Monument of love

Neilson Hays Library celebrates its centenary plus one

Neilson Hays Library circa 1922. (Photos courtesy of Neilson Hays Library & Rachapant Sukrattanachaikul)

One of Bangkok's oldest libraries has just celebrated its birthday, which also marks the 101st anniversary of the completion of its iconic structure in the heart of the city. The Neilson Hays Library recently hosted "101 Years Strong" with a rich variety of programmes and activities, from a storytime special, a lecture on the building's design innovations, readings with famous authors, a courtyard concert, to an ongoing installation exhibition. Yet the library promises more fun events and activities that will be held all through the year.

Live concert hosted inside the library hall.

Nalin Vanasin, president of Neilson Hays Library Association. 

"Unfortunately, we missed celebrating our centenary last year due to the spread of Covid-19. However, 101 is also a good number as it marks the beginning of a new stable journey for the library," said Nalin Vanasin, president of Neilson Hays Library Association.

"We are planning to do a lot more programmes and activities this year, whether it's our annual Neilson Hays Young Writer Awards for the new generation of writers who want to showcase their talent, the Neilson Hays Bangkok Literature Festival, which we organised the first time in 2019 or our book sales. We don't want to earn money to only help and support the library, but to make it more appealing for other readers and people to come to visit and get to know this place better. As libraries are significant spaces for community, this building, in particular, is very important in the history of our country, especially in terms of architecture."

Dr Heyward Hays, and his wife, Jennie Neilson Hays. 

While today, the place serves as a familiar, long-standing non-profit library for local people in the Surawong neighbourhood, the origins of the building itself are rather romantic as it was actually designed to be a monument of love.

Neilson Hays Library was commissioned by Dr Heyward Hays -- a physician to King Rama V -- in loving memory of his late wife, Jennie Neilson Hays, who was very fond of books and literature. Ms Hays was an active member of the library board and one of a pioneering group of 12 women trailblazing literacy, education, and community development in 19th century Bangkok. She established the Bangkok Ladies' Library Association in 1869 that aimed to promote literacy in a city that still lacked any public or national library.

After Ms Hays passed away in 1920 as a result of cholera, Dr Hays chose to honour his wife by commissioning a new library to be built in her memory. In 1922, the association eventually had its own library. The building was designed and built by Italian architect Mario Tamagno during the reigns of Rama V and VI. Tamagno was one of the preeminent architects active in modern Thailand, whose notable contributions included Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, Wat Benchamabophit, Hua Lamphong Railway station, and the Oriental Hotel, to name a few.

Main entrance to the library.  

Early years activity with children. 

"This is a building designed and built specifically as a library. There are many delicate details that Tamagno combines of neoclassical and tropical innovation, such as the dehumidification system, or designing the roof and walls to have spaces for sunlight to shine through," explained Nalin. "We are aware of cultural preservation. Therefore, I would like to invite more people to come and visit or come to use the service, read books or do more activities at the library, so that this place can stay relevant and continue to live steadily."

A century after its founding, Neilson Hays continues to be women-led and to function as an independent lending library, a community space, a music venue, an architectural landmark, and a historic site. Today, there are more than 20,000 books at the library, making it one of the largest collections of English-language titles in Bangkok.

In 2017, with the building in obvious disrepair, Nalin and the library association board enlisted architectural restoration experts to survey the property. The results indicated visible damages were due to much deeper systemic problems, and the first major restoration of the library structure and ground was critically needed.

Photos above, fun activities through the years. 

"One of my proudest contributions to the library during my time on the board of the association was to be involved in a major repair project for the library. At the time we had to talk to various departments to study and get a good understanding of the details and architecture of this building, as well as finding funds for maintenance," she said.

Fortunately, with the generosity of members, volunteers, and donors, the library underwent a two-year, multi-million baht renovations fully funded by donations by 2020. And today the restored Neilson Hays library reaffirms its role as a venue that encourages a love for literature, history, and culture in the community.

"Though books are nowadays readily available online, libraries are still significant spaces for community," she said. "Books are still relevant to every generation and people will still be reading them no matter if it's a physical version of a book, or on electronic platforms. We can now see that the role and importance of reading and writing has not diminished at all in the past 100 years."

The exhibition "Bangkok Chattana: Alchemy Of Architecture And Narrative" runs until the end of the month and is based on the book of the same name by Thai-American young adult writer, Christina Soontornvat. Neilson Hays Library is located on Surawong Road. Call 02-233-1731.

Do you like the content of this article?