Catering to Thais and expats alike, the Neilson Hays Library is one of the city’s most diverse and historic arts resources. Diana Pajkovski, a regular patron as well as a board member, recounts the heartbreak that led to its creation.
A recent Sunday at the Neilson Hays Library was a lively affair: a group of cyclists had occupied the garden, taking a break from enjoying car-free day and showing off their hipster bikes; a couple of girls were passing a hot pink ball back and forth, careful not to damage the frangipani trees; another group of children was inside the library, sprawled on the beanbag chairs in thechildren’s corner, flipping through books. Meanwhile, in the Rotunda, several ladies were admiring the quirky owls in the exhibited artwork under the gentle gaze of the only surviving picture of Jennie Hays; and the café was busy as ever, serving delicious fare to a diverse group of diners, from members of the local gym to families on a quest for a leisurely lunch with a bit of art and culture thrown in.
That Sunday I was not at the library as a member of its board. I was at the library as a patron and, not being in troubleshooting mode, was able to relax and observe the activity around me. Looking at the visitors enjoying the various spaces in the library compound I began to understand why the Neilson Hays Library is still relevant after more than a hundred and forty years of existence, despite the fact that English-language books are now readily available and in spite of the advent of the Kindle: the library is not any old building filled with dusty books, the library is a vibrant community centre that hosts art exhibits, concerts, story times for children, guest speakers, art fairs, literary festivals, painting and photography classes. As for the old building, in the case of the Neilson Hays Library this is an asset rather than a liability.
The elegant building on Surawong Road that is the Neilson Hays Library is ninety years old, and the story of its origin a Taj Mahal-like tale of love and loss – the locals even refer to it as “the library of love.” The love in question was between Dr. Thomas Heyward Hays, a renowned physician, and the young missionary Jennie Neilson.
Dr. Hays was a man who made his mark on many aspects of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bangkok life – medical, philanthropic, and commercial. He was a consulting physician to the Royal Court and instrumental in improving public health in the Kingdom, but also a savvy businessman who invested parts of his profit into charitable organisations. He was also a close friend of Prince Damrong Rajanuphab, known today as the Father of Thai Art History and Archaeology. But the rock behind this extraordinary man was his wife, Jennie Neilson Hays, praised in Bangkok society for her “gentle heart and unobtrusive practical charity.”
One of Jennie Hays’ greatest passions was the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association, of which she was a member for twenty five years and a president for many of those, exerting her considerable influence in society to ensure financial stability for the Association. When Jennie was taken by cholera in 1920, Dr. Hays was inconsolable, but knew that the best way to honour and preserve her memory was through continued support for her passion.
Jennie’s wishes were that the library building be expanded in order to house the growing library collection. The library at that time was a small, unappealing building on Surawong Road, and Dr. Hays, with his impeccable taste, knew that it would be difficult to enlarge the current building in an “artistic manner.” Instead, he purchased the adjoining plot of land and hired Italian architect Mario Tamagno to design a brand new building worthy of Jennie’s library. Tamagno was already famous in Thailand, having designed the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall, Wat Benchamabophit, the Oriental Hotel, and the Hua Lamphong Railway Station. The new building was inaugurated in 1922 as the Neilson Hays Library in memory of its benefactress and has been lending English-language books to expats and Thais alike ever since.
Today, as in 1869 when the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association was established, the library is still run by a board of women volunteers who are responsible for all aspects of managing the library, from securing finances for upkeep and running costs to planning and organizing events and buying books. A look at the library’s archives shows that while the length of the skirts of the board members varied greatly in the course of the 140 years, they faced the same challenges as far as the running of the library is concerned: increased costs of maintaining the building, the need to increase subscription fees to cover said costs, dwindling membership as a result of increased subscription fees. Dr. Hays left behind a sizeable endowment to ensure the self-sustainability of the library, but that money is long gone and for the past decades the library has been relying on donations and pro-bono work for the upkeep of the aging building. Most recently, the 90-year-old beauty received a facelift when Matthew Harrison and his company Civil Master International replaced the roof and gave the building a fresh coat of paint.
As a member of the board, I often find that being responsible for 140 years of remarkable history is a daunting task, but then I think of all the women before me who shouldered the same burden and I realise that preserving the library for posterity is such an important task that there will always be people who will generously donate their time, energy, and money to supporting this historical institution.
This is not the end of the story of the Neilson Hays Library. I did not mention Ms. Firmina Antonio, an assistant librarian who served the library for over 30 years. I did not mention how in World War II the Japanese forces removed all valuables, including rare books and original blueprints, and how part of the spoils were recovered after the war with the assistance of the British government. I also did not tell you how the Ladies’ Bazaar Association eventually became the Bangkok Library Association, which in its present iteration, is a managing board comprised of a dozen women, the diversity of whose professional and ethnic background can make your head spin. So come visit the library, browse, read, relax, and if you are lucky you might encounter one of our older patrons or board members who will gladly share more extraordinary stories with you.
The Neilson Hays Library
195 Surawong Rd | 02-233-1731| neilsonhayslibrary.com | Tue-Sun 9:30am-5pm