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Khlot Vibolla on preserving old books and reaching new readers

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National Library of Cambodia director Khlot Vibolla speaks during an interview with The Post on January 5. Hean Rangsey

Khlot Vibolla on preserving old books and reaching new readers

The 98-year-old National Library was built in 1924 by the French-colonial government in Indochina. In 1954 – after Cambodia gained independence from France – the library was renamed from the Central Library to the National Library of Cambodia (NLC).

Currently, the library has over 120,000 books, sastra and palm leaf manuscripts, documents and legal and administrative records for Cambodia and Indochina.

The Post interviewed Khlot Vibolla, director of the National Library and deputy director of the Books and Reading Department under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, about the history, management and development of the library and the important roles it plays.

Could you tell us about some of the history of the National Library of Cambodia?

The NLC was established on December 24, 1924, by the French-colonial government in Indochina.

During Pol Pot’s regime from 1975-1979 most of the library’s staff members were brutally killed. The NLC – along with many other institutions in Phnom Penh – was revived after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime’s rule.

The NLC had been badly damaged but some of its documentary resources from the distant past have survived to the present. Today the library continues to store a collection of valuable manuscripts and books from the early years of the French-colonial era.

The NLC reopened in 1980 under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. Since then, we have struggled to reorganize our services with almost no skilled staff and insufficient funds to organize and purchase books for the library.

What is the NLC’s management structure? How many officials or librarians work there?

Currently, the NLC is under the Department of Books and Reading of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. The library has three offices, including the Legal Preservation Office, the Conservation Office and the Catalogue Office.

The library has 25 employees including 22 librarians, two sanitation workers and one guard.

Each librarian has their own duties and responsibilities, like when a book arrives there is a book coder who enters it into the catalogue. Most of the new books in the NLC are donated by publishers.

What sort of expenses does the library have? Where does the funding come from?

At the library, we need to spend regularly on document preservation and administrative costs for things like computers, printers and photocopiers.

The library has also received support from other countries and foreign governments, organizations and volunteers, including the governments of the US, France, Australia, Poland and New Zealand among others as well as other institutions like the National Library of Australia and Cornell University in the US.

But for most expenses like water, electricity and employees salaries we rely on the state budget through the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

In what areas does France help?

France has provided funding for the heritage section for preservation and documentation from the French-colonial era and the restoration of manuscripts sponsored by the French School of the Far East (EFEO).

These books were published under the framework of the French and Khmer old book scanning programme which was funded by the French embassy in Cambodia’s priority solidarity fund to promote writing in Southeast-Asia and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The project provides equipment such as computers, furniture, internet service, maintenance services as well as providing skills training to librarians.

What is UNESCO and ASEAN’s involvement?

UNESCO co-founded the International Standard Book Registry (ISBN). The Cambodian National Commission for UNESCO has taken care of old documents and sponsored projects for the preservation and protection of them and provided funds for repairing books and publishing national inventories.

ASEAN has also helped by providing the scanners for scanning old documents about Cambodia to create digital versions and they organised some training courses for NLC officials.

What are the main documents in the library? How many books are there in total?

The NLC has over 120,000 books and documents in total so it’s difficult to pick out any single sub-collection of them as being the most important.

The collection of document resources at the NLC is primarily aimed at preserving and conserving our national cultural heritage. We have a comprehensive collection of all kinds of documents published in Cambodia and many of those pertaining to Cambodia published abroad.

All references and books in the library are in the catalogue in the reading room. Other documents are placed side by side, making them easy to find.

Guests can read and copy the older books only at the library. But there’s a borrowing section which is the part of the NLC that offers borrowing services as a public library.

What are your plans and vision for the development and preservation of documents at the National Library of Cambodia?

Right now we are focused heavily on scanning older documents, because the old documents date back to the 1830s and there are manuscripts and other documents in Khmer such as newspapers and magazines from the 1950s that we consider priority items that need to be backed up in the digital database.

We have to preserve them digitally because some of the documents are really rotten and some are hundreds of years old. Some of the documents are much older than the library as the library is only 98 years old. All of these documents must be preserved and catalogued in the digital database.

But the role of the NLC is not only to preserve old documents but also to expand the use of library services to support higher education and research and also support the collection of books in other libraries. Our main goal is to promote reading in our country, so that all young people, students, children and parents can read books.

How many people read books from the library each year?

In 2019, more than 5,000 people including students, youths and researchers came to read books in the NLC and in 2020 there were about 4,000. But in 2021 there were only about 300 readers but the drop in the number of library users was due to Covid-19.

Our library has been open all along though people may not have realised it. Now we are open from Monday to Friday for eight hours a day from 8am to 4pm, including the noon hour.

Can you highlight the importance of reading for the future of youths and Cambodia?

Reading is very important to the development of the intellect. If it wasn’t important, then the government and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport would not be striving to create more libraries at schools and in universities. Reading is a necessary skill for people of all ages – from children to the elderly. Studies show that it even helps when mothers read to their children in the womb.

As a culture we have to learn to read and to use our language to create a habit of reading from an early age or we will lose the depth and complexity of the Khmer language.

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