THE current state of Cambodia’s mobile library programme can easily be divined by the condition of the light truck resting in the parking lot of the Department of Books and Reading in Phnom Penh.
The tyres are flat, the battery is dead, the paint on the side reading “Biblio Bus” is fading; it’s clear that both the truck and the programme are going nowhere fast.
Yeang Sakkony, 41, the librarian of the Biblio Bus, said the truck stopped working about three months ago, but that all the programme’s books were still stored inside the vehicle. She added that despite appearances, “the mobile-library programme will be up and running again soon” – as soon, that is, as enough funding is found to get the truck fixed.
The mobile library was initiated by the Cambodian government in 1995 with sponsorship from the French embassy, which trained the librarians and donated books as well as the truck. But the embassy recently ended its sponsorship, and no one has stepped in to fill the funding shortfall.
The idea behind the project was that the truck would be driven into different neighbourhoods in the city, where librarians would unroll mats for people to sit on, and anyone who wanted could relax and read the many books that were stored inside the vehicle.
“Anyone who wants can sit outside on the mats and read, or they can sit on chairs inside the truck and read,” Yeang Sakkony said. “We stop at Buddhist pagodas that are close to the primary, secondary and high schools, but we never go too far from Phnom Penh.”
During its heyday, the mobile library ran four days a week, from Monday to Thursday, stopping throughout the week at 10 pagodas: Wat Sleng, Wat Russey Srors, Wat Chumpouvan, Wat Sansamkosal, Wat Keankhlang, Wat Choeung Ek, Wat Prochumvong, Wat Dambok Khpous, Wat Pon Phnom and Wat Bakheng.
Yeang Sakkony said that when the programme started in 1995, most children saw the books as toys rather than something to read.
“After 1979 people were not very interested in reading. Even the schools didn’t have many books. The purpose of the mobile library was to help revive an interest in reading among young people,” she said.
“At first many of the kids went into the truck and just made a mess,” she said. “They would take a book from the shelves, scan it for a second and throw it on the mat.”
But over time the library helped change the attitudes of adults and children, with visitors becoming increasingly interested in reading. The programme also attracted book donations from institutions such as the French Cultural Centre, Rooms to Read, Asia Foundation and Japan Sotoshu Relief Committee.
The library now holds more than 6,700 books in three languages – Khmer, French and English – and for all reading levels.
“We have books on history, literature, cooking, legends, music, but newspapers and magazines are the most popular,” Yeang Sakkony said. She added that she also tries to attract young children with comics and picture books, and established a storytelling programme.
She said that when the truck was running, more than 200 children came to read books every day. “When they heard our truck coming, everybody, even tiny naked boys, ran straight to us. The books made those children happy the whole day. Parents who were illiterate began encouraging their children to go to school after they heard them trying to spell the words.”
Meanwhile, Yeang Sakkony is hoping to get the library back on the road as soon as possible, and even expand the programme to areas outside Phnom Penh.
“But right now we have no budget. With the French embassy no longer sponsoring the programme, we have no money to fix the truck,” she said.
“I’m appealing to other institutions to help us run the library again so Cambodian children, especially those in rural areas, can get access to the books.”