The world’s largest monument to love is undoubtedly the Taj Mahal in India. But Bangkok also can claim its own monument to love, if somewhat smaller, but no less in deep affection: the Neilsen-Hays Library.
The origins of the Neilsen-Hays Library can be directly traced to the Ladies’ Bazaar Association, a charitable organisation. In 1869, thirteen American and British women, who were members of the Ladies’ Bazaar Association, established the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association, also called the Ladies Circulating Library. Due to the Bowring Treaty being signed in 1855, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, expats started to pour into Siam in ever increasing numbers as trade agents, missionaries, consulate and legation officials, businessmen and their families. Life in Bangkok at the time could be harsh. With frequent epidemics and little to do outside of home and office, books and other reading materials were scarce and highly sought after.
The aim was to circulate and share books. Initially the books were housed rent-free in various personal homes and in 1871 moved to the Protestant Union Chapel. Initially staffed by volunteers, the ‘library’ was only open one day a week. A young woman, Jennie Neilsen, joined the association and became one of its most active board members and the future namesake of the Neilsen-Hays Library.
Jennie Neilson Hays was born in Aalborg, Denmark in 1859. First she lived in America then came to Siam as a protestant missionary in the early 1880s. In an anecdotal tale, while on her way to Bangkok on a ship, she and a friend supposedly heard that two suitable young American doctors were also onboard going to Bangkok. Jennie and a friend were said to have selected their respective future husbands prior to them all disembarking. She began her relationship with the association in 1885. She conducted benefits to raise funds and assisted in the library.
Eventually she married Dr. Thomas Heyward Hayes. An American doctor, he was born in South Carolina, USA in 1854. He arrived in 1885, becoming the Chief of the Royal Thai Navy Hospital and later Consulting Physician to the Royal Court. Jennie remained a mainstay of the organisation for twenty years, serving as President of the Library three times. By 1897 the ‘library’ was open every day of the week except Sunday with a paid librarian. In 1900, Jenny arranged for the books to be all moved to Charoen Krung Road home of Mr. T. C. Taylor of the Gold Mines of Siam Company. The Library continued its peripatetic journey, finding a new home in 1903 on Chartered Bank Lane. The Library was moved several times after.
The Library’s name changed to Bangkok Library Association in October 1911. But by 1914 it was clear that a dedicated building was required. To this end, Dr. Hays bought a plot of land on Suriwongse Road.
Sadly, Jennie died suddenly in 1920 of cholera. Dr. Hays chose to honour his late wife by commissioning a new library to be built in her memory using the plot of land he purchased earlier. It was also a gift of love. Designed by the Italian architect Mario Tamagno, who also designed the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, the Parutsakawan Palace, the Thai Khu Fah Building (the Government House of Thailand), Hualamphong Railway station and other important buildings. The result was an elegant neo-classical building. Dr. Hayes died in 1924. He and his wife are buried in the Protestant Cemetery on Charoen Krung Road.
The Library flourished in its new and permanent home for several decades. However the Library received a grave a setback in 1941. When Japanese forces invaded Thailand they used the building for billeting military troops. More than 1,000 rare volumes were shipped to Japan along with many precious architectural blueprints. Many books were eventually returned after World War II ended. But some of the Library’s rarest books and blueprints are still missing.
In 1986 the Neilsen-Hayes Library was granted “Historic Landmark” status by the Association of Siamese Architects. Apart from the elegant wooden clad 20,000 book Library, there’s also a children’s corner and a Gallery Rotunda. Meanwhile, the spacious garden contains the Garden Gallery and Café. The Library looks almost exactly the same after a century of use. It houses tens of thousands of foreign books, some of them very rare and valuable. It is a regular venue for a variety of art and photography exhibitions. It remains a Bangkok landmark.