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Reading and Misreading: The Social Life of Libraries and Colonial Control in Vietnam, 1865-1958

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This dissertation examines the cultural and political history of French colonial libraries and print control in Vietnam from 1865 to 1958. I analyze the changing mission of colonial libraries as a hybrid of state documentation and public space for self-directed education and social life. I also embed libraries within the multilayered landscape of print control—the politics of production, dissemination, and preservation of print matter. I follow the dynamic debates on print control among colonial and post-colonial government administrators, librarians, archivists, translators, publishers, and readers. These diverse actors investigated the content, language, and influence of ‘good reading’ and initiated projects to disseminate reading matter through translation, publishing, and libraries. Administrators also policed cases of ‘misreading,’ the violation of proper library decorum or consumption of politically subversive texts.

The chapters follow a historical and thematic chronology: the builders, the readers, print industry, print control, and decolonization. Focused primarily on the state-initiated Central Library in Hanoi and Saigon, this dissertation advances a two-part argument on the history of colonial libraries and print control in Indochina. First, to build libraries is to build the state. Libraries legitimized the authority of the state as infrastructures of symbolic modernity, print control, and documentary heritage. Second, library users shaped the everyday mission and social function of the library beyond the hegemonic aspirations of colonial and post-colonial states. As seen in the Hanoi and Saigon Central Library Reading Rooms in 1920s to 1950s, readers transformed the tranquil space intended for administrative research into a dynamic public space for study and social life. This two-part argument reveals the significance of the library as an institution of state-building, print control, and public reading culture.

This dissertation is the first comprehensive history of the library in French colonial Indochina during the long twentieth century. It offers the following contributions: (1) a critical investigation into the role of libraries as an institution of state documentation, popular education, and literacy in French or Vietnamese vernacular script, quốc ngữ (2) an analysis of the relationship between building the modern nation state and building libraries, (3) a cultural history of Vietnamese print market, reading practices, and urban public spaces, and (4) a study of the major cultural institution of libraries across colonial/post-colonial divides and through periods of war.

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This item is under embargo until October 12, 2023.