A student peruses one of the library's newer acquisitions.
ames Molloy moves easily between a stack of books and the glass-fronted shelves.
He brushes his fringe back and then examines the spine of an archaeology text with
a studious air.
"I don't mind the fact there's more shelving to do - at least it means the students
are using the library more than before," he said.
For the past two years Molloy has been part of an Irish government-supported initiative
to preserve and restore the contents of the Phnom Penh Fine Arts University Library,
one of Cambodia's most valuable but less well known collections of books.
Hidden behind the National Museum in central Phnom Penh, the library boasts a multi-lingual
collection of more than 16,000 titles.
But the real challenge, according to Molloy, has been to get the students to actually
"Students don't seem to have books as part of their culture. So my job has been
to encourage them actively, show them how to find the information and what resources
are available," he said.
Not yet a lending library, the library is reputedly one of the best of its kind in
the country, rivaled only by the Royal University of Phnom Penh's library.
Founded in 1965, the Fine Arts library originally focused on books and journals for
the 1000 students enrolled in the university's 4-year degree programs in Archaeology,
Architecture and Fine Arts.
By the time of the Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975, the library had a substantial
collection of mainly French language texts.
According to Molloy, 90% of those books survived the Khmer Rouge regime (the other
10% deteriorated with the heat and the dust). The library staff, however, were less
fortunate, with none of the original librarians alive when the library re-opened
As a result, one of Molloy's biggest challenges in getting the library running has
been to train its three government-paid staff members and to get them conversant
with the mores of library culture.
"We had to get regular opening times and the simple cataloguing and shelving
systems going. I didn't want to be doing all this myself because the point of the
project is to make it a library run by Cambodians for Cambodians.
"We wanted it to be self supporting and although there will still be some NGO
involvement on a part-time basis, I think we've achieved that," he said.
More than 20% of the collection is now catalogued on computer, which along with photocopiers,
audio-visual equipment and new acquisitions are provided by donors.
"We rely to a large degree on Book Aid International and The Asia Foundation
for most of our new acquisitions. While the donated books are not always the ones
we'd choose for the library they are often unusual and interesting," he said.
Molloy notes that the demands of the student users of the library have also changed
with the times, with greater numbers of English language texts joining the shelves
of French and Cambodian-language books.
"Increasingly now the students want books in English and if we want them to
use the library we can't ignore that," he said.
However, Molloy stressed the importance of quality over quantity in terms of the
library's need for new acquisitions.
"Unless books are useful and up-to-date they may never get used and will be
a waste of space on the shelves," he said.
Although his official involvement with libraries in Cambodia ended in December, from
his new base in Australia Molloy intends to set up an internet web site to encourage
authors and academics in the West to donate their books to Phnom Penh's university
The Fine Arts University Library is open to the public for a small subscription fee
weekdays 7.30-11am and 2-5pm.
Tarek Bazley is in Cambodia with the help of Aisa 2000 (NZ).