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Book guru brings libraries to countryside

Update: April, 05/2010 - 22:59

Smart move: Nguyen Quang Thach (top line, third from left) during a trip to present books to the Le clan in Khoai Chau District, Hung Yen Province. VNSPhotos
Page by page: Thach at work, checking books before sending them to rural communities.
Reading matters: Students look for books at a village library in northern Bac Giang Province's Lang Giang Disitrict. — VNA/VNS Photo Dinh Na

Book proliferation

Clan Bookshelf will help the progress of popularising books in rural areas.

The State's policy to socialise libraries also creates favourable conditions for people who want to help.

Donors can give books to rural communities by contacting Nguyen Quang Thach at 0912 188 644, email: thienson09@yahoo.com and through the website://www.sachlangque.net

Another example

Some others people living in rural areas have also helped develop a culture of reading in the countryside.

Nguyen Man, an elder of Quang Xa Village in the central province of Quang Binh has started a library for people in his village.

Man joined with Duong Viet Khen and Nguyen Thi Ngoc Chau, both retired teachers, and used their own money to make bookshelves, tables and chairs.

The district's cultural centre started them off by presenting them with 80 books.

"But we noticed that even with these books, we didn't have enough to satisfy the villagers' hunger for reading," he recalls.

"The villagers were very poor, so we could not seek donations from them."

They decided to send letters to people who were born in Quang Xa but had moved away to other parts of the country to ask them to send books home.

Man also travelled to HCM City to mobilise Quang Xa people living in the city to donate books.

"I returned home with hundreds of books. Villagers were very happy and welcomed me like a guest of honour."

In only one year, thousands of books were sent to the village.

From the library's opening in January 2001, books have been borrowed 8,000 times. People from five nearby villages in the commune also go to the library to read.

"This is really a cultural mecca for the whole country to study," says head of the Library Department under the Ministry of Culture and Information, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Thuan, during her trip to the village to present 518 books donated by the National Library to the village library.— VNS

In the digital era where information can be available at the click of a mouse, a young man devotes all his time and efforts to bring books to rural communities hoping to cultivate a love for reading among villagers, Trung Hieu checks out the stacks.

"Only books can help people live in a more humanistic way," says Nguyen Quang Thach, 35.

The bespectacled man has spent the last 13 years bringing books to rural areas. He is the founder and manager of Tu Sach Dong Ho (Clan Bookshelf), a project that supplies books, newspapers and magazines free of charge to rural communities.

From a strong belief that rural people from all walks of life should always have access to books in order to stay informed and knowledgeable, Thach founded the first Clan Bookshelf in March 2007 after 10 years of research and design for four other library models.

During the Lunar New Year holiday, he toured around the country by motorbike to advertise the Clan Bookshelf model.

Thach and his uncle Tran Quoc Hien travelled around the country carrying a banner which read "Books bring opportunity to all. Please give books to clan bookshelves in the Vietnamese countryside."

During the trip, they met with cultural officials and library directors in a number of cities and provinces to introduce the clan library model, including: Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Quang Binh, Thua Thien-Hue, Quang Nam, Binh Dinh, Phu Yen, Binh Thuan, Ba Ria-Vung Tau and HCM City.

Thach recalls both happy and sad memories from his trip.

"In Ha Tinh, we met a three-year old child who could not speak or walk because her mother was very ill during her pregnancy. She used a lot of medicine which led to brain damage in the baby. She told us she did not read any health care books prior to her pregnancy. She said her child's life would be better if she had had access to health information.

"One of the happy stories comes from central Quang Binh Province. Some young men saw us and rode after us. When they caught us, they asked how they could develop their own clan library. They promised me they would develop a library of their own."

Communes often keep books in school libraries and local post offices, but Thach says they are not very effective in providing knowledge.

"In the last 10 years, I have studied and designed many different models for countryside libraries and I recognised that none of them can develop themselves."

He says clans play a very important role in Vietnamese community life. Rural communities have primarily been formed by many clans settling down in villages. Each clan can be made up of 30 to 200 households, Thach says.

"People in rural areas have firm links with others in their clans, and I think this can be a basis for expanding the number of libraries and the reading culture."

Most clans have their own ancestral worship houses, and in the past 15 years in particular, Thach has noticed that more than 30,000 clans have established education promotion funds to help their descendants with their studies and examinations. In 1997 his idea of building a model for rural clan libraries was born.

Unfortunately, he had to wait until 2007 for his idea to come to fruition. He began the project with VND10 million (US$526) from his own savings.

The first clans to establish libraries were the Nguyen Quang and Nguyen Duy families (from his paternal side) and the Tran family (from his maternal side).

"I was moved to tears when I saw adults ask children to respect books, and when I saw children jostling to borrow books," he recalls.

Thach says he has travelled a lot and has seen villages spend hundreds of millions of dong on useless things. One village built a giant gate. Another village spent as much as VND450 million ($23,076) to build a cultural house, which is almost empty. One clan spent hundreds of millions of dong to build their ancestral worshipping house, but the building doesn't do much to help their descendants.

"With such a large amount of money, I could buy thousands of books, which would give tens of thousands of people access to information.

"We often say Viet Nam does not currently have a reading culture, especially in the countryside. But in reality, there is an abundance of books in large cities, it's just the rural people who don't have access, in part because the prices are too high for them."

Thach recalls his student days in 1996. One day he met an insane woman who could not return to her home in Nghe An Province. Thach asked thousands of students to donate a small amount of money to help her on her way, but only two agreed.

"I was shocked to see how heartless people were about others' fates. I think books are the only thing that can help people develop affection for their fellow man."

Thach's method for establishing clan libraries is simple: Clan members can call him for details about how to receive books through the project.

"Books are only offered if the clans are really ready to build the shelves and assign a librarian to serve the community with free reading material."

Thach uses his own money and donations to purchase the books.

Thach worked for the Project Management Unit of the Ministry of Transport from 2000 to 2008, which he followed with one year at the non-governmental organisation World Vision until July 2009. During that time, he spent about VND1 million each month on books.

Thach says he earned a high monthly income at these jobs but decided to quit because he wanted to spend time on his passion of bringing books to rural areas.

To date, his project has built more than 54 bookshelves and provided more than 12,000 books to 16 provinces, including Quang Nam, Ha Tinh and Nghe An. These bookshelves have already served thousands of rural readers. Records show that books have been checked out 30,000 times.

His Clan Bookshelf model received VND400 million ($20,512) from the competition "Ideas to serve the community" in September 2009.

Many individuals have contributed funds, and the Dong Tay and Thai Ha Book Companies have contributed hundreds of books. Alistair Sawer, director of Thaoli and ATI Telecom companies, contributed $4,300 for books and Thach's Lunar New Year motorbike trip.

When asked about why he supported a project modelled by a Vietnamese, Sawer says: "It is better when development and charity work is done by other Vietnamese because they understand the needs of the Vietnamese people better than 100 per cent foreign NGOs. I believe this model will be well used and achieve positive results.

"I will continue to support Thach's project and help it grow by talking about it at networking discussions and on internet promotions."

He has helped Thach set up a web page with a chat feature, a feedback section and an update page.

Famous authors Nguyen Quang Thieu and Phong Le contributed 1,500 and 1,150 books, respectively.

Thieu says he supports Thach's idea and enjoys his enthusiasm and fruitful activities that have helped, and will continue to help, establish village bookshelves.

"I live in a rural area and I notice that rural people have given up the habit of reading. Communal cultural houses have not effectively provided books."

In recent years, relations among people in different clans have become very strong, including their willingness to help others develop, he says.

Thach has noticed the importance of clans in the countryside lifestyle.

"Clans can do what the communal cultural houses can't – that is, respect their consciousness, take responsibility for their own family members and protect their clan's pride. People are proud when their family members demonstrate a fondness for learning and reading.

"Every clan has a leader who acts as the librarian. They are ready to lend books to other clans. Books are preserved, read by many people, and libraries are developed because all of the clans have members living in cities.

"Dozens of clan libraries have been established. I believe that this model can develop further," says Thieu.

The model has received contributions from 80 individuals, both domestic and foreign. More than 7,000 books and 700 magazines have been collected, along with $3,200 and VND13.5 million.

Several libraries have been developed following Thach's model. The Vu The clan in Cam Dien Commune, Cam Giang District, Hai Duong Province has successfully self-organised their library with 1,260 book titles. From 7-10 people per day have borrowed books since the library was established.

The Le clan in Vinh hamlet, Da Trach Commune, Khoai Chau District, Hung Yen Province now has 880 books, 700 of which were contributed by family member Ngo Thi Van. The remaining 180 were presented by Thach.

Thach has also established a Knowledge Support and Community Development Centre to create a professional mechanism for bringing books to the countryside.

To date, more than 100 army and police officers, and businessmen who were born in rural areas have contacted Thach to ask how they can build a clan bookshelf. Sixty other clans have asked him to donate books to their bookshelves.

These activities and requests have proven that the clan library model can be self-replicated by the community, and sustainability is assured because books are always added by clan members, Thach says.

He hopes the model will create a trickle effect of building clan bookshelves on a large scale. Other library models will be born and implemented by others, which will contribute to reducing the shortage of books in the countryside.

Bookshelves will create a sense of responsibility for people living in cities to their family members who still live in their home villages. By sharing knowledge and information, the clan bookshelves will act as satellite libraries to the Government's public library system, he says.

"I believe that support from the cultural sector combined with individual donations of used books to rural areas could result in millions of books for rural clans. It will be like a cool stream that will help refresh the boring countryside which currently lacks a variety of cultural entertainment and access to knowledge." — VNS

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