​Cambodia's Libraries | Phnom Penh Post

Cambodia's Libraries


Publication date
12 March 1993 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Ker Munthit

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Rehabilitation, prevention of further deterioration and the restoration of services

to the public are the most urgent tasks facing Cambodia's libraries today. "I

find that there is a great need in the area of libraries and documents [in Cambodia]...That's

the most important job because it is really for Cambodians to rebuild their own history

and own institutions," said Dr. Helen Jarvis, senior lecturer at the School

of Information, Library and Archive Studies at the University of New South Wales


During the years of the Pol Pot regime the National Library of Cambodia (NLC) was

turned into a scene of disastrous destruction. The brain-washing policies of the

Khmer Rouge resulted in the banning of educational systems, books or any reading

material, which might serve as a solid foundation for skills-building.

Built in 1922 in elegant French architectural style and painted in yellow, the library

was converted into a pigsty under the KR. All books, records, files and valuable

documents were piled up on the floor or on the thick grass outside the building.

Bookshelves were used for storing food supplies and kitchen tools. The National Archives

situated behind the library was turned into a slaughterhouse.

"I was awfully shocked at the condition of the library when I was assigned to

work here in 1979. I saw ashes of books under the trees in front of the library,"

said Um Neang, 56, a former assistant of technical sevices at the library and presently

NLC's director. "My first task was to collect books from outside, especially

Buddhist manuscripts, and to restore order in here." He said previously there

were hundreds of thousands of books in the library, but only about 40,000 survived

the Pol Pot regime. Of the 36 former library staff, only three have returned to the


Since the official re-opening of the library in 1980, tremendous efforts have been

made to maintain this cultural heritage. All books-most of them in French-have been

shelved in their former UDC sequences. A complete set of the Tripitaka published

by the Buddhist Institute was returned to the library. Importation of foreign literature

resumed in 1981, coming mainly from Vietnam and the former Soviet Union, when Cambodia

was occupied by Vietnam and recruited as a young member of the communist block. Vietnam

and the Soviet Union contributed many manuals, magazines and textbooks about major

communist leaders, biographies, ideology, politics and literature in Vietnamese,

Russian, Khmer, French and English languages. "They (westerners) called it (the

library) a communist library," Neang said, smilling.

After the cut-off of foreign assistance programs by the former Soviet Union, which

used to have cultural exchanges with Cambodia, support of the national library was

continued from other sources. Over 22,000 French and English books on various topics-including

reference books and encyclopedias-have been donated to the library by overseas organizations.

Newly trained librarians are cataloguing all books according to the Dewey Decimal


Palm and mulberry leaf manuscipts have been placed in a special air-conditioned

room. But thousands of valuable collections that have been salvaged are now under

threat from insects and the elements. "We don't have any insecticide to use,

that's why we appeal to international organizations for help," Um Neang said,

pointing to the shelves loaded with books printed in the French colonial era. "We

just dip clothes in petroleum to clean the shelves once a month," he added.

In the area of educational institutions, libraries are struggling to re-establish

themselves as little of the collections remain. Dr. Jarvis wrote in her research

project "As to the school sector, libraries are no more than a cupboard or a

single shelf of textbooks to be lent or rented to students who cannot afford to purchase

any books." However, no piracy law has yet been introduced to monitor the printing

of old and new books, so pirate copies continue to fill the stores rather than to

go to libraries. Students in institutes still have to spend their own cash to purchase

roneoed lecture notes every week. Um Neang said that a control committee established

by the Ministry of Culture to supervise local publishing activities was viewed as

ineffective and was closed down four years ago. Resumption of school and institute

libraries relies much more on foreign donations than on domestic resources. "It's

very hard to collect books in every national institution like the National Library

of Cambodia because, for a start, you don't have funds for books," said Margaret

Bywater, an Australian professional librarian who works as a consultant to the national

library and the library of University of Phnom Penh (UPP).

The end of the Soviet era has promoted the UPP library's reform program which began

in September last year. Training programs have been arranged for staff both locally

and abroad, mainly in Australia. Apparently-as they are not in great demand by students-a

large volume of materials in Russian and Vietnamese, and a number in German and Spanish,

have been moved aside or properly listed in catalogue boxes. "We've taken a

representative collection [of them]," said Ms. Bywater. "The first priority

was to change the library from closed access, which means that all books are locked

up, to open access, which means that students can go in to the shelves and choose

books. That was done. The second priority is to build the reference collection, especially

the main scientific subjects for study at the university," she added.

The university has received about 4,000 books on science and language from the Mitterrand

Foundation, Alliance Francaise, Australia, Canada and Japan. But the librarian noted

that many of them are not relevant to the present needs of the university. For instance,

two incomplete sets of encyclopedia from the 1960s were recently sent to the library.

"They are very old and do not give you information that you need. So, all the

time libraries depend on what can come from the outside," said Ms. Bywater.

Very few textbooks in Khmer are available. Lectures of text in Khmer are generally

translated from foreign languages for use in the university.

An aid package of U.S. $2,000 from the United Board for Christian Higher Education

in Asia is now being used to buy a 20 volume encyclopaedia called "Mc Graw Hill

Encyclopedia of Science and Technology."

A recent report made by Margaret Bywater raises the need for proposals seeking further

resources in order to establish a basic reference collection in the university's

library. Unfortunately, these proposals have yet to meet with any response. "I

think people are playing a wait-and-see game...what is going to happen after the

elections. It's difficult," she said, adding "But, my commitment is to

stay at the university as long as I can to do the collection."

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