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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Libraries in Cambodia: rebuilding a past and a future

Margaret A.Bywater
Library Resources Adviser
The Asia Foundation
Phnom Penh, Cambodia


This paper will look at collection development and Library development from the point of view of an expatriate adviser working long term in a developing country in Southeast Asia. Cambodia has suffered from the effects of wars and political upheavals for most of the past thirty years. Library development has been slow for a variety of reasons. There is a danger of Library collection development being donor driven. The history of the National Library of Cambodia is a microcosm of this. The author sees development as a long term process ( both in Library terms and in community development terms.) The paper draws upon eleven years experience in working in Libraries, Library development and Community development in Cambodia.


Libraries in Cambodia: rebuilding, a past and a future

Cambodia is a small Southeast Asian country bordered by Vietnam to the east Thailand to the northwest and Lao to the northwest. In 1997 the population is estimated to be around 10.7 million. Cambodia is probably best known for the magnificent 12th century Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap Province and for the fearful activities of the Khmer Rouge regime of genocide from 1975 to 1979.

From 1863 to 1954 Cambodia was a French colony. Following independence in 1954 a brief period of rapid development in the 1960s and early 1970s was shattered when the Khmer Rouge took over the country and forced everybody to leave cities and towns and go out into the countryside. [1] Many of them never returned to their homes, they died , many tragically were victims of deprivation, starvation and torture. In the period 1975-79 Schools, Universities as well as the normal framework of the country were closed and the buildings fell into neglect [2]. In January 1979 the Khmer Rouge were driven out by Vietnamese troops supported by Cambodian forces who had previously escaped to Vietnam. Beginning in 1979, the country began to rebuild slowly. People came back from Pol Pot centres in the Provinces and attempted to rebuilt their lives and their war torn country… [3]

When I went to Cambodia in 1986, evidence of the destruction of the country was still to be seen everywhere--- the shattered shells of buildings, the huge pile of vehicles and discarded equipment in a side street near the National Library were grim reminders. People I met spoke of their experiences, and I was taken to see Toul Sleng one of the many Khmer Rouge detention centres . Toul Sleng (S21) is now a Museum where visitors witness the place of suffering and read the “ testimonies” the victims were forced to write. On this first visit to Cambodia I encountered a group of people who despite the tragedies they had suffered were hard at work trying to rebuild their country. This was a difficult period because foreign development aid was denied by many governments for political reasons. [4] My work then was with the Australian Quakers who with the assistance of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) were implementing a program of English Teaching funded by the Australian Government. I made my first visit to the National Library of Cambodia and met some of the staff. The following year, in 1987 I spent several months working at the University setting up a Library for the Quakers English language teaching program and training the Librarian of the Foreign Languages Institute. I ran the first small workshop for Librarians from the Ministry of Education. In those days Libraries were all on closed access and staff were poorly paid and often unable to come to work for various reasons. Two phrases in Khmer were probably the first I learnt at this time- “Neak kan sar ot mok “ (The person with the key ( to the Library) hasn’t come and “Ot mean pleung te ” (The electricity isn't working). I learnt that the most important pieces attributes one needed in this situation were patience, a sense of humour and willingness to take the long view in development. Ten years on, although there have been many changes, and in some ways Cambodia is like a different country now; patience, a sense of humor and taking the long view are still as important as ever.

In 1997 political unease has increased as the election period moves closer and makes constrains development. The effect of the trauma is still evident in people’s lives. “The long term impact of conflict upon self help skills like confidence, initiative, motivation planning skills and social relations are seriously under estimated. [5] All these factors are constrain development and the rebuilding of infrastructure.

There are a number of other factors constraining Library development in Cambodia. Cambodian society lacks tradition of reading. Most of the publishing in the past was of religious books disseminated by the Buddhist Institute, which had a network of Libraries in the Pagodas in the Provinces. Libraries in government departments and educational institutions have not received any budget for purchase of books. Funding when it as been available has come from overseas sources.

Government salaries are very low (US$25-30 per month for those in senior positions) Therefore many good Library staff are forced to take second jobs, or seek employment in the private or Non Government sectors. Currently much of the impetus for developing or redeveloping libraries in Cambodia is coming from people who studied overseas in the 1980s in Russia, East Germany Bulgaria and Cuba and those who studied in USA, Australia and France more recently. These young people found, and learned to value the wealth of information in Libraries during their studies. Now they want to continue to be able to use Libraries.

In order to a picture of Libraries in Cambodia I will describe the four major Libraries viz. The National Library of Cambodia (NLC) the Hun Sen Library (Royal University of Phnom Penh) The Buddhist Institute Library, and the National Assembly Library. Apart from these four major Libraries both in the government and non-government sectors, there has been a rapid growth of small Libraries. The “Joy of Reading Library” is a small village based mobile Library service for children in Battambang, where books are taken by motorcycle from village to village. The Cambodia Development Research Institute (CDRI) focuses on development planning and research, and the Library of the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC) for the NGO community.

The National Library of Cambodia opened in 1924 with a collection of 2,879 volumes NLC at that time known at the Bibliotheque Centrale was part of the Directorate of Archives and Libraries of Indochina established by the French colonial government. The Library was mostly used by officials and visiting French scholars and was on closed access. It was not until the 1950s that the first books in Khmer were added to the Library’s collection. By 1975 there was a sizeable collection, much of which was dispersed around the city during the turmoil. In 1979 two of the former staff returned to work at the Library. ( Of the 40 staff at NLC in April 1975, only 6 survived, most suffered the fate of many of the country’s intellectuals, death by torture or starvation) . The Library itself was used to store food and cooking utensils and the gardens used to raise pigs. The adjacent Hotel Royal accommodated Chinese advisers, and their cooks lived in the Library building. I once saw brief sequence of video footage taken inside the Library in early 1979. Cooking pots and implements were stored on the bookshelves. Books were scattered around, some stored in piles in the corners. Miraculously a major part of the collection survived although it seems that part of it may have found its way into private hands in the early months before proper systems were able to re established [6]. After re organisation NLC re opened in January 1980. Books were donated from a variety of sources. Both Vietnam and USSR assisted in publishing books in Khmer. In 1980 NLC received a collection of multiple copies of pre 1975 Khmer language books from the Buddhist Institute . In the mid 1980s there were some delightful Russian published children's picture books available in the markets in Phnom Penh. Books were donated from many sources during the UN Emergency period in the early 1980s. Training for the Library staff was provided by Russian and Vietnamese, some staff traveled to Vietnam In the late 1980s some International Non Government agencies began to provide small amounts of assistance. Since 1988 four full time expatriate volunteers have at different spent time working for periods of up to two years with NLC .Cornell University funded a project to microfilm the Library’s rare collection of Palm leaf manuscripts and to improve the preservation of the originals. Training has been provided, and the current National Librarian is a graduate of the School of Librarianship in the University of New South Wales. A French government assisted project has established a Bindery and conservation workshop, and a special section for the French Colonial collection materials acquired before independence in 1954. The old west wing of the Library was renovated to house a collection of some 25,000 volumes, largely 19th Century French literature and historical guides on Cambodia. A separate database of this material is being prepared. The section also includes a valuable collection of colonial prints.

Currently collection building a t NLC is entirely dependent on donations. Cambodia has yet to pass a copyright law, although there have been several drafts produced by different Ministries. However, organizations and government departments publishing materials are encouraged to donate copies of their publications to the Library. Some of the material donated from overseas has enhanced the collection, but the Library has also received material which is totally irrelevant to its needs now or in the future. The National Library of Australia provides books to the value of US$1600 each year, the books are selected by NLC staff from recently published Australia titles. This has enabled the Library to acquire some new books particularly material on Southeast Asia. The Books for Asia program of the Asia Foundation is NLC's major donor of new publications. Both these sources are important because unlike most donations from other sources, the Library staff themselves are involved in selecting the materials. Vital skills in collection development can be acquired by the staff, and the collection is thereby enhanced.

There is still a need to acquire publications lost or damaged, and publications on Cambodia and the Southeast Asian region which have been published in the years since 1975 for which NLC has incomplete holdings. In addition the NLC has to address issues such as the urgent need for a complete review of its collection and the volume of materials donated but not yet added to the collections (Much of which need to otherwise disposed of) The task is immense and daunting. A thorough study of the NLC collection and recommendations for action were made by George Smith Deputy Director of the State Library of Alaska during his time at NLC as ALA fellow from September 1994 to April, 1995 sadly these have yet to be acted upon. [7]

Since 1980 the NLC has come under the authority of the Ministry of Culture and its status in that Ministry would not seem to be equivalent to the status of National Libraries elsewhere in the region. If there is no change in attitudes, and the NLC continues to lack funding for books, and even general running costs, its status as the prominent Library in the country in jeopardy. There needs to be a more coordinated approach to the whole problem of the National Library, its staff and its services.

Royal University of Phnom Penh Library (Hun Sen Library)

The University was founded in 1960, much of the teaching was done by foreign professors. From 1975-79 the campus was closed down and the buildings fell into disuse and later vandalized. The grounds were very overgrown when the first survivors struggled back and set about restoring their institution as they explained “ with our bare hands”. Now in 1997 the picture is different; the main building constructed the 1960s has recently been renovated with a loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) . During the ADB renovations of the main building the Library operated from one small classroom . The stock was moved three times during a period of 18 months. The stock was moved three times during a period of 18 months. The new University library was completed at the end of 1996 and opened on 7th January 1997. It is adjacent to the main University building. The new library has an area of 180,000 square metres, whereas the old Library was only 300 square metres and had limited space for readers, and very few books. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen provided the funds for the construction of the new Library which is named in his honour. We found the most effective way to transport books was by “Cyclo “or Pedicab. [8] Hun Sen was the first library building of its size to be opened in Cambodia since the National Library of Cambodia was opened in December 1924. A grant from Bilance (European Catholic funder) made it possible for the new Library to open equipped with the latest technology and facilities which most students in Universities around the world would take for granted. After many years of substandard Library provision we can now provide a much improved service for students and staff at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Collection development for the Central Library (now the Hun Sen Library) began in 1992 and the first priority was to establish a sound Reference Library. The Hun Sen Library now has the best Reference collection in any Library in Cambodia. Future purchases will concentrate on expanding various subject areas and journal sources through the purchase of CD Roms . This has only been made possible because my colleague Sister Luise Ahrens of Maryknoll and I have sought funding from various sources in Europe, USA and Australia. The University like other Ministry and Institutional Libraries in Cambodia has no funds for purchasing resources. Prior to 1992 the bulk of the University Library collection was made up of old out of date material and Typed or handwritten books known as “ Cours”. These “ Cours” were course notes which had been prepared by Teachers over the years. Some were in French, most Khmer translations of parts of longer works. Most “ Cours” were very out of date and included a fair measure of “ propaganda” Hun Sen Library currently has an effective stock of 2000 Khmer books 10,000 English books and 4000 French books The Library has a staff of 12 Cambodians and 2 expatriate Librarians

The Buddhist Institute Library

The Buddhist Institute (BI) was established in 1930 but had its genesis in the Cambodian Library founded by King Sisowath in 1921, from 1925 known as the Royal Library. The objective of the Institute was, and remains the study and research of Theravada Buddhism. Before 1975 the collection held over 40,000 volumes in Khmer, French, English, Thai, Burmese, Laotian, and Sihanalese. The Library was also a victim of the devastation of the period 1975-79. In 1980 part of the collection (mostly multiple copies of BI publications )was sent to the NLC. In 1992 the Buddhist Institute was re established and began to receive assistance from Japanese Sotoshu Relief Committee and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Many of the earlier Buddhist Institute publications including the 110 volume Tripitaka (Buddhist Bible), and the monthly journal Kampuja Suriya (first published in 1926) have been reissued and copies distributed to Libraries and Pagodas throughout the country. Originals used for re publishing came from the NLC collection. The Buddhist Institute Library currently has a collection of 3,240 volumes in Khmer and 2,852 mostly in English and some in French. It subscribes to 13 Newspapers ( 8 in Khmer) and has 20 Khmer periodical subscriptions and 30 in Foreign languages. The Library has received grants from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to purchase books, materials and serial subscriptions. The Librarian and his staff have the immense task of rebuilding a collection which was once considered one of the richest collections in Oriental studies in Southeast Asia. The accidental discovery of part of the printed catalogue of the pre 1975 collection by M.C. Ragavan will be invaluable for those involved in this task.

A new building for the Buddhist is due to be completed in 1998.

House of Assembly Library

The Library of the National Assembly was established in early 1994 with initial assistance coming from the Inter Parliamentary Union and The Asia Foundation. The Library is housed in a small building behind the House of Assembly and space is severely limited. The Library has a collection of almost 2,000 books in Khmer, English and French and subscriptions to 20 Newspapers & Journals. In addition the Library holds multiple copies of laws from the period 1979-1991. There are three Cambodian staff. The Assembly collection is small, but specialized concentrating on providing reference materials for the Committees of the Assembly and for members. In developing the foundation collection, we found the Parliamentary Reference Library Bibliography of core materials prepared by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress to be a valuable guide. [9] Staff training has emphasized the need for awareness of availability of materials from other Library collections, especially the nearby Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice, as well as the NLC and the Hun Sen Library at the University.

These four Libraries and other government and non-government Libraries share common difficulties in regard to acquisition of resources. Collection building risks being donor driven. In September 1992 I began work as a Library Resources Adviser at the University of Phnom Penh. Immediately I began the task of assessing the existing stock and looking at the Library’s requirements to enable it to function effectively and provide a service for the staff and students. It was soon obvious that much of the collection was unusable. Many cartons of books awaiting unpacking contained "more of the same". As we have no budget from University sources the Library could be depending for the foreseeable future on donations it is important that these are relevant and useful. Together with Library staff we developed a Resources Policy statement which has been revised several times over the past five years as our situation has gradually improved. Overseas institutions and individuals who make offers to donate books, are sent a copy of this statement. Shipping Books to developing countries is expensive and money is wasted if out outdated and irrelevant material is sent. I use a rule of thumb that if a book is out of date and irrelevant in Australia, the USA or wherever it is unlikely that it will be of little use in a developing country, even one where resources are limited. This advice also applies to old computers and similar equipment. In 1997 collection development still tends to be donor driven . Although we welcome donated resources, Cambodian Librarians do not yet have the skills and experience to assess donated materials and know which to accept, which to reject and which to pass on to another more suitable Library collections. This skill takes time to acquire. Secondly Ministry officials not understanding the situation feel that Libraries should keep all the books given or acquired. Exchanges with other Libraries are difficult to organise if done through official channels. There is also a reluctance to dispose of anything at all because people still feel strongly the loss of personal possessions during Pol Pot period. For Libraries with small or nonexistent budgets collection development can be an exercise in ingenuity, or a frustrating exercise in trying to achieve the impossible. Without experience and knowledge of what material is valuable and what is simply a waste of space the task can be daunting, so no action is taken and the boxes continue to pile up and up. The challenge I have found is to try to teach new Librarians how to assess donated materials. In my training programs I try to help Librarians to understand the concepts of collection development with an emphasis on how to deal with donations. Using actual examples of donations sent to the University and the National Library I try to encourage Librarians to make these important decisions in the classroom together in the hope that they will develop enough confidence to take action in their own Libraries... But as I said earlier changes and improvement take time to achieve. There is a real need to "educate" donors too! In 1992 I expressed some of these thoughts. "Languishing on the shelves at the back of the stacks in our small University Library we Keep a small collection to show to visitors. It is not that we are proud of these books. We just want people to see some of the inappropriate materials which are sent to third world Libraries like ours , and for which we are expected to be grateful. Some of these gems are...Trachtenberg : A History of legislation for the protection of coal miners in Pennsylvania ( 1934) , 2 copies , A beautiful two volume History of Yorkshire with engravings published in the 1870’s Large print edition of World Book Encyclopedia ( 1960s edition ) minus 4 volumes. We also received copies out of date directories- 20 years old? My work in Libraries in Cambodia is challenging, but at times frustrating . Working in Cambodia always means that one must l always expect the unexpected ( lost electric power, lost and /or delayed mail or shipments and other unknown hindrances to our work ) .Projects which despite all the problems do actually work make up for these difficulties. To see students coming into the new Library each day, to be able to help a parliamentarian find a particular reference is indeed a privilege for me. To return to my three essentials- Patience, a sense of Humour, and the ability to take the "long view "in development Finally would like to end on add a note optimism and hope. My optimistic hope is that the future for Cambodia will be peaceful to enable its people to develop their Society as they would want it to be , to be well informed about the wider world, and to take a vital part in the community in the Southeast Asian region and beyond.


Chandler (1991)
The tragedy of Cambodian history, politics, war and revolution since 1945. New Haven, Yale University

Congressional Research Service Library of Congress (1991)
Parliamentary reference library bibliography of core materials : report prepared for Committee of Foreign Affairs US House of Representatives

Emmerson (1997)
A legacy of conflict: trauma as an obstacle to poverty alleviation in rural Cambodia Phnom Penh , IDRC.

Jarvis (1993)
The National Library of Cambodia surviving seventy years of drastic socio-economic impact in Future dimensions in Library development Consal IX papers . Bangkok, Thailand May 2-7,1993 pp B76-B91

Macmillen (1993)
Colonialism and the development of Libraries and Archives in French Indochina Olden , A & Wise, M Information and Libraries in the developing world, Vol 2 London, Library Association Publishing . pp 65-79

Mysliwiec (1988)
Punishing the poor: the international isolation of Kampuchea. Oxford, Oxfam.

Plathe (1993)
Library development in Cambodia: Libraries for literacy education and community development. Paris , UNESCO (Restricted Technical Report RP/1992-1993-11.B

Smith ( 1995)
An overview of the NLC collection and recommendations for action (Unpublished Report)

Stuart-Fox (1986)
The murderous revolution: on the life of Bunhaeng Ung amidst death in Pol Pot’s
Kampuchea. Bangkok, The Tamarind Press.

White (1982)
Kampuchea wakens from a nightmare in National Geographic Vol 161, No 5 May 1982 p 592-622


  1. Chandler (1991)

  2. Stuart-Fox (1986)

  3. White (1982)

  4. Mysliwiec(1993)

  5. Emmerson (1997)

  6. Jarvis (1993)

  7. Smith (1995)

  8. a "cyclo" or pedicab is an Asian tricycle commonly used for transporting everything from the famiy going on an outing to a clutch of hens or a litter of piglets going to be sold in the market Congressional Research Service ,Library of Congress (1991)

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