librarians being silly

We went to eat Pho today for lunch, and then on the way back the ladies wanted to stop and buy some fruit.  When we got back to the office they took the lychees and bananas they had bought and arranged them as so:


Then they asked me “Do you know what it is?”

“I think so…”

“Have you ever seen one before?”

I said “That’s a secret!”.

my tweet?

Despite what my CV may say, I’m not really that familiar with Twitter, or many of these other “Web 2.0” technologies. Considering I live in Laos and we barely even have an internet connection at the University, it’s surprising I even know what it is.  My director certainly doesn’t.  Yesterday when helping him complete an survey, he asked me to define RSS, Blog, Wiki, Twitter, Second Life, and Social Networking.  However I do try to at least be hip with the lingo, so I know about tweets and podcasts.  So here is my tweet:

Even after one year in Laos I still manage to encounter culinary surprises.  Yesterday I was served embryonic chicken eggs at lunch.

Ok that’s the end of my tweet.  Backing to being overly verbose.  Speaking, the “Electronic Information For Libraries Network” is pretty amazing and I really like the work they are doing.  This includes subsidizing e-resources for libraires in developing countries, such as Laos, and many countries in Africa and Asia. has just negotiated a deal with JSTOR where all the members of LALIC (the 12 libraries mentioned in previous postings…) will get TOTALLY FREE access to all of JSTOR’s holdings, current and archived content, for the next 2 years.  They are also waiving all of the initial membership fees and whatnot, which probably value over $20,000 total. has also negotiated a reduced subscription rate if we want to continue membership after 2011, for ridiculously low access rates.   They coordinate access to many other e-resources and have helped the University Central Library be able to provide AGORA, BioOne, EBSCO, Cambrige University Press, and Oxford Online resources for mostly free !!!  Unfortunately our use of e-resources is still ridiculously low, owing to a number of factors me and my colleagues are exploring in our research project “The Electronic Information Seekhing Behaviour of NUOL Students and Academic Staff”.  I hypothesize that the main issues are language barriers (few people can read and write a foreign language fluently enough to use these academic resources) and a really unreliable and slow internet connection (for example, almost non-existant at the University).  Anyway, I love what is doing! Now if only they would hire me…

vientiane… home sweet home!

Sorry for not having written in so long.  Since I came back from Vietnam I have been incredibly busy, not only getting ready to go back home, but also visiting libraries around Vientiane.

When I first arrived back, Dr. Aree and some other experts from Thailand were here giving a UNESCO supported workshop on Information Literacy for library staff.  My friend, Mrs. Sypha, was one of the facilitators of the workshop, so even though it was all in Lao and Thai, I observed several of the sessions and discussed with Areee and Sypha the methods they were usuing and evaluation tools.  For those who are interested, they focused on the Big6 Skills and a new model I had never heard of, the “Empowering 8.”  Speaking of which, that reminds me I would like to make my powerpoints available that I prepared for the workshops I conducted in Vietnam, which I think are actually really good.  I also relied heavily on the Big6 Model, as well as another model I found called “Reflect Learn Connect” developed by Seattle Community College libraries or something.  Dr. Aree’s workshop was longer and therefore more detailled than mine, and it seems like most of the participants “got it”, more or less.

I went to visit my friend Pachoua’s village last weekend.  She is Lao Hmong and from a town about 2 hours North of Vientiane, near Ban Keun.  We took the bus to her house on Saturday afternoon, arriving at her parents farm about 2pm.  We spent the afternoon having lunch of Ping Pa (grilled fish) over looking their pond, and then her brothers and I went to the Nam Ngun Resevoir.  This is the resevoir that was created by the construction of the Nam Ngun Dam about 20 years ago.  The dam supplies electricity for most of Laos and even enough to sell to Thailand.  When the Nam Ngun river was dammed, the entire river valley was flooded, creating a huge lake about 10km wide, full of little islands that used to be the tops of small mountains.  The river valley lies in the Phou Kwai (Buffalo Horn) Mountains protected area.  It’s stunningly beautiful.

The Nam Ngun Dam
The Nam Ngun Dam
The resevoir and Phou Kwai Mountains in the background
The resevoir and Phou Kwai Mountains in the background


Pachoua and her brothers overlooking the resevoir.  The water is a bit low due to it being the end of the dry season.

After visiting the resevoir, we went swimming in the river below the dam, and then back to Pachuoua’s house for dinner.


The following morning we woke up early, had breakfast, and then Pachoua and her mother dressed me up in Hmong Traditional clothing.

Pusao Hmong!
Pusao Hmong!

We hung around her house and farm for the rest of the morning, and then in the afternoon me and Pachoua and her 2 brothers got back on the bus and headed back to Vientiane.

On Tuesday we started the LALIC (Laos Library and Information Consortium) tour – a whirlwind visit to 12 libraries in 3 days.

1.) NUOL Faculty of Engineering Library (Sokpaluang Campus)

2.) NUOL Faculty of Political Science and Law Library (near Sokpaluang somehwere)

3.) Laos Institute of Public Administration Library (next to Wat Sisaket, downtown)

4.) National Library of Laos (downtown, next to Nam Phou)

5.) National Science and Technology Documentation Centre (near Patuxay)

6.) University of Health Sciences Library (near Patuxay)

7.) NUOL Faculty of Agriculture Library (Nangbong campus… about 30 km from downtown)

8.) NUOL Faculty of Forestry Library (Dong Dok Campus)

9.) NUOL Lao-Japan Center Library (Dong Dok Campus)

10.) NUOL Faculty of Management and Economic Library (Dong Dok Campus)

11.) NUOL Faculty of Architecture Library (Dong Dok Campus)

I guess if you include the Central Library that makes the 12 members of LALIC.  In the past weeks I have also visited the Vientiane Internation School Library, and the Lycee Hoffet Library, the Lao-American College Library, the US Embassy Public Information Unit Library, as well as the French Language Centre Library.

I’m still planning visits to the Room to Read Library, and the Vientiane Capital Public Library.  And I will probably go back to VIS this week because the librarian there invited me to see what she is doing to celebrate “Library Week”.

Of course, I took photos and detailed notes on all of the visits and will be posting my commentary soon.

This past week I also had a few small parties in my home, including a birthday party for my friend Nang and a dinner for some other friends.  I also met up with Sack, my friend who’s about to move to Ireland and get married, and we went to the disco this past Saturday with about 10 other people.  Lots of celebrating and enjoying Laos in my final month here!!

happy international women’s day!

International Women’s Day, March 8th, is a big holiday here in Laos. It’s one of my favorite holidays as well, and I don’t know why it’s barely even mentioned in the USA.

Firstly, all throughout the week women are encouraged to take time off work to see a doctor for a yearly health check-up. This year March 8th fell on a Sunday. My week at work proceeded like this: On Wednesday the library staff did some “spring cleaning” of the offices, after which we made papaya salad, and drank some BeerLao in the afternoon to celebrate Women’s day. On Thursday, the deputy director, since the director is in Japan right now, presided over a ceremony where he talked (in Lao) for a long time, I think about women? Then, one of the women (Mrs. Viengxay) gave a little speech on behalf of the women. Then, the women were present with a basket of roses, from the deputy director. We drank Green Pepsi (not very delicious) that Mr. Somephone had bought and celebrated Women’s Day. The library staff is made up of almost entirely women, out of about 30 staff we have only 7 men. Of course, the top 4 positions are all held by men. Anyway, after our party on Thursday, the library closed for the weekend and almost everybody went home.

Mrs. Bounsalong and our Women's Day Whiteboard
Mrs. Bounsalong and our Women's Day Whiteboard

On Friday there was to be a university-wide Women’s Day celebration, which included a kind of expo/fair type event, with different departments of the university preparing different types of food or crafts, and selling them at tables in one of the large meeting rooms in the rector’s building. Following the expo/fair there was another big speech or whatever by the university president, which I didn’t stick around for. After lunch, they organized a football game among some of the women university staff in the stadium. One of the ladies I work with in the library played in the game, but I actually didn’t stick around to watch it because it was about 40 C and I was already tired from all this Women’s Day stuff.

Mrs. Sypha and Mrs. Viengvongxay et al. at the library's women's day booth
Mrs. Sypha and Mrs. Viengvongxay et al. at the library's women's day booth

Saturday passed quietly, and then on Sunday at 11:30 I had Luck calling me “Come to my house!!! My mum wants to see you!! We are having Women’s Day Party!”. I made a pineapple upside-down cake and brought it over around 1pm, everyone was drunk already. We drank BeerLao and toasted Women’s Day repeatedly.

I drank too much, and when my friend Nang arrived with her 2 children, I picked them up and spun them around, almost dropping her son on his head on the concrete pavement. Then Luck told me “uhh.. Nicole I don’t think you should play with the kids anymore.”.  Being around Luck’s family makes me feel a little homesick, his mum reminds me a lot of my mum, and I have been feeling like I miss her a lot lately. His mom loves to dance and have a good time, which actually, nevermind, is nothing like my mum. My mum is totally crotchedly old woman now. When I came back home later that evening, my landlords were also having their own party, which involved drinking more BeerLao and more toasting Women. I thought it was a good occasion to light some of the fireworks I had lying around my house since the last Buddhist festival, with my neighbor, while drunkenly yelling “Sokdee Wan Mai Nging Sa Kon!” (Happy International Women’s Day!) All offices and schools were closed on Monday in honor of Women’s Day. I spent most of the day in my house trying to recover from the previous day, and when I tried to leave my house to get something to eat around 2:00, I was accosted by the woman who owns the printing shop at the end of my street – she wouldn’t let me leave without drinking more BeerLao. But they also gave me food, so I ended up spending nearly all afternoon there, eating and drinking with my neighbors. The owner of the print shop said that she had told her staff that if they could stay and drink, they would get a raise, but anyone who went home early wouldn’t get one. The staff, and the owners, were out-of-control drunk. The afternoon culminated in another neighbor of mine, clad only in a mesh singlet and bike shorts, mounting two chairs and spraying everyone with a hose until we were all soaking wet. Then he stuck the hose down his shorts and dance around. The owner of the print shop kept bringing out more and more random foods, and at one point, stuck something resembling a hot dog in my mouth and then began to eat the other end. She also either climbed on the backs of most of the people present, or picked them up and carried them around, surprising for a woman who probably weighs about 50 kgs. At one point she actually tried to pick me up, but I was afraid she might hurt herself and refused to allow this. You can see pictures here:

So, that is how International Women’s Day is celebrated here in Laos.

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.

laos national holiday

Tomorrow, 2nd December, is the Laos National Holiday.  In preparation for the holiday, they have draped Lao flags everywhere, and also hammer and sickle “go communism!” flags adorn every official building in town.

The library organized a day of “clean up the library” gardening, in which Mr. Somephone climbed to the top of the trees outside and cut off the tops.

mrsomephoneI helped sweep the sidewalk!  Then I got attacked by red ants.  After the yardwork was done, Mrs. Bounsalong and Mrs. Phaiwaddy made some Tom Maheun (papaya salad).  Mrs. Bounsalong LOVEs chilis.  She put so much chili in that all of the library staff were crying, literally.  They had tears streaming down their faces, and they kept saying “phet lai !” (very hot!), but they kept eating it anyway.  I only had a few bites, and my face almost melted off.

Then Mr. Somxay, Mrs. Bounsalong, and I were sitting at a table, and Mr. Vaykhoun came up to us, and said “oh I’m sooo tired”.  and Mrs. Bounsalong said “Oh!  because he just got married!  Now he doesn’t sleep at night!” and then Mr. Somxay said “Yes, 5 times a night, he works with his wife”. And Vaykhoun blushed, and Mr. Somxay said “For me, one time per month only!”  and we all laughed, and then I said “You would never have this kind of conversation in an office in America.”  and Mr. Somxay, the vice-director of the library, said “Yes, you know, when the people from France first came to work at the French Language Center, they were shocked.  But now they like to talk like that!”.

I also made a joke with Mrs. Bounsalong that revolves around the Lao word for map : “Panti”.  I told her what “Panties” are in English, and now we always make jokes about the “Panti”.  The other day I rode my bike to the University, in a skirt, and Mrs. Bounsalong said “Oh!  It’s not good, you should wear trousers to ride your bicycle.”  And I said “No, it’s ok, I want the Monks to see my Panties!” and she laughed at me.

Ok, I have to go teach now. I am making my students do presentations about Laos today in honor of the National Holiday tomorrow.

teacher’s day celebration at the central library

Yesterday, Tuesday October 7th, was National Teacher’s Day.  This means that all the public schools and university was closed.  On Monday, right after lunch, Mrs Bounsalome came into my office and said “The director has gone to the city for the a meeting all afternoon.  We want to have a celebration for teacher’s day. We will go buy some food and some Beerlao!”

So, I have her some money, and then about an hour later she came in and said “Ok!  Everything is ready!  We are having a celebration in the bindery!”

And I went into the bindery to find this:


Hooray!  I love Beerlao, and I especially love drinking Beerlao at work!

Then we ate some food, and drank more Beerlao.

teacher's day party!
teacher's day party!

So, finally, after drinking beer for a few hours, I had to leave to go teach English.  I ran to catch the bus, a little drunkenly, and then about 30 seconds later it started pouring rain.  Just as I got to downtown, where I park my bicycle, the sun came out, and I looked behind me to see a glorious rainbow in the sky over Patuxay.

somewhere over the rainbow... motorcycles spew smoke into the air

In the bus, I tapped the lady sitting next to me, pointed at the rainbow, and said “Nam lae!” (very beautiful), and she didn’t really respond. I just told my director about how I saw the rainbow and he said “You know, in Lao culture, if you see a rainbow, you should NEVER point to it.”  Then he told me that a rainbow is like a snake, and at one end there is a head.  So, if you see the head of the rainbow under your house, you should cover it with your clothes, and then when it goes away, you will take away the clothes and find riches in the place where the rainbow’s head was.

So, basically, I commited a huge Lao Faux-Pas when I pointed at the rainbow.

I went to school, and then asked me class “So, tomorrow is teacher’s day, right?”


“And on Teacher’s day you give gifts to your teachers?”


“And I am your teacher?”


“So where are my gifts !??!”

No response.

“Ok, you can bring me gifts on Wednesday!”

“Ok teacher!”

Then, I made them read some stuff for a little while, and then we had a class break.  When I came back from the break, the students were all giggling about something.  A minute later, one of them came back into the room with a huge bag of crisps – and a bottle of water, and presented me with them.  Then she said “For you, from all of the class.”  And I was very happy.

Then, another student said, “Can we have a party?”

“Ok.  You want to have a party?  We can listen to music and play some games.”

So I put on my CD of English Songs (which includes some John Bellows and Vanessa Harris), and we played hangman and Simon Says, which they had a hard time understanding.

And now, today, Friday, we just had another teacher’s day party at the library.  This time the director was here, so no Beerlao.  But the University Vice-President came and gave like a 20 minute long speech, and then we all ate pho in the lobby.

Why don’t they have teacher’s day in the rest of the world?  It’s my new favorite holiday after Halloween.  Ok, maybe after Martin Luther King day, too.

update on the electronic gate

One of the head dude’s here at the Central Library left a few weeks ago to go finish his master’s in Italy.  He e-mailled me and asked how things were going… so I casually mentioned that I was in the process of helping the director write a grant proposal to buy an electronic gate.  Well.  That sparked quite a debate/upset over the whole thing, in which he wrote me several e-mails urging me to try to convince the director not to ask for money to buy the gate, and saying that my job “isn’t just to follow whatever the director telles me to do, but to be an adviser as well”.  I explained that I had initially tried to tell him we didn’t need it, but his mind was set, and at least I had successfully convinced him to go with the least-expensive model.

Then I got this response:

“Hi Nicole,

I am really very concerned about Asia Foundation project. As I side I do not agree with the idea of purchasing electronic gate.
The reasons are:
1. What is the percentage of book lost very year?
2. How much does the library pay for lost books and hire staff to do the check out every year?
3. What is our library mission? To serve the users’ need or to equipe with modern technology? Or to protect books from the thefts?
4. What will the users benefit from that gate?
5. If we use that money (19,000 $) to hire someone to do the checkout, it will last for 20 years.
6. Why not use this money to develop our automated system to make it more standardised.
7. If we have that gate what other additional works do we have to do? We have to take out all the books from the shelves to put the tape in.
8. What about if we have new building? Why not include this in the proposal for new building?

I don’t have any objection with purchasing books, computer and electronic resources. Or even staff development.

Nicole you can print out this mail for Mr. Somephone, so he can share te idea. Maybe you can talk to Mr. Somexay about this.
Is it possible to send me the draft of your proposal?

Sithong ”

So, I got myself in the middle of a big Library-Management argument.  Anyway, the director had already submitted the proposal so there is little I can do at this point.  Yes, I think $20,000 for an electronic gate is a lot of money that could be better spent on other things… but who cares what I think? I’m just somebody who has a piece of paper saying I showed up for class most of the time and turned in a few papers about libraries at some school in Canada.  All they really want me to do here is correct their English documents and make their website “more attractive”.

One of my favorite library ladies, Mrs. Bounsalong, just told me today that she only makes 80,000 Kip per month.  This is roughly equivalent to $9.  I  am not sure if this is a mistake or the truth.  In which case, I think $20,000 could certainly be used for giving the staff raises.  But, this has nothing to do with library politics, all of the staff salaries are determined by the University’s President… who gets his limited budget from the Ministry of Education, and some from student fees.  Basically the University, and therefore the library, as no money.  They can hardly pay their staff.  They certainly can’t buy books or computers.  I just don’t understand why so many Lao people want to be in academia considering how shit it pays in this country.  These are really smart people.  They could be earning loads some place else.

boring work-related post

Well, I guess I am settling into things here and getting used to the idea of living in Laos, now, after 3 months.  The reason I know this is because I feel like I don’t really have any exciting news to post about.

I am still working on the library website.  I created this list of academic electronic resources for the library.  I think it could actually be quite useful in any context, not just the National University of Laos.  I am working on trying to organize it better, and also to organize it by subject, and title of the resource, and possibly make it search-able.  Unfortunately, I just don’t have the computer technical skills at this point to do that sort of thing.

I have also been helping the director write a proposal to The Asia Foundation to purchase a electronic-gate for the library.  I thought that an electronic gate was a little unnecessary, in my experiences the Lao don’t seem like potential library-book thieves.  But, according to the director, and other people I have spoken to, this I am incorrect.  Since books are quite rare in Laos, and the library has a lot of unique materials, and materials from the USA and Thailand and other countries, people are very tempted to steal them.  The director also showed me some kind of list of “missing items” that were checked out and never returned, and we can’t get a hold of the borrowers.

So, for the time being, I am drafting a fax to send to 3M Thailand to solicit quotations for library detection systems.  They are surprisingly expensive.  Like $20,000 for the lowest-end model.  Damn!


It’s so cute I had to post it.

at the central library
at the central library

This guy is the youngest son of one of the ladies I work with.  We like to say that he is my brother, since we like to say that his mother is my mother.  Don’t try to steal any books from the library – or you will have to answer to him.