Individuals, NGOs Rebuilding Library System

Earlier this year, a young man decided to set up a reference library at his house in Takeo province. There were no libraries in the area, and he believed his neighbors would enjoy reading about the history of Cambodia, the economic situation in the country and laws in the making. So he collected government and NGO reports, magazines and dictionaries in Khmer and English, and shelves to display them on his porch.

Within a week of opening his small library, he counted 1,000 visits. He has been looking for ways to staff and expand his library ever since.

This might have happened anywhere in Cambodia, said Hok Sothik, who is in charge of the library program for Sipar, a French NGO working in book publishing and library development.

“Books are rare [in Cambodia],” he said. “When people feel free to visit [libraries], they come to discover, because books are precious to them.”

Sipar has created 54 primary-school libraries and runs two mobile libraries in disadvantaged suburbs of Phnom Penh. When­ever they make their weekly visits to an area, children and adults surround library vehicles, Hok Sothik said.

The library system is another institution in Cambodia that was shattered during the country’s decades of conflict. But as Hok Sothik and other experts in the field explained, rebuilding the country’s library system requires far more than shelves, and the longer it takes to remedy the situation, the higher the cost in lost heritage.

These issues will be discussed during a three-day seminar taking place in Phnom Penh beginning today. Using the theme “The Written Word–Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” librarians, archivists and book publishers from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia will talk about common problems and possible cooperation, said Olivier Jeandel, a librarian in charge of books and library projects for the French Cultural Center.

Organized by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one goal of the meeting is to look into preserving and sharing the documents accumulated during the French administration of Indochina—records, historical accounts, maps and photos that are part of each country’s collection.

Topics will include ways to promote reading and research through libraries. In Cambodia, this means not only developing libraries for the general public, but also having Khmer-language books to put in them. Most Khmer-language books were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era. Since then, some NGOs have tried to fill the gap. A number of children’s books have come out, but there is hardly anything available for teenagers and adults.

Publishing work about Cambodia is becoming a matter of urgency, said Sisowath Ritarac, librarian specialist for the National Library. As events of the last three decades forced people to flee, they usually could not take books and documents with them, she said.             “They kept all this knowledge in their heads. So the oral tradition is superior to the written tradition,” she said.  “Now that we’re at peace, it’s time to put all this on paper,” while people with memories of these time and places still can remember.

In the 1960s “there was a new existentialist movement in Cambodia,” said Ros Chantrabot, a writer and a member of the Royal Academy of Cambodia. But only a handful of pre-war writers are still alive, and most of them live abroad, he said.

There is no true publishing industry in Cambodia to supplement NGO activity in the field. Major hurdles stand in the way of its emergence—from the high cost of printing to the widespread pirating of new books and the lack of distribution networks.

“There is a market,” said Ly Daravuth, co-director of the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture. “In order to develop an industry, more people must get involved.”

Seminar participants will talk about professional training. At the present time, Cambodia has no library science university program, and this has consequences far beyond the walls of libraries, said Sisowath Ritarac.

With no trained staff to classify, file and preserve government documents, it is difficult for government ministries to track them down, let alone for the general public. Documents may get lost in the process, causing gaps for future research, Sisowath Ritarac said.

Even at the National Library, there still is no complete catalogue or index for readers to use, and limited help for researchers due to the shortage of professional librarians and the lack of training programs. At the moment, the National Library only makes minimum efforts to enlarge its collection—it could not handle a large influx of books, Sisowath Ritarac said.

Still, she said, the National Library must get copies of books published in Cambodia. Legislation to that effect would need to be revived and enforced so that it is done systematically by the few Cambodian authors and publishers.

The Seminar Paul Boudet is named for the man who was director of Indochina’s archives and libraries from 1917 until his death in 1948. His work included designing buildings in Cambodia and Vietnam which, during an era without air conditioning, made it possible to preserve books and documents.

The National Archives building in Phnom Penh, planned by Boudet, was designed to minimize sunlight, maximize air circulation and reduce mold buildup, said archivist Peter Arfanis. There is a central atrium, big windows, and ventilation vents—holes in the floor about 2.5 meters long—under shelve units.



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