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Turning over a new page

Turning over a new page

Among the many old buildings of Phnom Penh the National Library on 92 Street is one

of the finest. Now UNTAC's Rehabilitation Component is renovating the facade of the

pale yellow art-deco edifice, a masterpiece of elegant simplicity.

Although it harks back to a gracious era, it also withstood a horrific one. Built

in 1924, when Cambodia was a French protectorate, the Bibliotheque suffered heavily

under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

The building was used as a pig-sty by Pol Pot's Chinese advisers garrisoned in Le

Royal Hotel next door; the books used to light fires and the shelves bowed under

the weight of cooking pots. Nearly 80 percent of library's 65,000 volumes were destroyed

and the rest scattered.

The library's director, Um Neang, and his deputy, He Hin, are the only survivors

from 40 staff who originally ran the building. For the past 13 years, they have been

repairing the damage and reinstating what libraries need most-books.

Lack of funds impedes progress but there are now 100,000 volumes, donated by Russia,

Vietnam, France and the United States.

Perusing the shelves, you find historic leather-bound French tomes, acres of Soviet-donated

technical books ("No one ever reads them!" admits He Hin) and, suddenly,

Trevelyan's "Social History of England," and other worthy and surprising

items.

Rebuilding the collection and cataloguing its treasures-including 305 17th century

palm-leaf manuscripts-has been aided by Cornell University and by the University

of New South Wales, which trained He Hin and two of the 24 staff in librarianship.

Australian volunteers Eric March and Joanne Cheah are now creating a database of

material published in Cambodia, which they call the "Cambodiana Collection,"

but they urgently need donations. In a low-tech environment without a photocopier

or telephone, their high-tech computer, given by Aidab, stands alone.

The usual calm of this colonial edifice is currently being disrupted by extensive

repair work, including the laying of new waterpipes, and these renovations will continue

until the beginning of December.

A student from the School of Fine Arts is restoring the ornate mural which depicts,

on either side of the main door, a book with a wise owl scowling above. On one side

a French proverb, whose origin is unknown, proclaims "La Force lie un temps/L'idee

enchaine pour toujours." (Force binds for a while/Ideas chain forever).

The building, set in over-grown gardens, was designed by the architect Chauchon and

constructed by the Lamorte company at a time when French town planners experimented

with colonial cities as "social and aesthetic laboratories."

The Bibliotheque opened its doors for the first time on December 24, 1924 with 2,879

items "at the disposition of [France's] proteges for their personal intellectual

work."

The collection grew, archivists were trained and staff employed, although some, noted

a 1930s report, were "undesirables and female personnel."

After independence in 1953, hundreds of volumes disappeared when French readers left

hurriedly "without taking the time to return their borrowed books". Bitter

disputes attended the division of the archives and cultural collections after the

French departed.

Now the Bibliotheque is administered by the Ministry of Culture. Phnom Penh has 12

libraries, including the National Archives which comes under the Council of Ministers,

but the municipal library, says He Him, was mysteriously sold.

La Bibliotheque, which receives 150 to 200 visitors daily, is for reference while

the lending library is next door. If you cannot find the book you come for just stay

and admire the building.

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