The public library as instrument of colonialism: the case of the Netherlands East Indies

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Date: Summer 2008
From: Libraries and the Cultural Record(Vol. 43, Issue 3)
Publisher: University of Texas at Austin (University of Texas Press)
Document Type: Essay
Length: 5,815 words

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Between 1918 and 1926, fully 2,500 public libraries were established by the government of the Netherlands East Indies colony, mostly in towns and villages throughout the huge archipelago that became present-day Indonesia. Though popular with newly literate local people, the material in the libraries was designed to inculcate "Western" values and further the colonial situation. I will describe the historical and literary setting of this phenomenon. My analysis includes a close reading of remarks made by one of the responsible agency's longtime directors.


Between 1918 and 1926 the colonial government of the Netherlands East Indies established the Taman Pustaka (Gardens of Reading) system, fully 2,500 public libraries in towns and villages throughout the huge archipelago that became present-day Indonesia. Their small, heavily used collections comprised magazines and almanacs, Javanese and Malay language translations of Western adventure novels, agricultural handbooks, simplified versions of stories from traditional epics and legends, and original novels in local languages. The libraries were the project of the Kantoor voor de Volkslectuur (Bureau for Popular Reading, or, in Indonesian, Balai Pustaka) under the auspices of its director, D. A. Rinkes. In fact, the bureau published every book in the libraries' collections. Rinkes's successor, G.W.J. Drewes, director from 1929 until Dutch rule ended with the Japanese invasion of 1942, wrote with some bewilderment about the extent of his predecessor's achievements, accomplished in such a brief time period:

I have often been asked how Rinkes, who started in 1918 with just a handful of petty clerks, managed to find the editorial staff needed for his ambitious plans. I had no answer to that question, for when I was detailed to Balai Pustaka in 1926, I found a full-fledged publishing house, a going concern, centred round a core formed by three editorial boards, for Malay, Javanese, and Sundanese, and the editors of the magazines. (1)

On the face of it, the immense undertaking of teaching ordinary villagers to read and providing them with suitable material is praiseworthy indeed. But a colonizer's effort to improve a colony's lot is seldom purely altruistic. This article will show that Rinkes's "ambitious plans" were in fact aimed at the perpetuation of the colonial situation through the control of its reading material. It details how a literate workforce inculcated with certain Western values was necessary for the continuing profitability of the colony, how these values were promoted in books and periodicals available in the Taman Pustaka libraries while both traditional local values and the growing nationalist movement were consciously undermined, and how official rhetoric on the subject differs from historical fact on several points. This analysis is based mainly on a close reading of statements made by Drewes about Balai Pustaka and on an examination of contrary evidence. It makes use of and gratefully acknowledges historian Doris Jedamski's groundbreaking work on Rinkes and Balai Pustaka. (2)

Historical Background: Dutch Mercantilism Meets Indies Culture

Dutch contact with the Indies dates as far back as 1595. Merchants from the Netherlands first sailed to the Moluccas islands to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A186322214