Since a section of the National Library’s roof collapsed in July last year, Phnom Penh students, scholars and researchers have been deprived of their most extensive public reading resource.
For more than six months, the library’s bookshelves have been draped in plastic sheeting and the lofty reading room left empty, but for a family of sparrows living in the ceiling.
Now the library has finally been awarded funds to renovate its crumbling, colonial-era home near Wat Phnom.
The Ministry of Finance has pledged $100,000 for the project: Enough, officials say, to survey the remaining roof panels for safety, rebuild the small collapsed section and give the library toilets a much-needed face-lift and the whole building a new coat of paint.
Suy Siv, chief of the construction office at the Ministry of Culture, says his ministry is currently open for bids from construction companies interested in tackling the project. The improvements should take about three months to complete, after which the library is due to reopen, Say Siv said.
Library Director Khlot Vibolla has remained in the building’s office, together with the library’s staff of 30, since the closure. She says she can’t wait for the renovations to be finished.
“Before the roof collapsed, around 70 or 80 readers would come here per day,” she said.
After the closure, some academics still came to the library asking to access the books. Khlot Vibolla said she has to be strict, as there is still a small chance more of the roof might cave in.
“We only allow them to enter if their research in our library is very important,” she said.
Helen Jarvis, an academic who has assisted the library staff for several years and who recently published a report on publishing in Cambodia, was at the library on a recent afternoon. She said she considered the new grant a well-deserved award. “I’m delighted—it’s long overdue,” she said.
Meanwhile, the National Archives, located just behind the library, has also been renovated—thanks to an $11,000 grant from the Swiss Embassy in Bangkok. Replacement windows, a newly sealed roof and fresh paint work have restored much of the small, airy building’s former French elegance.
Three decorative panels around the archives’ main entrance featuring traditional Khmer motifs add to the effect. The panels were designed by artist Duong Saree and painted by students from the Reyum Art School.
(Additional reporting by Matt McKinney)