Children race to the colourfully painted minibus when it arrives at a community kindergarten in Kandal province’s Tropang Andong village, about 50 kilometres from Phnom Penh. A few women gently restrain them, telling them to sit on the mats unfolded near the minibus as its driver exits the vehicle with piles of books and illustrated posters for them.
SIPAR’s mobile library is just one of the numerous ways the non-profit organisation has been promoting reading in Cambodia for 20 years, and it may be one of its most effective for reaching communities where books are rare.
Mobile librarian Sok Kun delivers about 3,000 books a day to children who live in capital’s suburbs, visiting two villages per day. His mobile reading program has now been expanded to three nearby provinces: Kandal, Kampong Speu and Takeo.
“Every day we start with story-telling sessions for children. We tell tales and show a series of paintings to illustrate the story. Then, we bring them the books to read,” Sok Kun explains. Two comic tales – Rabbit and a Fruit and Toad’s Marriage – are the most popular he says, adding that the children hang onto every word while their eyes are entranced by the illustrations.
SIPAR spokesperson Aurélie Giraud said the NGO had devoted 20 years to laying the foundation for the revival of reading in Cambodia and that it had made numerous strategic shifts during this time. For the first decade, for example, it focused on setting up libraries at public schools and trained librarians.
When it could not find Khmer-language comic books it pasted Khmer-language stickers over text in French comic books. Next, it began publishing books in Khmer. “In 2001 we decided to start a printing program as well as the mobile library,” Giraud said.
Its publications are eclectic – comic books, legends, how-to books, history, biographies of global figures, literature and agriculture – and the materials it offers, including posters, are tailored to everyone from one years of age and up. It offers free access to books through mobile libraries, associated libraries and reading shelves at pagodas and villages. It also sells books through stores.
SIPAR library program coordinator Sin Sothea said that his programs focus on poorer communities where access to books is most dauntng. Books are borrowed for free and the eight mobile libraries draw crowds of about 40 at each of their stops, he said. “We want to build a reading culture. We cultivate the habit of reading among children. Children don’t dislike reading. The problem is that they have no opportunity, no access to reading material.”
Over the past 10 years, he has observed that differring preferences among age groups and his stock has expanded to meet this demand, including books from other publishers. “Youths like magazines with lots of articles. Teenagers, especially girls, like romance novels, while some teenage boys prefer to read about science. Children, like comic books.”
Sin Sothea hopes to include daily newspapers in his mobile libraries soon, so children will learn more about the social issues happening around them.
Phlek Sok, a community librarian at Tropang Andong village, said illustrations drew small children to books. “They always start by flipping through the pages to look at the pictures. If they find these interesting, they’ll turn to the beginning and try to read the words. If the pictures are uninteresting, they will choose another book. If the book doesn’t have picture at all, they won’t read it,” she said.
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