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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rare books wrestle with rot and mites

Rare books wrestle with rot and mites

S OME of Cambodia's last remaining ancient books face being ruined by decay within two years unless urgent action to save them is taken, according to an American expert at the National Library of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

"I hate to see these books being destroyed," said Dr George Smith, a Foreign Fellow of the American Library Association, as he showed the Post a 125-year-old book with pages eaten away by silverfish.

Inadequate storage left the library's book collection open to damage from insects, geckos and mold.

"If termites get into your book, they will destroy it in a week," Dr Smith said.

Among those in danger of deteriorating were ones on Angkor Wat and Cambodian history printed in the 1870s.

The biggest problem in storing the books was the frequent breakdown of the library's air-conditioning - exposing them to high temperatures and humidity - because of electricity blackouts.

"Since the beginning of this July, the library has had electricity to run its fans for only one month."

Dr Smith made his comments during a Cambodian Cultural Revival seminar on December 21, held to mark the 70th anniversary of the library.

The deterioration of books is only the latest problem in the sorry history of the library, which had 80 per cent of its books ruined during the Khmer Rouge's rule.

Library director Um Neang said that, before 1975, the library had some 325,000 volumes. When the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, only 65,000 remained intact.

A University of New South Wales lecturer who has worked at the library since 1987, Helen Jarvis, said the library's grounds had been used to raise pigs and chickens during the KR time.

The pig-keepers, charged with feeding Chinese advisers who lived in a former hotel next door, were housed in parts of the library itself.

Many books were destroyed by decay, while the pages of some were used to light cooking fires or as cigarette papers.

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