I love visiting libraries. Call me bookish but one thing I have observed is and that walkers also tend to be readers — a connection possibly intertwined with the fact that much of literature is about journeys. Although today many libraries exist in an altered state of existence from their original brief — now more tourist attractions than traditional places for reading — one historic library on Suriwongse Road in Bangkok still serves a very useful purpose.
For numerous generations people in Bangkok have known the Neilson Hays Library as a focal point serving the English language community. Over time its role has faded with fewer people finding a reason to visit it. Originally established in 1869 by the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association, it remains however one of the leading repositories of english-language books in Bangkok — over 20,000 volumes, and still acquiring. Tourists continue to wander by and walk in to view the elegant neoclassical building (which dates from 1922) and admire its handsome and finely preserved interior — although probably less so now since the library no longer allows or encourages photography. Non-tourists who do have reason to visit the library, now do so either to attend the occasional concert, a corporate event or a children’s book reading hour. It is apparent the library lacks the vitality of other comparable institutions in other cities that have found renewed purpose through more innovative community activities. Space plays a factor, the library is not large. Accessibly is another factor, its location not being immediately near enough (for some people) to a Skytrain or Subway station. In fact the library is an easily manageable walk from the nearest stations.
I first visited the Neilson Hays back in 2001 having just moved to Thailand from the United Sates. Back then I was still adjusting to a very different life from the one I had in America. I no longer had a substantial collection of English language books at home and e-books and audiobooks were barely in existence. I found the space comforting, calming and familiar. All the elements you crave for when you’re in a new environment. Bangkok on the other hand was uncomfortable, decidedly not calm and much of it still unfamiliar to me. The library was a place of refuge and tranquility that was not in a shopping mall or drowning in commercialism (an all too commonplace reality, as anyone living in this town will attest to). More importantly, what the Neilson Hays provided was access to books.
Over the years, one aspect of the library’s holdings has continued to provide reason for me to return. The Neilson Hays still has arguably the largest collection of English language books on the subjects of Bangkok, Thailand and Southeast Asia that are not in some state archive or educational institution. For a small day-use fee (about the price of a coffee at the Library’s own adjacent cafe) you have within reach a treasure trove of resources, many of which are volumes no longer in print or in circulation. As with any traditional library, most of the books at the Neilson Hays can be checked out (with a membership) — a convention many non-public libraries no longer allow.
We forget in today’s age of online information that sometimes it is actually easier to walk into a library and do a bit a research the old fashioned way, in a space where everything has already been cleverly organised for you (thank you Mr. Dewey) by subject and author, and now conveniently searchable online prior to visiting as well. Anyone who has had to endure the lacklustre experience of reading PDF materials knows all too well that leafing through a book is far more satisfying (indexes are still remarkably useful). At the Neilson Hays, there are rows and rows of teak shelves filled with information on any number of subjects in the English language.
In this city where change is the norm and community focal points now comprise venues largely dominated by retail, the Neilson Hays remains an unbroken link to a time and a place where countless people have come together for various reasons to share in knowledge, and where that knowledge still resides. The minute you walk into its now heavily air-conditioned reading room, there are still ever-present reminders of the library’s relevance to generations of Bangkokians as evidenced by the brass plaques that top many of the bookshelves bearing the names of individuals and families who have provided financial support. In this vaulted haven for readers, the words of poets, authors and writers in the far and recent past still echo faintly and continue to live on in the bound pages lining the shelves.
Perhaps you are not a bookish person. But if you happen to be walking in the Suriwongse or Silom area, the Neilson Hays library is worth taking a moment to visit — for a rest or even for a read — which of course was its original intended purpose.
The Neilson Hays Library
95 Surawong Road
Bangkok 10500, Thailand
In addition to the THB 100 day use fee, the library also offers annual memberships which allows for borrowing.
Photos were taken several years ago when photography was still allowed. Another part of the library’s holdings I enjoy are the lesser-known but enormous collection of cookbooks.
The Footpath Files
Stories from the Streets of Bangkok
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