BOOKS are still a rare commodity in most Phnom Penh schools – but nonprofit group Pour Un Sourire D’Enfant (PSE) is doing its best to take reading to the masses.
Two mobile library vans travel around the city visiting up to 16 schools a week. Every time the van arrives, children rush to mob the helpers, choose a book and settle on a mat outside to read their choices.
Each bus carries at least 5,000 books, many of them donated by other nonprofit organisations such as Asia Foundation, SIPAR or Room to Read.
The two vans, identifiable by the large signs saying Biblio Sourire, aim to visit two schools a day each, and have been running around the capital since late 2006.
PSE’s press officer, Touch Len, says that the purpose of the library helps to encourage young people to read because books, libraries and reading are still rare in Cambodia.
“We want young people to read and to cultivate the habit of reading. Usually we go to schools which don’t have enough books of their own,” he says.
“Actually we work with three levels – primary, secondary and high schools, but we would like to encourage more children at primary schools to read, so we go to primary schools more than other schools,” said Min Sok Heang, who is in charge of PSE’s mobile library program.
He said they tried to time the library visits in break times so students don’t have to disturb their normal lessons.
“Some schools have spare rooms, but it doesn’t mean teachers don’t want to establish libraries. It’s because they can’t afford to buy books or don’t have a librarian to run the library.”
Min Sok Heang said that books were available in Khmer, English and French, and the stock included specialist texts in mathematics, physics or chemistry as well as more general topics of interest. “When they see our vans coming, students and even teachers are so pleased because we have many books for their students to read. We can set up about 50 seats and several mats, but sometimes some people have to stand while they are reading the books because too many people come,” he said.
PSE also runs story-telling programs, painting classes or play activities with children at primary school – reaching more than 10,000 young readers every year.
The Cambodian government set up a mobile library scheme in 1995 funded by France with more than 6,700 book, but the van is now lying idle.