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Collection of rare books risks being lost (May 20, 2003)

HCM CITY — Thousands of rare and valuable books recording the history of Viet Nam are at risk of being lost forever as time, humidity and a lack of funding take their toll on the collection at the HCM City General Science Library.

The library houses one of the country’s largest collections of rare historical texts, published not only in Viet Nam, but also internationally over several centuries.

For example, the collection includes a two-volume encyclopedia entitled Technique du peuple annamite (Method of the Vietnamese) compiled by Frenchman Henry Oger and published in Ha Noi in 1909. The book features photographs depicting the life, work, games and cultural festivals of the people of Tonkin – the area now known as north Viet Nam.

The encyclopedia is one of over 40,000 books about Indochina transferred to the library from Ha Noi in the early 1950s.

Many of these books were written in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Nguyen Thi Bac, the library’s director, said she and her staff were becoming increasingly worried about the fate of the collection.

"We’re concerned about protecting these valuable old books from environmental damage," she added.

"Every day we see them suffering more damage while we seek funds and appropriate measures to restore them."

Many books still have covers in good condition, but their pages are in tatters, for example the Vietnamese – Portuguese – Latin Dictionary compiled by Alexandre de Rhodes published in 1651.

Alongside the books are hundreds of thousands of old magazines, newspapers and French-language official journals dating back to the 19th century, all at risk of deteriorating beyond recovery.

More than 5,000 magazine and newspaper titles are featured in the library’s pre-1975 collections, including copies of the country’s first newspapers: Dai Nam Dong Van Nhat Bao (Dai Nam Vietnamese Language Daily) with issues dating from 1891; Bulletin de l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (French Far-East Institute Bulletin) from 1901; and Dong Duong Tap Chi (Indochina Magazine) from 1906.

Currently, the library uses only the most basic methods to preserve books: regular dusting of the books and shelves and spraying insecticide to kill termites.

Head of the library’s preservation department, Nguyen Anh Dao, said the library could do little more at present.

"We are planning to restore many of the antique books, but the job is complex, requiring new techniques and more funds," he said.

One of the library’s two microfilm cameras is currently broken, further hampering the preservation effort.

Priority has been given to recording old newspapers and magazines on microfilm because most of them were printed on poor quality paper and are at most risk of complete deterioration.

The library is also planning to record valuable documents and books on CD-ROM and other digital media to ensure that some of Viet Nam’s most important collections will be saved. — VNS

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency


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