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A once grand symbol longing to be saved

The building was inaugurated in 1924 as part of a network of new libraries across the French Protectorate in Indochina
The building was inaugurated in 1924 as part of a network of new libraries across the French Protectorate in Indochina. Charlotte Pert

A once grand symbol longing to be saved

As part of agreements to join ASEAN, the government has committed to improvements, but can it bring the National Library into the 21st century?

The library’s palm leaf texts must be handled with care
The library’s palm leaf texts must be handled with care. Charlotte Pert

Approaching Cambodia’s National Library is an impressive reminder of the beauty of Phnom Penh’s architectural heritage. Built on a large patch of land to the west of Wat Phnom, where it backs onto the well-preserved National Archives, it is accessed via a grand stretch of stairs flanked by columns and statues. To the right of the doorway, “Force ties for a while, ideas bind forever” is emblazoned on the yellow facade – the motto chosen by the French Protectorate when it opened the library in 1924.

But once inside the building, the impression of grandeur quickly fades. Fans on the high-ceiling turn slowly, struggling to cool the handful of readers sitting at the long tables. Disorderly piles of books are propped up next to the receptionist’s desk, whose see-through donations box is thinly carpeted by small change. On the library’s shelves, books are inked with the insignias of the Cambodia’s eclectic benefactors: some commemorate anniversaries of Filipino-Cambodian diplomatic relations; others come from “Japan relief for Cambodia”; many more are stamped with the badge of the US Army. In the “Waiting to be Shelved” section of the library, a biography of Hillary Clinton shows the then-youthful politician wearing a powder blue power suit – a 1998 donation from Books for Asia.

The first available record of visitors to the library is from 1928, which recorded 9,698 visitors to the reading room in the previous year. Today, library director Khlot Vibolla thinks the number is about half that, estimating the combined tally of readers and borrowers to be about 4,800 per year.

Donations waiting to be shelved surround the reception desk.
Donations waiting to be shelved surround the reception desk. Charlotte Pert

Architecture student Roeun Virak says that few young people would consider using the facility: “They don’t have any of my books, only the staff can access the internet, and the PCs are so old and out of date,” he said.

But Cambodia’s upcoming accession to the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) has sparked changes that many believe will set the library on a different course. As part of the membership agreement, the government has committed to making improvements that will pull the library into the 21st century. “We signed an agreement with ASEAN countries when Cambodia started to join with [other ASCC] members,” said Vibolla. As part of the initiative, the library will be putting into place several projects that will help to bring the institution into line with its more digitally advanced partners: books will be scanned, records will be remotely accessible, and the library will at last have an online presence with the launch of a website.

In addition to the digital drive, the library’s old building is now being held to higher standards of heritage preservation. The government has begun work to repair the crumbling roof and will soon commence rewiring of the 1920s electrics, which currently prevent air-conditioning units from being used for more than a limited time without tripping the system.

Hab Touch, the director of Intangible Cultural Heritage at the Ministry of Culture, said a masterplan for the extending the building to improve storage would be finalised “very soon”, adding that the renovation would also reinstate a garden where people could sit and read on the library’s surrounding land – currently used as a car park. “We’re a member of [the ASCC] now, so we need to extend the library to meet the requirements,” he said. “It’s part of the program activity.”

Many of the library’s books are donations from overseas.
Many of the library’s books are donations from overseas. Charlotte Pert

It’s a welcome assertion of commitment from a government whose dedication to their National Library has been in question. In the past, the institution was a symbol of Cambodia’s national fortitude. In 1954, the deposit of the first book in Khmer into the library’s collection signalled the country’s sharp break with its colonial past. Then in the 1980s, it was reimbued with symbolic potency, as the few surviving members of the library’s staff joined with volunteers to dedicate themselves to restoring order to one of the country’s foremost seats of learning.

During the Khmer Rouge era the building was used as a kitchen catering to Chinese advisers, with the surrounding land used as a pigsty.

Helen Jarvis, an Australian librarian who first visited Phnom Penh in 1987, remembers it as a decade of commitment and camaraderie, during which all staff from the director down would spend one day a week working to remake the surrounding garden.

But in more recent years, rumours that the library might be sold became frequent currency. “The last minister of culture was thinking of ditching the whole idea,” said Tony Morine – a New Zealander who volunteered with the National Library for five years and still helps with their donation appeals – although he emphasises that he was not privy to any more detailed discussions.

Khlot Vibolla trained in conservation in Poland, and has served as the National Library’s director since 2002.
Khlot Vibolla trained in conservation in Poland, and has served as the National Library’s director since 2002. Charlotte Pert

Nonetheless, the hearsay must have reached important ears: in 2012, following a flurry of government land swaps in which well located official buildings were moved to cheaper locations on the outskirts of town, Hun Sen gave a speech in which he stated that the library, alongside certain other key buildings, would not be sold, and berated the companies and officials who had floated the suggestion. Former Minister of Culture Him Chhem could not be reached, while Touch said he was unaware of the potential of a sale.

Vibolla is unsure whether the relocation was ever a real possibility. In contrast to the neighbouring National Archives, the National Library has no administrative autonomy or independent budget, and library staff are rarely privy to high-level negotiations.

In the years when government funding was scarce, the library looked to overseas to help maintain the most valuable parts of its collection. Between 2005 and 2012, France paid for the installation of air conditioning, networked

Books on the shelves of the National Library, which attracts half as many readers as it  did when it opened during  the colonial era.
Books on the shelves of the National Library, which attracts half as many readers as it did when it opened during the colonial era. Charlotte Pert

computers and photocopiers as well as contributing towards the building’s utility bills. They funded the restoration of the library’s rare collection of palm leaf manuscripts, and paid to digitise and in some cases reprint the most fragile parts of the pre-independence collection, which contains important journals, manuscripts and books on travel and culture written under the French Protectorate. Until the ASCC plan comes into effect, the online record of these scanned copies – the “Bibliotheca Khmerica” – remains the only web presence that the library has. Khlout Vibolla was grateful for their help.

“This library was created by French people,” she pointed out. “If we thought only to preserve Khmer language books, we wouldn’t have many books to read.”

Morine said he has also been looking to Cambodia’s American diaspora for support. He is currently planning the library’s third appeal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a sizeable grant. The first two applications were rejected on what Morine describes as frustrating technicalities, and this year he plans to do away with formalities and write an “impassioned open letter on behalf of Cambodia” directly to Bill Gates. But even if the Gates Fund application is secured, it will not guarantee a safe future for “the books that are falling apart with all the bugs in them,” as Morine describes them – as a development-focused organisation, the Gates fund’s priority is on the potential of libraries to act as digital hubs.

Student volunteers use the library’s only scanner to digitise the most fragile parts of the collection
Student volunteers use the library’s only scanner to digitise the most fragile parts of the collection. Charlotte Pert

When weighed in terms of mutual benefit, it is perhaps unavoidable that donations from afar will focus on the advantages of digital access to the library’s collection. Vibolla is therefore relieved that the combination of ASEAN imperatives and the dynamic input of the new Minister of Culture Phoeung Sakona means that the government is now stepping up to the mark in appreciating the importance of the physical space of the library as a keystone in Cambodia’s cultural landscape.

“I hope that thanks to these processes we are working on now, the library will develop in the future,” she said. “We wanted to preserve it, not abandon it.”

Sacred text on palm leaves

Under the Khmer Rouge, about 80 per cent of Cambodia’s pagodas had their previously extensive library collections destroyed, and along with them some of the oldest and most beautiful handwritten texts of the country’s collective cultural heritage.

This makes the National Library’s collection of 305 palm leaf manuscripts particularly valuable. The Sastras – a Sanskrit word denoting “sacred text” or “teaching” – offer insights into Cambodian medicine, culture and religions.

They date from the 18th to 20th centuries, although some are copies of far earlier teachings handed down through the monasteries. The fragile texts are etched on the large flat leaves, which have been bound together like a ladder.

In the National Library, each Sastra is preserved in its own individual casing and rarely touched: close handling is likely to cause breakage. Thanks to French funding, they are also preserved for researchers on microfilm – although the microfilm viewer itself is a relic of a previous technological age, having not been updated since its original purchase in 1992.


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