Developing strategies to encourage information literacy and implement dynamic library services: Suggestions for Lao PDR

After several drafts and revisions, and meetings with the Library director, and then more revisions, and then another meeting, and then more revisions, and then finally his somewhat reluctantly given approval due to the not unfair critiques I make of the Central Library, and the Lao Ministry of Education, which I mostly had to remove, I have finished my paper for CONSAL.  Here is a preview, if you don’t want to wait around for the conference:

Due to a variety of factors, such as a lack of financial resources or governmental prioritization; the structure, mission, and functions of many libraries in some South East Asian nations have been left largely in similar conditions to those of the end of the colonial period.  This has resulted in a lack of library services considered “modern” by western standards; and essentially out-dated institutions that cannot respond to the needs of the users in the 21st century. Several potential strategies exist that can help modernize the functioning of libraries in countries such as the Lao PDR.  This paper outlines some of the key elements in developing effective strategies to create dynamic, user-friendly libraries that encourage educational development and information literacy. The majority of these strategies are aimed at training not only the library staff in more responsive and contemporary methods of providing library services, but also educating the end-users as to becoming information literate individuals. As the largest library in the country, the University Central Library (UCL) of the National University of Laos (NUOL) plays an extremely important role in creating a more information literate, educated population that can effectively pursue sustainable development. The development of new strategies aimed at encouraging information literacy and dynamic library services will result in a more knowledgeable, better informed public, capable of not only critical thinking, but also of participating and contributing to a greater extent in the global information society.

In the current post-colonial environment, many countries are implementing educational reforms and restructuring the educational systems that are largely the legacy of foreign regimes.  The process of developing a successful and culturally appropriate educational policy takes time and is the result of trial and error.  Since the 1990’s, huge national resources have been invested into education and related initiatives in nearly every country in Asia to bring about substantial improvement and development in many different aspects of society (Cheng & Townshead, 2000). Not all of these educational reforms have met with success, and many people must receive training abroad to meet the demand for well-educated professionals in their home country.  Many countries’ university systems lack adequate programs in certain disciplines to meet the need for trained professionals.  The lack of a Library and Information Science university program in Laos is one example of this.
The library is of course very closely tied to education, both formal and informal.  There exists a great opportunity for libraries to supplement traditional and western-based educational methods, and improve not only the general knowledge and literacy of a country, but also to encourage critical thinking skills and encourage educational development during these times of transitions. As the central library for the only university in Laos, and the largest teacher-training college in the country, the University Central Library (UCL) has great potential to have a significant impact on the knowledge of a large part of Lao society.  However, despite this recognized potential, and the trends to modernize education systems, many countries’ governments have neglected to consider the need to update their library facilities as well.  In many western countries, such as the United States, libraries and information professionals are taking a much more pro-active, progressive approaches to librarianship.  This includes a shift away from the traditional library model, to a new, more dynamic one that aims to encourage information literacy (IL) and learning in new, unconventional ways.
While these trends have affected certain Asian countries, there remains a great deal of progress to be made in others. While many libraries may lack sufficient resources, including physical, electronic, and human resources, they still represent valuable community assets in many places.  The library has the potential to play an extremely important role in many people’s lives if a more dynamic model were adopted.

What is a dynamic library?
Essentially, dynamic refers to a library that is not static; meaning one that changes as needed.  The dynamic library should change as a variety of cultural, social, economic, educational, and technological changes are also taking place.  Culture, society, and the other aforementioned factors are not fixed influences, but rather change and transform over time; sometimes moving progressively towards the future, other times reacting to outside influence by implementing tradition-orientated policies.  Thus, the library must also be prepared to respond to cultural and societal factors.  A library that adapts to the current needs of its users is the one that is ultimately the most indispensable and successful. Research has shown that libraries that implement policies based on user suggestions or user-needs surveys are more successful than those that act without consulting their users.   According to a study conducted by the US governmental organization, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, although a number of projects participating in the study pointed out how difficult it can be to gather information about current and potential users and their needs, the level of success of the projects with responsive users show that the results are worth the effort (4).  Periodic self-evaluations of library use and user satisfaction provide excellent ideas and models for necessary modifications to ineffective or obsolete practices that must be altered.  The needs of library users change as their living conditions change; it is the alteration of such practices in response to user-needs that creates the dynamic library.

What is Information Literacy?
If a dynamic library is one that adapts to changing user needs, then information literacy could be described as the processes through which the user defines his or her information needs, and then tries to fulfill these information needs. Most western-orientated models describe information literacy as a set of skills, many of which are related to information and communication technologies (ICT), that imply that a person is able to effectively define their information need, locate, evaluate, and use the information as needed. However, this standard definition is not contextually relevant in many developing countries.  Therefore, this definition has been modified to more accurately describe the processes required to become an information literate person by Drs. Gorman & Dorner. The have arrived at the following operational definition, more appropriate to the South East Asian context:
The ability of individuals or groups
• to be aware of why, how and by whom information is created, communicated and controlled, and how it contributes to the construction of knowledge
• to understand when information can be used to improve their daily living or to contribute to the resolution of needs related to specific situations, such as at work or school
• to know how to locate information and to critique its relevance and appropriateness to their context of knowledge (Dorner & Gorman 284).

The link between information literacy and critical thinking is clearly made in the above definition.    We define critical thinking as the ability to make judgments and process ideas critically, that is; with a critical thought method that requires the synthesis of information, as well as introspection and rational evaluation (Moore & Parker 3).  The obvious relationship between IL and critical thinking is that they both encourage individual thought processes aimed at not only understanding information, but also being able to evaluate it and form new knowledge and new ideas.  Critical thinking is an integral part of learning and education, and IL has the potential to encourage deep, rather than surface learning, and to transform dependent learners into independent, self-directed, lifelong learners suggests Christine Bruce (np).

Why are these skills valuable?
According to UNESCO “Education is the primary agent of transformation towards sustainable development, increasing people’s capacities to transform their visions for society into reality. Education for sustainable development teaches individuals how to make decisions that consider the long-term future of the economy, ecology and equity of all communities.” (UNESCO) Thus, one can argue that education is the most important tool that increases a country’s social and economic development.  An information literate population not only seeks out new knowledge, but also creates new information and is engaged in the educational process. According to a 2001 report by K. Sisavanh, the Lao government has officially encouraged the learner-centered approach in public schools and revised its teacher training curricula to reflect these new teaching/learning strategies (265).  However, many schools are finding it difficult to integrate learner-centered approaches into their day-to-day teaching in public schools.  Despite being trained in the new methods, sometimes resources or supplemental materials are not available.  Also, the tendency for Asian cultures, such as Laos, to be collectivist rather than individualist according to Geert Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, may also be a hindrance to developing effective information literacy education (ILE) programs in Laos (Dorner & Gorman 288).  Therefore one must consider the following question : In encouraging independent, individual thought, are we discouraging traditional values and societal norms? Perhaps information literacy and critical thinking skills are values that are held with higher regard in western, individualist cultures, and these values cannot be imposed on non-western or collectivist cultures.  However, one can argue that even in developing countries, regardless of their traditional values, most individuals will encounter western influences, multi-national organizations, and participate to some degree in the global economy of the 21st century. Thus, it can be assumed that even in developing countries capacities such as critical thinking are essential.

How can Laos libraries adopt a more dynamic model that integrates information literacy education (ILE) ?
Bruce suggests that education centers all over the world need to pursue the pathways of information literacy education, in order to support, and bring to maturity, the embryonic educational systems that are emerging in response to the lifelong learning vision (np).  This statement makes evident the extremely important role of the Central Library of the National University of Laos, in creating a more information literate, educated population that can effectively pursue sustainable development.
In my experiences as a volunteer at the Central Library of the National University of Laos, I have had the opportunity to witness first hand the challenges faced by libraries in developing countries in South East Asia.  Due to many historical factors as well as present conditions, Lao libraries fall behind the modern standards for libraries in many western countries. This is of course, to be expected considering the developing state of the country; and it is important to mention that many improvements have been made, and are continuing to be made to the present situation of libraries in Laos. Despite the limited support, limited training, and limited resources available to libraries in Laos, there are ways in which Lao libraries are modifying their services and collections to respond to the needs of their users.  Recently the UCL implemented a variety of new procedures and practices to aimed at offering improved library services and promoting IL.  This includes the creation of an electronic catalogue, and the adoption of new ILS software, as well as the development of an OPAC, accessible from anywhere in the world, and more.  According to research done in other developing countries under going similar times of transition, the non-dynamic library risks becoming irrelevant as the emerging new educational system is redefined, reshaped and refocused (Oladokun 104). This study argues that the least the library can do is to be proactive, swift and responsive, and to adapt and transform to meet the new demands (ibid).
Therefore, through developing strategies to encourage information literacy and provide more dynamic library services, the Lao library will be able to more effectively provide educational resources to the Lao people.  This can be done in a number of ways. Knowledge sharing is a systematic process for creating, acquiring, synthesizing, learning, sharing and using knowledge and experience to achieve organizational goal (Sethumadhavan 1). Currently, library staff in Laos tend to guard their unique knowledge and skills as professional secrets.  However, according to research published by Statistics Canada, a knowledge-sharing culture is extremely important for business success (Earl 10). A knowledge sharing culture includes having a “value system or culture promoting knowledge sharing”; “encouraging experienced workers to transfer their knowledge to new or less experienced workers”; and “using teams which bring together people with different skills” (ibid).  One of the biggest challenges changing the mindset of people from believing that “knowledge is power” to believing that “knowledge sharing is power”, and that an open exchange of information will in the end produce the best results for the entire organization (Sethumadhavan 3). According to Statistics Canada, for the past 10 years many organizations have begun implementing knowledge-management programs aimed at increasing the amount of knowledge sharing among their staff, the majority of which have been very successful (Earl 10).  If an exchange of knowledge were to take place between library staff throughout the country, as well as external consultants or experts, this would facilitate the development of effective strategies for improving library services.  The development of such strategies must be an iterative process, and involve input from all parties, based on factual data about available resources and user needs.
I am of the opinion that there are two main areas in which new strategies could be developed based on my observations.  The first area is the administrative and procedural function of libraries, in particular the NUOL Central Library, due to my personal experiences there.  The second area is professional development and end-user training.  All of the strategies I suggest are merely based on my own experiences, and I am well aware of the fact that it would only be in a close partnership with my Lao colleagues that effective strategies could be developed.  My aim is not to criticize Lao libraries, but to be realistic.  I have kept in mind the realities of the extremely limited financial resources available to the UCL while drafting this paper, and I realize that many of these strategies might be difficult to implement at the present time, so I offer them only as suggestions based on my opinions. Also, I find it important to mention that many of the suggestions below are already part of the library’s strategic plan and will be implemented in the near future.

1. Adapt Policies and Procedures to Respond to User Needs More Effectively
Strategies aimed at improving library services will only be effective if they respond to actual user needs, and should be developed and prioritized accordingly. By responding to its users suggestions and critiques, the dynamic library will ensure user satisfaction and promote life-long learning.
1.1. Conduct informal user needs surveys
As previously mentioned, research has shown that user needs surveys are among the best tools in developing effective library services. The University Central Library collects data regarding user satisfaction once a year.  If the users were encouraged to provide informal data about their perceptions of the library, this might offer staff a more candid, realistic view of the user’s satisfaction with the services provided.  The library has already implemented several important new services to respond to user needs, and have recently had success with a variety of new practices, including offering internet access and an OPAC of all the library materials available on any computer with internet access, in Lao and English.
1.2. Encourage staff and user interaction
Many library users are quite reluctant to approach library staff.  This can be the result of a number of factors, including cultural barriers.  If the users were encouraged to interact with the staff more, and not be shy about asking questions or for assistance, not only would the valuable knowledge of the staff be transferred, but the user’s overall satisfaction of the library would also improve.  By interacting more with the users, the staff could also develop a clearer idea of user needs, and respond to them in a dynamic fashion.
1.3. Improve hours of service
Academic libraries in North America have been successful at providing high levels of user satisfaction by responding to user needs, with particular regards to opening hours.  Many academic libraries even offer 24-hour access to the library during examination periods.  Due to limited support, the UCL’s hours of operations are roughly 50 hours per week, and this may make it difficult for some end-users to access the library’s resources.
1.4. Relax borrowing/membership regulations
Intimidating membership regulations may discourage library use. Currently, students must re-register for library membership each academic year. The current registration and borrowing procedures at UCL are remnants of the extremely bureaucratic and excessively complex systems employed by many governmental organizations in developing countries.  The simplification of such practices would encourage use of the library, and save time for library staff.
1.5. Reorganize library / Create an “Information Commons”
The “Information Commons” is an area in which discussion and interaction is encouraged, and computers and electronic resources as well as library printed materials are used in a more relaxed environment. A room designed for such purposes has already been suggested by the library director in the design of a new library building, pending funding.  This would encourage knowledge sharing and user interaction.
1.6. Provide wireless internet
Many libraries in Thailand and other neighboring countries have successfully integrated wireless internet access into their services offered.  This allows for greater access to e-resources and will encourage students to use the library more often.  The library already offers internet access from a computer lab in the building, and if wireless internet were offered, this vital aspect of modern libraries could be expanded.
1.7. Unify fragmented library system
At NUOL, several branch libraries exist, yet the system is quite fragmented and generally, the branch libraries also require individual membership, separate from student enrollment fees or membership fees for the UCL.  Not only could some tasks be centralized, such as cataloguing, but it would also eliminate duplication of certain materials or tasks, and therefore be more efficient than the current system.  The creation of such a unified system is part of the UCL’s strategic plan, and the administrative nature of the current system is a result of the previous structure of the university system prior to the creation of the NUOL.  Libraries in North America have been successful in increasing efficiency and offering more user services through cooperative working partnerships with other libraries.

2. Encourage Staff and User Development
Staff development is an essential component of providing dynamic library services and encouraging information literacy.  The low level of professional education of public library staff was found to impede innovation in library programming in South Africa (Hart 48).  The same is most likely true for academic library staff.  Improving professional education in librarianship for staff and training for end-users will also encourage information literacy and result in a more dynamic library environment.  However, most research has shown that the most effective way to increase information literacy among learners is by curriculum integration.  Therefore the suggestions for the UCL library are as follows:
2.1. Provide more adequate training to library staff in information literacy and librarianship.
Staff development, in the Lao language, and in the area of librarianship, could be greatly expanded.   Certain staff could be provided with additional training in the English language, which is particularly important for effective use of e-resources and to take advantage of potential training opportunities abroad.
2.2. Encourage knowledge sharing among library staff
As mentioned previously, knowledge sharing is an essential component of effective organizational management.  Many library staff members are extremely knowledgeable, and with some motivation, could easily be encouraged to share this knowledge with other staff.  This would improve over-all functioning of the library, and offer better service to end-users.
2.3. Focus on customer-service/reference skills
Dynamic libraries in many parts of the world are taking proactive, progressive approaches to customer services.  This includes changing some library staff’s perceptions of the end-users, and emphasizing user satisfaction.  Some Lao library staff may also require their perceptions of end-users to be altered to fit the 21st century model of a dynamic library.
2.4. Advocacy for librarianship
While several professional associations exist (LLA, LALIC), librarianship is still a relatively unknown profession in Laos.  In fact, in the Lao language, many people are not familiar with the term “librarian”.  While a Lao word does exist, many people do not know what it means, and instead “I work in a library” is the most widely understood way of describing librarianship in the Lao language.  The distinction between library staff and a librarian is not understood by some Lao people, just as in many developed countries.  This is due to the still under-developed nature of libraries in Laos. Library staff could work towards promoting libraries and advocating for their profession.
2.5. Encourage faculty or community collaboration
Oladokun and other researchers on ILE in developing countries suggest that Faculty-Library collaboration is an essential tool in creating information literate students (104).  He also suggests that collaboration among libraries is crucial to successful information literacy education program implementation (ibid).  Collaboration between library staff trained in ILE and university faculty to develop curriculum-integrated information literacy programs can take advantage of the library’s human and material resources. This will result in the library adapting to user needs, thus becoming more dynamic, sharing knowledge with faculty members, and fostering an information literate student body.
2.6. Training for end-users
It would benefit the entire academic community of Laos if the library increased training opportunities for end-users beyond the simple “library orientation”. Workshops on a variety of different library-related topics, as well as information literacy could easily be offered to end-users.  Short workshops, or “Info sessions” could easily be held regularly in the library, with different staff taking turns teaching different skills or knowledge.  Many important academic skills, such as citation, are often not taught by the faculty due to time constraints, and therefore the students are not familiar with some basic academic skills.
2.7. Advocate for Information Literacy Education in schools and libraries
As of yet, ILE is a relatively unknown term in Laos.  By advocating for ILE in schools and libraries around the country, introducing ILE-integrated curricula into existing primary, secondary, and post-secondary teaching will be made much easier.  Once library staff are sufficiently trained in ILE, they can act as champions for IL throughout the country.

Western countries have had a lot of success and seen massive increases in the number of library users due to the simple adoption of new, more user-friendly policies.  The adoption of these policies was a response to user needs, and has been effective in promoting information literacy and increasing knowledge among the population of these countries.  In order to effectively develop an information literate, well-educated population, South East Asian nations must also adopt innovative approaches to library services.  This means a variety of steps need to be taken, from staff training and human resources development, to more flexible registration procedures, and providing materials and services that are relevant to today’s library user.  The suggestions and considerations mentioned in this paper are written from the perspective of an American, trained in information science in Canada, with first hand experience working in an academic library in the Lao PDR.  All of these combined experiences have resulted in a unique perspective on information science, and the challenges and opportunities to developing a dynamic, effective library in South East Asia.


Bruce, Christine (2004) Information Literacy as a Catalyst for Educational Change. A Background Paper . In Danaher, Patrick Alan, Eds. Proceedings “Lifelong Learning: Whose responsibility and what is your contribution?”, the 3rd International Lifelong Learning Conference, pages pp. 8-19, Yeppoon, Queensland.

Cheng, Y. C., & Townsend, T.  “Educational change and development in the Asia-Pacific region: Trends & Issues.”  Educational Change and Development in the Asia-Pacific Region: Challenges for the future.  Ed. T. Townsend & Y.C. Cheng.  Lisse, The Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger, 2001.

Dorner, Daniel G. & Gorman, G. E., “Information Literacy Education in Asian Developing Countries: cultural factors affecting curriculum development and programme delivery”. IFLA Journal 2006.32 (2006): 281-293.

Earl, Louise. “Knowledge sharing succeeds: how selected service industries rated the importance of using knowledge management practices to their success.” Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada, 2005.

Hart, Genevieve. “The Information Literacy Education Readiness of Public Libraries in Mpumalanga Province (South Africa).”  Libri 2006.56 (2006): 48–62 .

Institute of Museum and Library Services, “Assessment of End-User Needs in IMLS-Funded Digitization Projects”. Washington DC: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2003.

Moore, Brooke N. & Parker, Richard, Critical Thinking. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004.

Oladokun, Olugbade Samuel. “The Networked World of Lifelong Learning and the Challenging Role of the Library.” Information Development 22.2 (2006): 102-9.

Sisavanh, K. “Big Change Questions.” Journal of Educational Change 2 (2001): 261-266.

UNESCO. 10 February, 2008.

conversations with my colleagues…

My colleagues at the Central Library are all extremely wonderful, kind, generous people and I have really enjoyed getting to know them since I have been here. One of my favorite colleagues is Mrs. Bounsalong. She is about 47 years old, and has 2 kids. She is really funny and always making  jokes and when I have the time to study the Lao language, she is my teacher.

Anyway, yesterday I was discussing with her about how I would like to visit other regions of Laos.  I asked her about her hometown, Attapeu, which is in the very southern-most part of Laos, close to the Cambodian border.  First she suggested that we asked the director to give us his car and pay for us to take a trip there.  Then I asked her about what is was like growing up there, and if she had electricity.  She told me that Attapeu didn’t get electricity until about 4 years ago, and until she was 18, and came to Vientiane to study at the Teacher’s Training College, she had only seen an electric light 3 or 4 times at her counsin’s house in Pakse.

She told me that she had to work on a farm everyday, and go to the river to collect water for her family, and then go to school, and try to read by candle-light.  At 18 she came to Vientiane, and in 1984 she finished Teacher’s College and worked as a geography teacher in the city for about 15 years, until she began working at the Central Library in 2000.

I find it really amazing that some one who had never seen a toilet or an electric light for the first 18 years of their life is now chatting on Yahoo messenger and sending SMS messages on her cellphone like it’s no big deal.

I asked her if she had any pictures of herself from when she was young, and she said she never had a camera so she doesn’t.

Anyway, today I went in for my usual tea break and chat time, and Mrs. Bounsalong said “Oh!  Nicole! Did you know that when Mr. Somephone was young, he used to be very rich!  He was a rich man!  Everything was luxury!”

And I said “What happened, Mr. Somephone, how did you lose all your money?”

And he said “No, Bounsalong told a lie.  When I was young I was very poor.  There was war with America and I had to live in a cave.”

I thought he was joking for a moment.  He had to live in a cave?  Maybe for a night or 2… but no.  He lived in various caves in the Savannakhet region of Laos from 1968 until 1975.  For 7 years, he lived in caves, because the Americans were dropping bombs on that part of the country, near Vietnam, trying to kill the communists. Because if Vietnam fell to the communists, the Laos would, then Cambodia, and then of course the entire security of the American Dream would be threatened.  By a few countries in South East Asia?

He told me that some days he wouldn’t even have anything to eat, and they wouldn’t have soap to wash their clothes.  They would hit it with a stick from a tree.  He told me that when he tried to study at school, they didn’t have tables, or chairs.  They didn’t even have paper.  They had little chalk boards, and they didn’t even have chalk.  They used parts of another tree to write on the chalk boards.

He also came to Vientiane to study at the teacher’s training college in 1980.  He recently completed a Masters degree in Education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, through a distance-education program.  And he used to live in caves!

Mrs Bounsalong told me “When I was young, I didn’t even know about the rest of the world.  We never thought about other countries, or other ways of life.  We just thought about our village and our rice!”

They asked me about the war, and why Americans want to have wars in other countries.  I told them I couldn’t explain, and as much as I wished we hadn’t been involved in Vietnam in the 60’s, and in Iraq today, there was nothing I could do about it.  I tried to vote for a different president, but it didn’t work, “The government doesn’t listen to me” was my simple explanation.

We recently visited the Lao People’s Army Museum, where in many photographs various atrocities, by the French, or by the Americans, are shown, usually with the description “The American imperialists and their puppets did this or that terrible thing…..”.  It’s comical, but surprisingly true in some ways.  Why did the US feel the need to get involved in these political or religious struggles in distant parts of the globe?  The only explanation i can come up with is money and power.  Its a depressing thing to realize about your own country.  All of the really terrible, fucked up shit we have done.

But they did also tell me that now they have many family and friends living in America who are happy there and like it and how they want to go to America too, but just to visit.

Then we talked about luck.  Of course.  The Lao think everything has to do with luck.  “You are very lucky!” they told me, that I get to travel so much.

I guess I really do feel lucky.  I’ve really had it easy in comparison.  I never had to live in caves or hear bombs being dropped every night.  Yet the Lao are so happy.  Even though we like to think we have a lot to teach people in developing countries, maybe they actually have a lot they should be teaching us.

Anyway, my point is, I love my colleagues.

international superstar librarian… or total failure?


AHHH!!  I’m so nervous about this.  Look at the other presenters!  And why is my name first !???!

I am having a crisis of self-confidence.  Luckily presentations are limited to 25 minutes and papers to 4000 words.  Am I in way over my head here?  It seems like everyone else is actually doing important research.  I’m just writing about my observations and experiences.  I need to go get some Xanax.  Anyway, my paper is almost finished, but I am terrified that it sucks.  I hadn’t really looked at it since I sent in the abstract in November, and when I first tried to start working on it again, I was instantly horrified.  I have no idea what I am talking about.

Anyway, I still have time to save myself, and my career.  Also the director has informed me that he has to approve the paper before I submit it to CONSAL… so I can’t say anything too critical of Laos, the Lao government, the Univeristy, the library, or him!

I am going to go to the temple (Wat Si Muang) today to ask for a blessing for good luck for my presentation.  I hope Buddha helps me out on this one!

I don’t know if I can handle this stressful academic lifestyle.  Why didn’t I just become a hairdresser like my mother?

Oh but I did have a really successful workshop yesterday training the staff of the library on using the internet for scholarly research… I’ll attach a PDF version of my presentation.

Ok, I can’t get the .pdf to attach, I don’t know why.  I’ll try again later.

in the tubing!

Some photos from my weekend in Vang Vieng!

The quintessential Vang Vieng photo... tubing, beer, guy on a zip line.
The quintessential Vang Vieng photo... tubing, beer, guy on a zip line.
It's actually really, really beautiful there.
It's actually really, really beautiful there.
BeerLao!  Station Mao!
BeerLao! Station Mao!
Cooking the snake!
Cooking the snake!
The bloodied head of the snake.
The bloodied head of the snake.
The finished product... maybe not for everyone.
The finished product... maybe not for everyone.

As much as Vang Vieng it definitely not experiencing “authentic Laos”, I always have a great time when I go there.  However, one of my favorite things about it is “passively participating”; a term Alana and I came up with.  This means participating to the extent that you can still mock everyone else around you for being stupider and drunker than you, which still enjoying the tubing and a Beerlao.  I do have to say I saw some pretty horrific sights this last time I was there, the kind of things that make me actually feel bad for the Lao people who live there.  I was walking down a street and I actually saw a young man, esentially in process of passing out, in the gutter, puking on himself, with one shoe on.  He also had a really tacky mohawk and I had seen him earlier in the street shouting obscenities in English.

I also saw some guy so drunk they could hardly walk, stumbling up the street.  This was slightly amusing to me in a comical way, but I wondered what kind of impression that left on Lao people.  But I saw one Lao man watching them, and laughing really hard.  “Mao lai lai!” he said (Really really drunk!).  So, maybe it’s not that bad.

I also met this couple who had met 3 weeks earlier in Vang Vieng.  The girl was English and the guy was Australian, and he was proudly, and drunkenly, showing off where she had branded her name into his lower abdominal area.  “I never want another woman to touch my junk again!” he kept hollering.

As I sat, quietly sipping my Beerlao, an extremely drunk man appraoched me and said “Hi Darling”

“Do I know you?”

“No, but wait just a minute, I’m going to the toilet, I’ll be right back.”

I could hardly wait.

This man (Francis) then came back and insisted on drunkenly slobbering in my ear for the next 30 minutes about how he was African (even though he had white skin…) and about how his life philosophy was “PASSION! VISION! ACTION!”.  Eventually something else distracted him and I managed to scurry off unnoticed.

Vang Vieng… what a strange place.  But fun, nevertheless.

exciting times… stressful times!

Well. A lot of exciting things have been happening in my life.  My friends from Chicago left (long story, ends kind of badly…) and another pal, Alana, from Montreal, arrived.  I fell in love.  I am now falling out of love, but all love affairs are doomed anyway, aren’t they?

But on an even more exciting note – I have decided to apply for the PhD program in Information Management at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand.  I have discussed this with my potential supervisor, and he has agreed that it is a great idea.  I may even be able to get a full scholarship!

I will be researching Information Literacy in Developing Countries… of course that topic will have to be narrowed down, but this is the area I want to focus on.

I have also been invited to present my paper “Developing strategies to encourage information literacy and implement dynamic library services: Suggestions for Lao PDR” at the Congress of South East Asian Librarians in Hanoi from April 20th – 23rd.  Immediately following that conference, I have been invited to teach a 3-day workshop at Vietnam University in Can Tho (Southern Vietnam) on Information Literacy for LIS students.   The only problem is that I didn’t get the invitation until today – and the deadline to submit my paper is February 16th… and I haven’t actually written the paper yet! I also have to prepare the syllabus and course outline for the workshop in Can Tho, as well as preparation for my regular teaching gigs here in Vientiane, and a UCL staff training tomorrow and Friday!!!

So, these are busy, exciting, somewhat stressful times, but it’s all exciting and amazing.

Also, I just got back from another trip to Vang Vieng, where yes, I was “in the tubing” again!  and lost my sunglasses, again!  I took a bunch of great pictures, and ate SNAKE!  These photos will all be posted shortly, just as soon as things calm down a little.

weekend of celebration!

On Saturday I went to a Bascii ceremony for the wife of one of the people I work with at the library.  She got a visa to go to America, and is moving to Rockford, IL for a year.  So, they had a big celebration at their house.  I missed the ceremony part, because I had to teach, but I invited one of my students to come with me, and we had a lovely time!  Even though there was no electricity or water, they trucked in a generator and there was a live “band” performing.  Lots of Lao Lavong dancing, and the usual Lao line dancing happened.  I drank a lot of Beerlao with some old men and then went home and fell asleep at about 7 pm.

mr. sithong and his wife singing
mr. sithong and his wife singing
Lao Lavong!
Lao Lavong!

And then on Sunday, I went over to my friend Luck’s house, where they were having a Chinese New Years celebration.  Luck had told me to come there at noon, but I had some stuff to do around the house, and my bike had a flat tire, and I accidentally left my phone turned off, and at around 12:45 some one came knocking on my door.  It was Luck, insisting that I go to his house as quickly as possible.  I assured him I just wanted to finish drinking my tea and I would be there soon.  When I finally got it together to leave Luck’s sister had already called me like 4 times to find out what I was coming.  I showed up at Luck’s house around 2:00, and everyone was SUPER MAO already.  This is how they celebrate Chinese New Years in Laos:


Boys getting shirtless and trying to flex their muscles! It was a lot of fun, but somehow I managed to pull myself away by 6 pm, as Monday mornings following a the typical sunday Beerlao drink-a-thon tend to be rough.

Speaking of Beerlao drink-a-thons, now would probably be a good occasion to discuss Lao and their love for the Beerlao.

In Lao culture, nearly everyone drinks.  It’s OK for women to drink, and they like to.  There are two main ways in which beer is drunk.

1.) The “sophisticated” method, and

2.) The “get-as-drunk-as-possible-as-quickly-as-possible” method. (Lao Style)

In the first method, a large bottle of Beerlao (660 ml) is placed on a table, or in the middle of a mat on the floor if no table is available.  Everyone drinking has their own glass.  Somewhere near the centre of the table is a cooler, bucket, or bowl of ice.  The beer is poured into everyone’s glasses along with a few ice cubes, and everyone drinks at their own pace and refills as necessary.  Usually it is a pretty young girl or “Pusao” who does the pouring, carefully being attentive to the drinking paces of all of the other drinkers, and refilling everytime your glass is less than 3/4th full.  When the bottle is empty, it is replaced with a full bottle, and the cycle continues, sometimes for hours and hours.  Usually some food is involved at some point.  Every 3 to 6 minutes some one will say either “Sokdee!!” or “Nuoc!”  which mean “good luck!” or “drink!” respectively, at which point everyone is expected to clink glasses, or “cheers”.  The Lao love “cheers”.  Occasionally, some one will say either ‘Moot!” or “Ha sip!”.  “Moot!” means “it’s time”, in which case you are expected to down your entire glass of beer and then pound your empty glass down on the table.  If you cannot or do not want to “Moot!”, you can say “Ha-sip!” which literally means “50”, meaning “I will drink 1/2 (50%) of my glass”, after which you must again cheers with everyone present.  If your fellow drinkers don’t think you are keeping up well enough, they will encourage you to drink more by pouring your glass entirely full and yelling “Moot!” after each refill.  If you cannot keep up, you may get some comments about not being “strong” and will probably be humorously harassed until you drink enough to satisfy your friends.

In the second method, one glass is shared among a group of people.  One person acts as the pourer, or “presenter”.  He or She puts some ice, and about 200 ml of beer into a glass, and shows it to everyone, as he or she says “Senou”, or “I present”.  The presenter then chugs the beer as quickly as possible.  He or she then refills the glass with a simmilar amount of beer, or more or less, depending on how he or she feels, and hands it to the person next to him or her.  This person then downs the glass in one go, and passes it back to the presenter.  The presenter then refills the glass, adding ice if needed, and passes to the next person in the circle, until it comes back to the presenter.  More bottles of beer are opened as needed as the glass is refilled.  When it reaches the presenter, he or she “Senou”s again.  However, it’s a bit more complicated than this.  If you have a large group, you may have several “presenters”, thus several glasses going around at once.  Often you may find yourself double-fisting two glasses of beer at the same time, and be expected to down one right after the other.  Or, if some people are slow drinkers, you may wait 10 minutes to get a glass.  Also, any of the drinkers can claim “Baw Senou!” at the beginning of a round, meaning, “I didn’t see you “present”, now you must do it again”, causing the presenter to drink a second glass. There are also some tricks to getting out of getting too drunk – if you see a glass almost on your way, discretely run to the toilet to escape!  Chances are everyone will be so drunk they won’t notice that they skipped you.

Regardless of which drinking style you find yourself engaged in, you will surely get drunk, and the beer is always served with ice.