the library had poor facilities and services which students found boring, said Ngoc, who is from Quang Nam Province.
HCM City University of Economics student Tran Minh Tuan said that a few weeks prior to examinations his library would become crowded with hundreds of students borrowing books or studying.
The crowd filled the library and flowed out into the schoolyard, packing the corridors and empty classrooms.
Sometimes, his group went to a park or a coffee shop to study.
Even the 9,000sq.m Viet Nam National University-HCM City's Central Library, which has a capacity of 1,000 students, is often crowded during exams.
Former head of the HCM City University of Pedagogy's Faculty of Literature Tran Huu Ta said libraries would be more popular if they had modern books, facilities, services and human resources.
Most schools, colleges and universities had spent little money developing their libraries.
"They are open every day to just do simple things, like lending books from limited resources, instead of providing comfortable and enjoyable spaces for students to study and read," Ta said.
A reading culture should be developed at schools. Teachers should encourage their students to read, and libraries should help them access resources, Ta said.
Many children were reluctant to read, partly due to the failure to nurture reading and library habits at an early age, and partly due to crowded study schedules and evening classes. Most students in elementary and junior high schools only liked to read cartoons or picture books, Ta said.
Nguyen Ba Minh Hoang, a ninth-grade student at Tran Van On Junior High School in District 1, said he never went to a library during his final three years at the school.
He spent most of his time studying and playing with his friends during break time.
Ninth-grader Vu Ngoc Phuong Thao said she spent most of her free time reading books, especially about social psychology, but she would never go to the school library.
"The library has mainly textbooks, exercise books and some children's magazines. So I have to go to the HCM City General Science Library or bookstores at the weekend.
"Only two or three of my classmates share the same hobby for reading books," Thao said.
HCM City's Department of Education and Training director Huynh Cong Minh admitted most libraries were "uninviting book warehouses", not exciting and comfortable environments for study and entertainment.
"The library system has sunk into obscurity for many years due to inappropriate investments," Minh said.
An investigation into libraries in the city is planned as part of an effort to apply student-centred teaching and improve the quality of education.
Ministry of Education and Training figures show that only half of the 24,746 libraries nationwide meet required conditions and only 49 per cent of 26,578 library staff are qualified.
For the 2009-10 academic year, VND202 billion (US$10.64 million) was earmarked to invest in libraries, with an average of VND7.4 million ($390) for each library. VNS