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Vanuatu Map

Location of Vanuatu


The Republic of Vanuatu is a small island country, about the size of Connecticut, in the South Pacific. The nation of the territory consists of 83 small islands. Its closest neighbors are the Solomon Islands and the French territory of New Caledonia. Until 1980, Vanuatu, or the New Hebrides as it was then called, was jointly ruled by Britain and France. Vanuatu has a rich cultural and linguistic heritage with Bislama (a pidgin language), English, and French as official languages; unofficially, hundreds of tribal languages spoken (Vanuatu country profile, 2011). Data from 2010 shows that the GDP per capita is approximately $5,100 U.S. dollars, garnering Vanuatu classification as a “least developed country” (Vanuatu – CIA, 2011). Unemployment, however, is low at a rate of 1.7%. The BBC (2006) reported that Vanuatu was considered the “happiest place on earth” according to the happy index poll published by the New Economics Foundation (Winterman, 2006).

Library Development

Like many small nations in the Pacific region, Vanuatu is a developing nation dependent on foreign aid and resources are scarce for library resources and infrastructure. However, library development initiatives have been pursued by international agencies since the 1960s. The colonial era saw the emergence of private libraries in the houses of French and British judges, but library development has yielded tangible gains only post-independence (Rodman, 2001).

Between 1978 and 1991, UNESCO funded the School Libraries in Oceania Project, a directive to provide training for teachers in library acquisition and management in 11 Oceania island nations, including Vanuatu (Hallein, 1992, pg. 2). Under this initiative, it was noted that setting up and maintaining school libraries in small schools did not seem plausible in many situations, as the majority of schools only had between one and five teachers. The lack of steady funding for materials and staff is also a problem because donations are unreliable and the materials donated are often outdated or irrelevant for school libraries (Hallein, 1992, pg. 2). Although library training efforts were undertaken at this time, it does not appear that this training has had a lasting impact. Librarians and teachers who have volunteered in Vanuatu from Western nations remark that the libraries are often unorganized and materials difficult to find (Dodd and Moloney, 2007). It appears that many short-term volunteers train permanent staff, yet it is unclear if volunteer efforts remain effective for a long duration.


Vanuatu Library Association

The Vanuatu Library Association (VLA) formed in 1992 with the aims to “unite all persons interested in libraries…and to provide support and leadership for the development and improvement of library services in Vanuatu…” (Austrai-Kalio, 2007). Again, it is difficult to determine how active the VLA is currently and how many members they may have. At the time of writing, the VLA website had not been updated since 2007, the directory – libraries in Vanuatu page was inactive, and the membership list had not been updated since 2003. The difficulties in maintaining an active VLA can be attributed to short-term library and teacher volunteer problem, or it may be that the libraries in Vanuatu do not want to pay fees for an association when money could be spent on materials. On the other hand, it could be that the VLA is active in Vanuatu, but neglects their website.

Vanuatu Cultural Centre

Vanuatu Cultural Centre

Current Library Activity

The Vanuatu Cultural Centre is the organization and legal body that manages the majority of cultural heritage in Vanuatu. The Centre oversees the National Museum, the National Library, the National Photo, Film, and Sound Archive, organizes classes for women and young people, and is responsible for reviewing foreign nationals’ applications for proposed research in Vanuatu (The organisation, 2009). The National Library is the premier archival and research institution in Vanuatu. It collects and preserves materials in English, French, Bislama, and other indigenous languages. Its materials include rare books, journals, and periodicals. The National Library also “houses two special collections, the Pacific and Vanuatu Collections” (National Library). While members of the Vanuatu community can utilize these materials, these collections are primarily used by foreign researchers or university students. The adult literacy rate in Vanuatu is comparatively low (against developed nations) at 84-85%, and the National Library does not provide materials for the average citizen (Background note, 2011).

In contrast, the Port Vila Library is the only public library in the country that is open to the general public, where members may borrow books. The collection includes fiction, children’s books, and a reference section; the majority of the collection materials have been donated by institutions or by individual donors. The Port Vila Library also subscribes to the latest newspapers and magazines, both local and from abroad, as well government and NGO publications. The library has a reference service and serves as an alternative to inadequate or non-existent school libraries. However, borrowing privileges are not free and require a membership fee (Basic information, 2010). There is a unique system of payment that the library allows where patrons can become members without paying money.

Mat Money

From the Vanuatu Cultural Centre website, "Jean-Pascal Wahé, library trainee, receiving a mat payment of library membership fees from a student"

In keeping with the traditional “kastom” economy in Vanuatu, membership for the year can be obtained by paying in mats made of pandamus leaves. These mats are “simple strips of plaiting with fringes on the side” (Speiser, 1996, pg. 246). These mats have been used traditionally as money in Vanuatu and were the object of national attention in 2007 when Vanuatu celebrated the “the year of the traditional economy” and promoted using these objects as a way to pay for education (Shakuto, 2010, pg. 30). In Vanuatu, there is a scarcity of cash so mats, shell strings, and pig’s tusks are used as money, but this makes access to goods in the non-traditional, monetized sectors quite difficult (Huffman, 2007, pg. 24). As a BBC report from 2007 noted, “State education is not free in Vanuatu. Neither are local clinics. But many traditional communities simply do not earn the hard cash needed to pay for these services” (Harding, 2007). These type of services includes library and information services and, hence, the use of traditional forms of money like mats is encouraged in Vanuatu and in other countries like Papua New Guinea. Membership to the Port Vila Library for one year is two mats per adult, or one mat for minors (Port Vila, 2007).

Loukati School Library

Loukati School Library after some organization

Approximately 18-20% of the population of Vanuatu lives in Port Vila, the country’s capital. These individuals may use the public library, as discussed above, but for the remaining 80% of the population, libraries are less structured and managed. The libraries in other cities and villages are either private collections or small libraries in public schools. Many of these school libraries are run by volunteers, such as Peace Corps volunteer Laura Dodd, who serves as teacher and librarian at her elementary school.

On her blog, she discussed the library project at Loukatai School. She writes (2011),

“When I first arrived, the library looked more or less like a big rubbish room. A few books on the shelves, more books on the floor, a handful of books in the hands of children… Maybe we had about 30 reading books…All of the books were battered and no one seemed to see any correlation between this and the fact that they were also thrown about, left on the floor, left on shelves frequented by the volcanic ash that flies through the air and settles on absolutely everything. I knew the only way to really address the literacy issue at this small school would be to figure out how to get the kids stuff to read and more importantly, to get them and their teachers to look after whatever it is they’re reading…”

While not every school library in Vanuatu will be as disorderly as Loukati School Library, Laura’s comments illustrate well the challenges of volunteers in developing island nations.

Further, computers and internet access are not yet on libraries’ mandate in Vanuatu. In 2009, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs reported that only 7.8% of the population of Vanuatu used the internet, and this is primarily from internet cafes (Vanuatu, 2009). Access is slow, as broadband (as of 2009) has not yet caught on and paying for the internet in the cafes is typically unaffordable for most people.


Establishing working libraries that people can use is clearly an issue in Vanuatu. The country faces challenges with a shortage of staff, a lack of trained staff, transient staff, a lack of funds, and a lack of materials relevant for the community. In order for libraries to flourish in Vanuatu, all of these hurdles must be overcome.


Austrai-Kalio, M. (2007, July 13). Home. Vanuatu Library Association. Retrieved from

Background Note: Vanuatu. (2011, May 5). Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. U.S. State Department. Retrieved from

Basic information. (2010). Port Vila Public Library. Facebook. Retrieved from

Dodd, L. (2011, June 23). Celebrate this day! in Vanuatu! Blog. Retrieved from

Hallein, J. (1992). UNESCO School Libraries in Oceania Project. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from –.

Harding, A. (2007, July 4). Paying in pig tusks in Vanuatu. BBC News. Retrieved from

Huffman, K. (2007/2008). Pigs, prestige, and copyright in the Western Pacific. Explore, 29.6, 22-25. Retrieved from

Moloney, K. (2005, August). Volunteering in Vanuatu. inCite, 26, 16.

National Library.(2007). Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Retrieved

Port Vila Public Library accepts mats as payment for membership. (2007). Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Retrieved from

Rodman, M. (2001). Houses far from home: British colonial space in the New Hebrides. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Shakuto, S. (2010). Traditional money and access to education in Vanuatu. Cross-Sections, 6, 27-41. Retrieved from

Speiser, F. (1996). Ethnology of Vanuatu: an early twentieth century study. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

The organisation. (2007). Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Retrieved

Vanuatu. (2009). Internet World Stats. Retrieved from

Vanuatu. (2011, August 16). CIA World Factbook. Retrieved from

Vanuatu country profile. (2011, July 4). BBC News. Retrieved from

Winterman, D. (2006, July 13).What’s so great about living in Vanuatu? BBC News. Retrieved from

Photo References:

Cleow. (2008, January 9).Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Retrieved from

Dodd, L. (2010). Retrieved from

Port Vila Public Library Accepts Mats as Payment for Membership. (2007). Vanuatu Cultural Centre. Retrieved from

Vanuatu Library Association. (2007). Retrieved from

Vanuatu location. (n.d.) Retrieved from

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