Khlot Vibolla, director of the National Library of Cambodia, believes that inspiring people to read begins with creating a space where access to books is free. She spoke to 7days about the library’s dramatic history as well as its future.
Can you tell us a little about the history of the National Library?
The library was first opened in 1924 by French colonials, who controlled and ran the National Library until 1951 when the first Khmer director Pach Chhoeun was appointed. This changed the National Library a lot because before this it was run by the French, but with Pach Chhoeun the library began to work for all Cambodians, for whom it was a milestone in self-reliance.
How did the library survive the Khmer Rouge?
The library was closed a full three years by the Khmer Rouge, who destroyed most of the books, and used the location to house pigs. Thankfully many professors and teachers kept private collections of books. After the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, books were donated to the library. About 23,000 books survived Khmer Rouge mostly French publications.
What role did the National Library will play in Cambodia’s recovery?
Since the library re-opened in 1979 it has been an invaluable tool for researchers, students and anyone interested in improving their literacy and understanding. Obviously, libraries play a huge role in societal development as they give easy access to the empowering touch of knowledge and education, which all morality, ethics, understanding and technology are descended from.
What new developments are planned for the library?
I see it playing an increasing role in public life, collecting public and private works. In the future the National Library will seek to build a network of information with the Senate and National Assembly libraries, and also to cooperate with schools and supply high quality publications to all Cambodians.
What’s on the shelves now?
Currently, the National Library has 103,635 copies in several languages (Khmer, French, English and German). Our special collections comprise 8,327 national documents, including documents published in French between 1925 and 1970, plus some books and documents published in the Khmer language between 1955 and 1975. We also have old palm leaf on microfilm.
Can you tell us a bit about the Palm Leaves?
Sadly during the Khmer Rouge period, around 80 per cent of Cambodia’s wats had their libraries destroyed, effectively this meant the destruction of most of the traditional literary heritage of Cambodia.
Measures to protect what was left were thus urgently required. We have a special collection of 305 sastra (palm leaf manuscripts), which are available on microfilm. The palm leaves are very hard to keep safe, and we are currently working hard to fix our microfilm projector, which is very expensive to fix. Any help to fix it would be most appreciated and highly beneficial to Cambodians being able to know something of their past culture.
Traditionally libraries in Cambodia have been run by monks and housed in wats, what role do you see Buddhism playing in Cambodia’s literary future?
Often monks will come to schools to explain and translate to Khmer the various Buddhist documents, and this can help inspire morality. The monks are teachers, and their role in society is a very important role in common life of Khmers. Our societal development will be greatly influenced by Buddhism, as it is very democratic religion. We accept other religions, and the Buddhists are very accepting of science and learning because Buddha was himself a kind of scientist and never criticised scientists or their work.