Pierre Andricq’s last memories of work in Cambodia will be of packing and unpacking 27,000 books, videos, DVDs and CDs to move the French Cultural Center’s library to its new location.
For weeks, and ahead of his departure for Argentina, Andricq has been personally taking apart and reassembling bookcases and moving furniture with his staff of 13.
“I saw that as part of my duties” as director of the French Cultural Center’s book and video library, he said.
The library will soon reopen in the center’s cinema building, where its ground-level entrance behind glass doors will be in sharp contrast to its previous location across the street and up a steep-and-narrow staircase away from the reception area.
Interest in the library justified more accessible quarters. With a total of 150,000 visits per year, it is the second busiest library in the country after the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Hun Sen Library, which is packed with students and teachers on any given day, Andricq said.
“There is a population of young people eager to read and ask questions,” Andricq said. Whenever there are local libraries in the provinces, people visit them, he said. “Also in boats on the river, one will see people holding books.”
Proof that Cambodians have a thirst for books is the increasing number of Khmer-language works published each year. When Andricq arrived in Cambodia in 2002, the center library could only find 200 books published that year to add to the Khmer-language portion of its mostly French collection, he said.
But so far this year, the library has acquired 600 new works. Most of them are of poor printing quality—books that will quickly deteriorate—but they sell at prices ranging from $0.50 to $3 that Cambodians can afford, Andricq said.
They usually are published by small businesses that would not make such investments were there no demand, he said.
Most books published are new releases of works from the 1950s and 1960s by writers such as Soth Polin and Kong Boun Chhoeun, Andricq said. They include historical novels, crime stories and romantic novels.
A large number of works about morality are also published. Often written by monks, topics range from Buddhist principles and behavior within one’s family and in public to codes of conduct for men and women and tips on children’s education.
Then come books of a practical nature, from health to personal and career development, such as advice on handling a job interview or conducting a business meeting. Books on medical treatment are especially popular, as people who cannot afford medical care try to cure themselves, Andricq said.
In line with the type of books published, the most popular book at the center’s library, whose clientele mainly consists of Cambodian students, is a Cambodian romantic novel: Nhok Them’s “Koulap Pailin,” or “The Rose of Pailin,” first published in 1943, he said.
The next ones are two French literary works translated into Khmer: Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince” and “Le Horla,” by Guy de Maupassant.
Among other most requested books are Herge’s comic book “Tintin au Tibet” in French, and the Khmer version of Pin Yathay’s book “Stay Alive, My Son,” on his life in work camps under the Khmer Rouge.
Practical advice books also rank high on the list at the library. These include books on sexuality where young people seek information they don’t necessarily get at home or at school, Andricq said.
In recent years, a number of Khmer books have also been published for children and young adults due to Valease, a French acronym which, translated into English, stands for “book and writing development in Southeast Asia.”
The program, funded by the French government, has supported more than 80 publishing projects since its launch in 2003, Andricq said.
While the publishing sector has expanded, distribution remains the publishers’ biggest hurdle—since there is no distribution network in the country, few books make it to the provinces, he said.
During his four years in Cambodia, Andricq gave training seminars to librarians in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as part of Valease. In addition, he worked on an inventory of libraries and documentation centers in Cambodia soon to be completed. There are numerous libraries in the country, but they are drastically lacking in the human and financial resources needed to properly operate, he said.
As of September, Andricq will be the library director of the French government’s Alliance Francaise in Buenos Aires in Argentina.