Reopening after repairs, library seeks to reclaim status
as center of learning
Classic French literature was once the mainstay of the library. The collection includes the complete works of Voltaire.
The classic facade of the National Library in Phnom Penh.
The books' pages have faded to a brown hue. Insects scurry into dark corners and
gnaw on moldering volumes of books. Flipping through obsolete textbooks and French
treatises, clouds of dust rise into the humid air.
This is the fate of what was once Cambodia's most extensive and treasured collection
of knowledge in the National Library. Desecrated by the Khmer Rouge, and neglected
during two decades of political turmoil and poverty, a new preservation effort launched
by The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA) has begun its renewal. The tumultuous
chapters in the life of the National Library have mirrored the nation's own turbulent
The National Library was opened to the public on October 24, 1924, with a collection
of 2,879 volumes, almost exclusively in French. It was known as the Bibliotheque
Centrale and managed by the regional French bibliographic authority of the time,
the Directorate of Archives and Libraries of Indochina. Its legacy endures: "Bibliotheque"
is inscribed above the towering entrance to the colonial yellow building just west
of Wat Phnom.
At the library's height in 1928, there were more than 10,000 books on its shelves
that drew hundreds of people to its quiet sanctuary every day. The institution primarily
served as an intellectual haven for Francophone visitors, officials and scholars.
Yet it was more than two decades, in 1950, before Cambodians could find books written
in their own language. Although the library kept its doors open following independence
under the rule of King Norodom Sihanouk, it barely survived the ravages of the Khmer
The government of Democratic Kampuchea ignored the library as a repository of knowledge,
but soldiers quickly found a more utilitarian use for the building. Pigs were kept
in what was once a beautiful walled flower garden. The National Archives building,
located just behind the library, doubled as a slaughterhouse. The library grounds
themselves were used to house the cooks, the kitchen and store food for Chinese political
advisers staying in the adjacent Hotel Le Royal. Precious books were destroyed as
kindling, thrown onto the streets to rot or piled in the corners to disintegrate.
The indignity and destruction inflicted on the library was not limited to its contents.
Of the 40 library staff who worked in the building in 1975, only six survived the
Khmer Rouge years. Three would eventually return.
Mao Kin, who was forced to labor in Battambang province under Pol Pot, returned to
work in the library in 1979 with his daughter, Mao Thach. He continued until retiring
in 1991. His daughter, Thach, 54, is still there today. She continues to care for
the collection and add to the inventory. She manages the French Collection including
more than 25,000 volumes about laws and administration during the colonial period
and works on travel, culture and art in Cambodia.
She remembers her first sight of the library after the Khmer Rouge abandoned the
"The shelves were thrown over and the library was almost empty," she says.
"There were some books piled into the corners or just lying around."
Workmen finish repairing a doorway in the east wing of the National Library.
A Hindu god presides over the east side of the main entrance.
She says the collection was in complete disarray. Locals who picked up some of the
volumes from the surrounding streets returned them to the library. Some volumes found
their way into private collections before they could be recovered. Others were just
sold on the streets for a fraction of their true value.
The library finally reopened in January 1980 under the auspices of the reconstituted
Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. The slow process of rebuilding the library's collection
began with donations of books from all over the world. Cambodia's allies were keen
to help. Vietnam and the USSR assisted in publishing Khmer language books and training
new staff. The Buddhist Institute donated many copies of their book collection written
in Khmer. Slowly the shelves of the library began to fill again.
In the following years, several NGOs provided small amounts of assistance. During
the 1980s, books came in from all over the world as news of Cambodia reached the
developed world. Since 1988, four different expatriate volunteers have worked in
the library. A French expert is scheduled to arrive next year; most have left. The
challenge now is to ensure that progress continues.
"People expect the authority to come from above," says Margaret Bywater,
a librarian who first advised the National Library in July 1986. "The ministry
is really not that interested."
She says without compensation or encouragement from the government, library staff
only perform the bare minimum of tasks and little else. That jeopardizes the advances
that have already been made.
Last July, the central raised section of the ceiling collapsed. The accident prompted
the most recent series of improvements to the buildings. A badly needed donation
of some $10,000 came from the MCFA to complete the repairs, which have lasted three
Now, with a new ceiling and paint job, the library is due to open next month. The
entire building will be open and access granted to the general public.
The library's collection includes several sections including Cambodian documentary
heritage, the French Colonial Collection, the Reference Collection, the General Collection
and the Lending Collection. In total the library has 10,000 new works, 30,000 "old
books" and over one hundred palm leaf manuscripts-ancient religious writings
inscribed on fragile palm leaves.
Although the Cambodian heritage section is closed to the general public, it is accessible
to scholars and researchers. Some other works, due to their age and delicate condition,
are not possible to view.
Khlot Vibolla, director of the National Library, says the library is critical to
preserving the cultural heritage of the Khmer people. It is the only storehouse in
the country for such works. It must be preserved for the future generations, she
"Cambodia does not have a public library system, which makes the National Library
even more important," she says. "It is important for researchers and students
alike to have the library."
Bywater says the state of the collection reflected priorities of the country itself.
Books piled into boxes are stored during renovations.
Detail of a mural on either side of the entrance to the reading room. It contains Khmer words for 'look' and 'learn'.
"When I first arrived [in 1986], compared to everything else, the library looked
all right," she says. "Since then, everything else has moved ahead but
the library has stood still."
The reasons are clear. In an impoverished country that lost much of its educated
elite during purges of the Khmer Rogue, the nation's libraries have received scant
attention or resources.
"The two biggest problems are a lack of funds and specialist personnel,"
says Professor Hun Sarin, director of the Department of Books and Reading at the
MCFA. "We must have trained personnel and long term foreign funding. I hope
then that the library will [again] be busy with people learning."
But Pierre Andricq, a book specialist in the French Cultural Center, says the low
salaries make it impossible for the staff to dedicate all their time to the library.
"They are paid about ten dollars per month," Andricq says. "This is
why they must rent the garden for the moto park to make some income."
The once immaculate gardens are now stacked with rows of motorbikes of students attending
the Institute of Management across the road. Behind the library, a plant nursery
has also set up shop. The library generates a tiny income through lender fees from
its collection of books. It received just 10 million riel ($2,500) from MCFA for
its operating budget in 2002. It has not yet received its budget for 2003.
Without more funding, some are concerned that the library will miss its best chance
to save its collection and train committed staff to preserve it.
"No one could stay [at the library] without family support or another job,"
says Bywater. "As a result, many good people have left."
She points to the generous funding provided to the Hun Sen Library in the Royal University
of Phnom Penh over the last seven years. As a result, she says, the staff take pride
in their work. She thinks the model could benefit the National Library, which has
artifacts and manuscripts of great value to the nation.
Bywater outlined many of her suggestions in a paper presented at a librarian conference
in 1997. "Not a lot has changed since then," she says.
But several countries have already begun helping resurrect the library. Malaysia
and Poland pay for staff to study book conservation and library science. Australia
sponsors courses for Cambodians at the University of New South Wales and donates
badly needed books and funds. Support is also received from libraries in Brunei and
The Asia Foundation, with funding from US government, donates a large number of new
publications to the library. Sarin says that equipment such as computers, scanners
and cabinets have also been provided by the US.
The French have taken an active role in restoring the old West wing of the library
to accommodate some 25,000 volumes of the French colonial collection acquired before
Cambodia gained its independence in 1954. The collection includes historical guides
to Cambodia, 19th century French literature and a valuable collection of unique colonial
But the French Protectorate collection, as it is known, is threatened by a particularly
small and voracious enemy: insects. Silverfish and other paper-eating bugs devour
their way through old documents. Fumigation, normally used to exterminate them, is
impractical due to the high ceilings in the library. The staff is left to try and
kill the insects by hand when they clean the volumes.
Besides the insects, high humidity and a lack of air conditioning or dehumidifiers
threatens the future of the manuscripts. Some improvements have been made. Air conditioning
is now installed in the West Wing housing the French Collection and there are plans
for additional cooling units in the reading room.
LA FORCE LIE UN TEMPS LIDEE ENCHAINE POUR TOUJOURS - The motto above the entrance to the east wing of the library.
But the library has a reactionary preservation policy, says long-time adviser Bywater.
It's not until disaster strikes, such as the roof collapsing, that efforts are taken
to safeguard the collection.
"We tried to get a support group going [in 1999]," she says. "We wrote
to the minister outlining the problems faced but there was no reply. Maybe it never
reached the minister."
But Bywater, who follows the library's progress, says the future holds promise.
"I hope that within ten years it will attain the status as an important cultural
center," she says. She worries that commitment to preserve it will falter.
The motto of the institution, inscribed above the entrance to east wing of the library,
may offer a hint at how the library has survived for so long despite its dramatic
past. It may also hold the key to its future.
"La Force Lie Un Temps Lidee Enchaine Pour Toujours."
It means, "Force binds for a moment, ideas link forever".