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Tales from the Archives

Tales from the Archives

ARCHIVES.GIF
ARCHIVES.GIF

 

The Post introduces a new column, prepared by archivists at the National Archives

of Cambodia, on intriguing moments in Cambodia's past. This series in not intended

as a column on history in general, but will focus on the little anecdotes which may

have done nothing to change Cambodian history but everything to make it more colorful

and fascinating. Below, an introductory article; future columns will include tales

of a 19th Century remedy for cholera, King Norodom's shopping list, and an errant

civil servant with a penchant for carving his name in ancient monuments.

BEHIND the National Library of Cambodia, amongst the plant nurseries, guards' huts

and scrap dealers, stands a fairly unimpressive, typical three-storey 1920s French

protectorate period structure. For its size it has a small but unobtrusive entrance

with no signs indicating what this building is. Walk inside and you immediately find

yourself standing in the large central atrium of this almost haunting structure with

its ancient electrical wiring, worn red and white tiles, and three floors of wooden

shelving, paced with boxed and unboxed documents and books. The visual impact on

entering is enhanced by the slightly musty, moldy odor - an odor that reeks of history,

of times gone by, of neglect and survival.

Welcome! You are in the National Archives of Cambodia. The place may seem deserted

when you enter but look out for a cloud of dust and under it you will find one of

the Cambodian staff or international volunteers, with a glazed look on their face,

working hard to bring back order to what amounts to Cambodia's documentary heritage.

"But weren't all the documents and books destroyed by that villain Pol Pot?"

is a common misconception. It is certainly true that many documents were destroyed

in ministries and organizations, but for some reason the National Archives and Library

of Cambodia was not targeted for intentional destruction (perhaps Pol Pot planned

to write a thesis of his own at some stage). However, the National Archives did suffer

from neglect, with its grounds used as a pig sty and the building as quarters for

soldiers. Gradually, as the Pol Pot soldiers lit their cigarettes and cooking fires

with the nice cardboard conveniently arranged by subject in the catalogue card drawers,

the catalogue cards were lost and with them all details regarding the holdings of

the repository. Documents were scattered and shelving knocked over, but miraculously

the contents were able to be salvaged when the doors of the National Archives and

Library were reopened in 1980.

The National Archives was established during the years of French hegemony over Cambodia.

As the French system of administration grew in strength so did the quantity of records

produced. As the piles of records increased in the offices of the Resident Superior

so too did the risk of injury to staff threatened by the teetering piles of bureaucratic

paperwork. Of more concern was the damaging effects that the harsh tropical climate

had on paper and the growing realization that an efficient and reliable records management

system had to be implemented.

The Governor General of Indochina, who perhaps set the trend for development strategy

in Cambodia, wrote a proposal requesting that a consultant archivist be sent from

France to assess the situation of records and libraries in Cambodia and to develop

a sustainable system of managing documents and books.

In 1917 Paul Boudet, a brilliant archivist of the time, arrived and noted that records

were being kept on the third floor of the RSC building in poor conditions exposed

to insects, mold and lacking order and control. Boudet also saw that books were being

cared for in much the same manner as the archives and he recommended, in his report

on the Archives of Cambodia, that a building for archives and a library be constructed.

Someone actually read Boudet's report and as a result two important regulations were

passed on November 29, 1917 and December 26, 1918 which set the guidelines for the

classification and administration of the archives and for the recruiting and training

of archivists in Indochina, which included Cambodia, Laos, Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina.

The National Archives and Library building was completed on December 24, 1924 and

in October 1926 a depository was built.

Wandering around the government ministries today one is struck by the similarities

in the way that records are now kept and the way they were kept during the early

stages of the French protectorate period as described by Boudet. With the assistance

of the Australian and Swiss volunteer equivalents of Boudet, and with some funding

from countries including Australia, the National Archives is currently arranging

and describing archives of the French Protectorate administration (1863-1954), as

well as a small amount of records from the 1960s and early 1970s, the Pol Pot period

and the subsequent 1979 tribunal, and old Khmer, Chinese, French and Vietnamese language

newspapers, magazines, maps, laws, official journals and administrative documents

from the 1980s.

Each day old archive boxes are opened and documents that haven't seen the light of

day for up to 130 years are rediscovered. Surely the job of being an archivist must

be one of the most enviable professions around. Imagine being paid to sit all day

reading other people's mail! Or opening a box which at first seems to contain another

bunch of correspondence about some crazy clerk at the National Museum who thinks

he is the King of Laos, only to discover that it contains the original drawings of

the Royal Palace, or the invitation cards to the opening of the Bokor Palace, or

huge colorful posters celebrating the opening of the Grand Market in Saigon. Documentation

regarding the rebellion of Phnong tribes in Kratie, the opium trade in Cambodia,

or the situation of education in Cambodia between 1863-1890, are just other examples

of the type of material that will stop an archivist in their tracks and, with the

old archives repository building and wafting essence of history acting as props,

carry the reader back to a forgotten moment in Cambodia's past.

 

(- The National Archives is open Monday-Friday, 8-11am and 2-4pm. It is located

behind the National Library alongside the Hotel Royal. All are welcome to come and

browse.)

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