York librarian helps out in Hanoi

With the fourth fastest growing economy in the world, huge changes are afoot in Vietnam. This rapid growth has put great pressure on the education system to become modernized, a feat proving very difficult for the country’s educational institutions. With a desire to provide ideas to an educational and economic system that is in great flux, Scott librarian Mark Robertson spent seven months last year working at a library in Vietnam’s Hanoi University for Foreign Studies, where he mentored staff, developed standard library systems and lived life from a whole new perspective.

His interest in the country stemmed from living nearly 15 years of his life near Broadview and Gerrard, an area that is populated by mostly Vietnamese residents. Over the years, he has come to know many of the Vietnamese families in the area, and has developed a fascination with their culture and country of origin.

Left: Mark Robertson in Hanoi

“Living in that area opened my eyes,” says Robertson. “I wanted to work abroad and contribute to the sharing of professional skills in the developing world.”

After much research, Robertson decided that the library at Hanoi University for Foreign Studies was the right place to spend half his sabbatical. There, he assisted in developing the library’s English-language collection, selecting from literature donated from around the world. As well, he mentored the library staff, teaching them standard library services. For the students, he helped to develop an information literacy program, a service that teaches students how to conduct research, and understand, use and interpret their findings.

“It’s hard to tell how these ideas will be incorporated. I didn’t want to go to the university as an expert, but to engage in a dialogue with them. They’ll make the ideas their own,” he says.

Being in a country where information is not as accessible as it is in Canada, gave Robertson a more global perspective of the role of academic libraries. Libraries in Vietnamese universities have not traditionally had the central role that libraries often have in Western academic contexts. The country’s rich and ancient Confucian educational philosophy places more emphasis on the transmission of tradition rather than independent thought and research. Modern libraries challenge this model by providing greater freedom of and access to information. Vietnamese universities are gradually experimenting with new roles for their libraries

Right: Hanoi University for Foreign Studies library

Robertson also discovered that the greatest issue in freedom of information is economics, since information resources can be very expensive. While it is not uncommon for a book to cost $100 here, at Hanoi University that is about the monthly salary of an administrator.

“There is not a lot of money available to build a collection reflective of their curriculum,” says Robertson.

The lack of access to information can also be attributed to the fact that much of the literature is not accessible for linguistic reasons. Most of the information that they do have access to is not in basic English and proves very difficult for the students to interpret. Robertson suggests that we should begin to think about the global access of information and not just in a North American context, making information openly accessible in both full-text (a complete document held on a database) and print.

To document his journey, Robertson started an online journal. Originally a way to keep in contact with friends and family back home, his blog soon obtained an audience from all over the world. He now shows a great interest in how “blogging” creates communities and shares information world wide. Recently, he led a session for Scott Library on “Using Blogs for Research”, in which he discussed the value of blogs in an academic context. He explored their usefulness in conducting research and capturing regional voices. It was well received by York faculty and graduate students, and he plans on presenting this session at a conference in the future.

However, blogging and libraries weren’t the only things on Robertson’s mind while in Vietnam. Making friends with more Vietnamese than Canadian or American expatriots, he experienced Vietnamese culture first-hand. In what he calls a “world without fast food”, Robertson shopped at outdoor markets and enjoyed popular Vietnamese cuisine at small cafés and diners around Hanoi. He even celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year, with newfound friends at Ngoc Son Temple. Riding around on a motobike in traditional Vietnamese fashion, he explored the city and received a taste of Vietnam’s vibrant culture.












Above: Hanoi during rush hour

Getting to know Hanoi’s culture in such an intimate way affected Robertson professionally and personally. His visit gave him the ability to see the world from the perspective of a developing nation. Experiencing the country’s art, food, culture and customs in person gave him a non-Western view on the world.

“When I came back, I was able to see differences between the two worlds. For example, the way that we socialize is vastly different,” he says. “After living for so long in a developing country, I now see the peculiarities of Canadian society. I see all the things we take for granted.”

The alive and spirited city of Hanoi with its layers of history and culture has made a place for itself in Robertson’s heart. “It feels like a second home to me,” says Robertson, who returns to Hanoi today to spend his holidays.

This story was written by Bethany Hansraj, a student assistant in the Publications unit of York’s Marketing & Communications Division.