Neilson Hays Library has over 20,000 books available for borrowing. The story of the library is integral to the history of Europeans in Thailand. The collection is housed in one of the most impressive buildings in Silom. The library also has a library, art gallery and event space. Whether you are living in Bangkok and need of a good book to read or you are a tourist seeking out places of interest in the city, Neilson Hays Library is an excellent place to visit.
The library started out as a collection of books housed in various private homes of Europeans staying in Bangkok at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The collection and membership grew to such a size that eventually a permanent public space and librarian were needed. In 1914 a plot of land was purchased on the Surawong Road. One of the key members of the library board was a Danish woman called Jennie Neilson Hays. She married an American doctor named Thomas Neilson Hays. When his wife died (possibly of Cholera) in 1920, he commissioned a library to be built on the Silom plot purchased 6 years previously.
The architect commissioned for the new library building was Mario Tamagno, an Italian who would go on to design the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall as well as Hua Lamphong Train Station. Tamagno created a library with Italianate features such as a dome, columns and decorative stucco motifs. At its opening the Neilson Hays Library (named to commemorate the doctor’s dearly departed wife) the Bangkok Times called the building ‘a grand palace on a small scale’.
The library became a key part of the ex-pat community of the period. Today, the library houses a collection of correspondence between library board members and the Thai royal family.
In 1941 the Japanese entered Bangkok. The library was closed and the building was used for billeting troops. Moreover, 1,000 rare volumes were taken away. Many have since been returned, but sadly some books went missing.
Today the library is still run by 12 ladies as laid out in its founding document by Dr Neilson Hays as a not-for-profit organisation. It is the oldest not-for-profit association in the Kingdom of Thailand. However, the demands of maintaining the building and collection mean that the library relies heavily on generous donations.
Any Bangkok resident can join the library. Membership currently costs 2,500 Thai Baht for a year. Discounts are available for young people, senior citizens and families.
For those just passing through the library exhibits art in 2 galleries: the Rotunda Gallery and the Garden Gallery. Art includes paintings, ceramics, photographs and textiles from artists all over the world. It is also possible to rent gallery space for exhibitions.
The Garden Café at the library is open to the general public. It is open every day from 9am to 6pm, although the library is closed on Mondays. The menu includes delicious cakes as well as Thai and Western favourites. The catering is done by the chefs from the adjacent British Club. It is a great spot to catch a snack or have a meal. The café is in a garden that also forms part of the exhibition space.
Neilson Hays Library is available for hiring for private events. And naturally the catering is done by the chefs from the British Club.
Finally, as with all good British libraries, there is a firm commitment to children’s education through discovering the joys of reading. There is storytelling for 3 to 7 year-olds every Saturday at 10.30am run by volunteers. There are also other children events that you can attend. For more information visit their website. Details given below.
The Neilson Hays Library remains one of the few historic buildings in Bangkok other than palaces and temples to endure the vicissitudes of modernising and economic growth that has swept through Bangkok. It is a place with a fascinating history and remains a focal point for the ex-pat community in the Big Mango.