To the Editor,
I appreciate the coverage your newspaper gave to my
presentation at the 70th anniversary seminar of the National Library, which
detailed many the library's book collection (Dec 30, 1994-Jan 12,1995). However,
I would like to correct a very serious error that appeared in the article, a
statement concerning the destruction of the collection by the Khmer Rouge.
Your reporter stated that the Khmer Rouge destroyed 80 percent of the
library's 1975 collection of 325,000 volumes. He was repeating an an error that
first appeared in another English-language newspaper earlier in December. In the
seminar the former director of the National Library said that the Khmer Rouge
destroyed 80 percent of the 65,000 volumes (not that 65,000 volumes were left
after 80 percent were destroyed). However, even these numbers badly misrepresent
the size of the library's collection in 1975 and the amount of
The former director first provided these estimates in 1987,
twelve years after the Khmer Rouge shut the library. His estimates were based on
memory rather than on library records and actual counting of the surviving
books. In 1975, just months before the Khmer Rouge takeover, the Deputy Director
of the National Library reported that the library had 31,000 books. This number
corresponds very closely to records that show the library had added its 35,200th
book in May 1972. Since the library was adding only about 100 books a year at
that time, it had no more than 35,000 books by 1975. The difference between this
number and the 31,000 reported by the Deputy Director is easily accounted for by
books being lost, stolen and withdrawn over the first years of the library's
existence. I recently completed a shelf count and found that the library still
has between 24,000 and 25,000 of the pre-Khmer Rouge period collection.
Therefore, only 20 percent of that collection is missing.
Khmer rouge were not the only ones responsible for the loss and destruction of
that 20 percent. In 1979, after the Khmer Rouge were driven from the city but
before the library was reorganized, people returning to Phnom Penh took cart
loads of books from the library. In at least two cases, people took books to
their homes for safekeeping and have not yet returned them to the National
Library. In other cases, people took books to sell or use for wrapping paper
when the markets reopened.
The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the
complete neglect of the old book collection and this marks the beginning of its
rapid deterioration, a deterioration that has continued unabated for the last 15
years. They were not, however, responsible for the destruction of 80 percent of
the collection, nor, for that matter, even 20 percent. Such stories may make
sensational reading but they are bad history.
- George Smith,
Consulting Fellow to the National Library