How Digital Tools Can Support Reading Culture in Laos

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In the course of a six-month, one-woman survey of public Internet access venues in Vientiane, I spent most of my time in Laos’s capital city in libraries and cybercafés. When I mentioned my project to expat and Lao professionals, I was often met with the same disheartening response: “Why do that in Laos? Lao people don’t like to read.” In these conversations, I kept hearing people throw around the term “reading culture”—specifically in the context of Laos not having one.
But while my colleagues lamented a poor reading culture, Lao users and staff at libraries and cybercafés were frustrated that neither local print media nor the Internet provided relevant, engaging, reliable Lao-language content. Lao speakers will be the ones to create this content, but not until digital tools catch up with accelerating Internet and mobile penetration.
Roadblocks to Progress
This challenge is rooted as much in technology as it is in the politics of language. Print media in Laos illuminates the complexities. Laos’s geopolitical history has rendered a majority of the country’s university and library content in languages other than Lao: French, the language of nineteenth-century colonization and an enduring development presence; Russian, from the Soviet era and the Soviet-educated professionals who still comprise much of Laos’s urban workforce; Thai and Vietnamese, attesting to the mammoth cultural influence of Laos’s neighbors; English, the lingua franca of education, ASEAN, and book donations; and Chinese, the dominant tongue, increasingly, of business. 
And the systemic hurdles to a wider, more visible “reading culture” still stand, including low levels of literacy, educational attainment, and Internet penetration; evolving digital regulation and print censorship; and inadequate recognition of minority languages.
What Can Be Done?
Small, targeted solutions to promote content creation may start to fill in the gaps. The development of reliable, interoperable, mobile Lao-language applications is one potential step.
Until recently, if mobile phone users wanted to communicate in Lao script, they were limited to purchasing a phone that accommodates pre-installed Lao language programs, or downloading “keyboard” apps that require users to compose text in one application and copy-paste it to its destination. Instead, users started using “karaoke,” an informal English transliteration of Lao. But karaoke is not standardized or machine-readable, and is accessible only to those familiar with the English alphabet.
With effective mobile apps already developed for Thai, a language mutually intelligible with Lao, developers have an opportunity to build on existing resources. And this is not the only arena in which existing Thai-language resources provide a starting point. The development of search tools optimized for the Lao language, for example, can draw on recently developed, Google-supported search mechanisms for Thai.
In Laos, the Coalition of Lao Information, Communication, and Knowledge (CLICK) manages several Lao-language information-sharing tools, including the Lao44 database and the LaoLink discussion group. These development-focused forums can pave the way for repositories, databases, and discussion hubs for other topics and communities. The development of open-source, downloadable Lao-English dictionaries can support wider translation and sharing.
The accessibility and share-ability of Lao-language content will also benefit from more diverse formats. Lao-language information literacy materials and training curricula, developed by librarians at the National University of Laos, can be adapted to mobile formats and other delivery modes. And this need not be limited to print—PhotoForward collaborations with organizations like @ My Library and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center showcase the potential of Lao-language video content.
These are a few ways to put agile tools in place as mobiles and Internet in Laos continue to expand. With greater digital ownership of the language’s use and development, Lao speakers can continue to create their own reading culture.
Gennie Gebhart is a graduate student at the University of Washington Information School, focusing on global Internet inequalities and digital divides in Southeast Asia. As a 2013-2014 Luce Scholar, she worked with libraries and research centers in Laos and Thailand. Contact her at [email protected]