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
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