Susan Taylor (left) and Lyda Thanh, two American librarians who went on a book-buying spree in Phnom Penh to stock their library back in Long Beach, USA.
Harry Potter eluded them but Anne Frank was available. Such was the luck of two American
librarians, Susan Taylor and Lyda Thanh, who have just spent two weeks trawling bookshops
across the Kingdom.
The pair found and purchased 1,084 Khmer-language books. Transporting their haul-which
weighed in at 298 kilograms-back to the US proved to be more challenging.
It took them four hours to pack the books into eight cardboard boxes. They then fell
foul of FedEx, whose Cambodia office does not take credit cards. Finally, after some
last-minute panic, DHL agreed to ship the books back to the US.
"I don't want to know how much it is costing," Taylor said. "It has
been a great experience. We bought 700 books on the first day."
Taylor and Thanh, both employees of the Long Beach Mark Twain Library in California,
spent a fortnight scouring every bookshop in the Kingdom-at least, those that take
MasterCard- looking for new Khmer-language books to replenish their library's collection.
"There is a word in Khmer, bra'moul, which literally means to gather in large
armfuls," said Thanh. "We weren't carefully selecting books; we were throwing
armfuls of them into the shopping trolley."
Among the armfuls of books were a few carefully chosen titles. "Harry [Potter]
eluded me but I got Anne Frank," said Taylor. The lack of Khmer-language copy
of Macbeth was lamented by Thanh who is helping a newly arrived Cambodian immigrant
to Long Beach with her Shakespeare homework.
Long Beach is home to the world's largest Cambodian population outside the Kingdom.
Last summer, the area in which the Mark Twain library is situated was rechristened
But when the library opened at new premises in August last year, the librarians were
unable to spend their allocated $20,000 grant on new Khmer-language books.
This was particularly frustrating as Khmer language is having a resurgence State-side.
"The kids are now a bit older and they want to learn - we need material for
them," said Taylor.
"Cambodians are a vital part of the community," she said. "The Cambodian
community donated to the new library. We had new Spanish and Vietnamese books -why
no Cambodian ones? If to get them we need to come here, then ok, that's what we'll
The shopping trip to Cambodia has been planned since March and was funded by the
City of Long Beach and a private group, Helen Fuller Cultural Carrousel, which paid
for the day-to-day costs of the trip.
The books and the shipping were paid for with city money so it all had to be accounted
for-hence the need to use a credit card.
To guide their selection, the pair checked the top ten most popular books in their
library. The most checked-out book was a fairy tale called The Beast of BongBot Forest,
which was checked out 53 times in the last five years, but books on Cambodian culture,
politics and history were also popular.
Their recent purchases-of "every kind of book we could find"-have doubled
the size of the library's Khmer-language collection.
Thanh believes a fully-stocked Khmer language section of the Long Beach library will
serve as a "pathway between two countries and a way to promote literacy across
"It is really important to preserve Cambodian culture and that's why we've come
to get these books," said Thanh.
"I want to get parents to read to their kids-language is so important. My dad
used to say, 'You will always learn English, at school. But our culture and language
is important too and I won't let you lose it.'"
Born in the Philippines where her parents had fled to escape the Khmer Rouge, Thanh's
book-buying trip was her first visit to her ancestral home. "It was definitely
a culture shock for me-Phnom Penh is so modern," she said.
Thanh's Khmer is fluent but in Cambodia "people speak much more slang,"
she said. "I speak more formal Khmer. They all cut out syllables and sounds-I
pronounce everything exactly as it is written."
Being constantly asked where she was from was a pleasure not an irritation, she said.
"It is really nice to be intriguing for once. They have really different mannerisms
here. I speak Khmer like I speak English, fast and choppy, so I have been trying
to slow down and get their mannerisms."
But there are some things she will never understand: "When I go home I will
never complain about the traffic there again," Thanh said.