Ben Sarin’s face still darkens when he thinks of what the Khmer Rouge did to his beloved books.
The 76-year-old former chief of Phnom Penh’s Central Library estimates that 7 per cent of the country’s books were destroyed during the bloody five-year reign of Democratic Kampuchea.
“The books were tossed out along the streets in Phnom Penh,” he said.
“I saw clearly with my eyes, the Khmer Rouge soldiers tore the books apart and took some of them for making cigarettes. They tore out pictures of beautiful women from the pages to keep for themselves,” he said.
“I felt bad, and I wanted to tell them not to do that, but I would have been killed if I stopped them. I did not let them know that I could read when they asked me what certain books meant; I just said I don’t know.”
Five years later, he was the man entrusted with the pain-staking process of assembling a collection the nation could take pride in. Some people think working in a library is easy, he says.
But Ben Sarin knows better.
Following the Khmer Rouge’s expulsion from Phnom Penh, he was appointed as chief of the Central Library and tasked with restoring order to the building’s collection of Khmer, French, English, Russian and Vietnamese-language books.
“There were only seven people working in the library during that time,” he said. “We had to know each of those languages fluently. I had to catalogue French languages, and the rest of the staff worked to catalogue the other languages,” Ben Sarin said.
He spent days wandering the streets of the capital, finding books that had been tossed out during the city’s forced evacuation, moving from house to house asking for contributions to the fledgling library.
The Ministry of Education provided books donated by foreign charities, while books about Cambodia were sourced from such nations as Vietnam and Russia.
“There were more than 80,000 books from five languages in my library. At the start, most of them were French language,” he said of the monumental organising task he faced, adding that English-language books now make up the majority of the catalogue.
“To be a chief of library, we have to know how many books are in the library, what kind of books, their title, where they belong and their meaning, so it is easy for us to locate them for the readers,” he said. “The librarian needs to work hard and read more and more every day.”
Ben Sarin was not only required to manage the library, but also respond to research requests and collect as many documents and books as possible for the library’s collection.
A geography and history teacher before the Khmer Rouge, Ben Sarin eventually managed the Central Library for 19 years, during which he travelled to Vietnam and France to further his library training.
Retired since 1999, he looks back at his time at the library with fondness and believes the work he did has lasting value.
“Nowadays, the library is still important for poor students, readers and researchers,” he says. “The rich students can find what they need at the market or bookstores, or they can search on the internet. But I believe that no one, rich or poor, can study without relying on the library.”
Ben Sarin admits to feeling disappointed with the Central Library’s current management, saying they seem careless, because many of the collection’s older books have been lost.
“More than 10,000 books have been lost since I retired from my position, because the new managers allowed the readers to borrow books without returning them,” Ben Sarin said.
“I don’t think it’s so important to have a big library. The most important thing is to keep the collection organised and in good condition.
“That way, there will always be more and more books in the library as time goes on.”
Ben Sarin, who has worked as a French translator at Go Translation for the past 12 years, still reads every day.
Sitting in an iron chair behind the desk in his office, he smiles as he looks down at a French magazine.
“I don’t even know whether I can stop reading anymore. I love books so very much.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Mom Kunthear at email@example.com