A Building Full of Books

Author

I sit in a small room near the front of the National Library building in Phnom Penh. The room is just off to the right from the main entrance to the building. It has a large window thrown open and a ceiling fan that has only one speed - it whirls with the sound of a helicopter. This room is used for processing books: new acquisitions are given the library stamp and are duly logged into the list of holdings. The listing is number coded by date and by the number of new books received that year - not by any sort of bibliographical or cataloging system. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I want to complete the picture of this room because it is the books on the shelves that tell the story of this building and its problems. Along one wall is a bookshelf nearly 10 feet tall. Some shelves are filled with the palm leaf manuscripts that several of us are cleaning leaf by leaf. The other shelves hold the newest acquisitions, received during the last year. Reading along the shelves I see the following titles: La Petite Maison dans la Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, L'Immunologie by R. Petrov, "Left-Wing" communism: An Infantile Disorder by Lenin, 1917-1977: the Soviet Union as Americans See It Ben Kiernan's How Pol Pot Came to Power, Cole's the People of Malaysia, Marx-Engels correspondence, and a stack of bulky Library of Congress Subject Heading indices.

An Odd Assortment

The point is that this library, the national library of the State of Cambodia, which also serves as the only public library for a city of more than 700,000 people, has an acquisitions policy of accepting whatever it is given. The children's books in French were donated by a French organization in an attempt to reestablish French as the predominant second language. The medical books, of which Petrov is only one example, and the books on Marxist-Leninist theory and on the Soviet Union in general are gifts from the Soviet Union. Kiernan's book appears to be a gift from the author. Cole and the Library of Congress headings are gifts from Cornell University.

If the acquisition shelves seem rather unusual, they make much more sense when considered as part of the entire collection and within the context of recent Khmer history. The building today houses perhaps 50,000 volumes; the shelves are nearly full. But the collection is a strange jumble of old French-language works and recent gifts from socialist comrades. Almost none of the books are in Khmer. There is one room full of Khmer-language materials, but these are almost all multiple copies of the same titles. Library records list only 315 unduplicated titles in Khmer in the main collection (excluding the palm leaf manuscripts).

During the Democratic Kampuchea period, under Pol Pot, books were deliberately destroyed in Cambodia; it has been estimated that as much as 80 percent of the written works in Khmer were destroyed. At the National Library some books were burned; others were simply thrown from the shelves and left to rot on the floors. The shelves themselves were filled with dishes. The grounds were used to raise pigs. The books that are in the building now have been gathered up from many locations and brought together since 1979. Staff members report literally picking books up off the streets, gathering them out of abandoned houses, and consolidating the remains of several small collections from around the city.

Even one year ago most of these books were still stacked in piles around the building, unused and unusable. During the last year the library has had the assistance of an Australian librarian named Gail Morrison. Due in a large part to her personal efforts and a not small amount off her own funds, the floor was repaired, chairs mended, and new shelving purchased; the books literally came up off the floors. They are now on the shelves arranged by language group, through with no further internal categorization. The tremendous task has really only just begun.

Introducing Open Stacks

Just as important as Gail's physical efforts has been her influence on the concept of what a library is. One reason that the books sat unused a year ago is that the stacks were closed. In the past, the system dictated that a reader had to ask for a particular book, which the library staff would then find. The books sat unused because since there was no catalogue, no one knew what books were housed there. Even if someone requested a book, the chances of the staff being able to find it were extremely remote. Gail introduced the concept of open stacks. Now the building is used by many people, mainly students, every day. On some days it literally full. Some come to use the foreign-language books, which make up the bulk of the collection, but many come to use the reference section, now in the front of the reading room rather than in a locked case. Even more remarkable are the stacks of Western-language magazines that sit on the front table in the reading room. True, they are dated because they are donated by Westerners living in Phnom Penh after they have read them. But for them to be out for general consumption at all is remarkable. This has only been possible sine the changes to the Khmer constitution last spring liberalizing freedom of information.

Gail took the government at its word, so students are now sitting and reading about Tiananmen Square, the invasion of Panama, and the demise of the Berlin Wall. There has been criticism f these policies - both the concept of open stacks and the presence of outside publications - but so far both policies are still in place. As a consequence the building is closer to our own conception of what a library should be.

A Long Way to Go

The problems that remain, however, are enormous. The library has no budget, hence its acquisitions policy. It has no trained staff. Although some people have been working here for many years, they have had no formal training in library work. Most importantly, they have no foreign-language skills. In a building where almost all of the books are in Western languages, only two staff members have any fluency in a Western language. Par of Gail Morrison's original plan was to train people to catalogue books, but it is impossible to train people who cannot read the languages in which the books are printed. The problem of staff training is a national problem in all areas of work. The tremendous number of educated people who were killed during the Pol Pot years, combined with the exodus of refugees, has left the country drained. Only in the last two years have young people begun to exit the education system reestablished in 1979. The demand for language skills is so great in every area of government work, however, that it is unlikely that a person so trained would choose to work at the library if other opportunities were available. The salary of library staff members is less than 1,000 riels per month, which at current exchange rates is only just over three dollars.

In addition to organizational and staffing problems, the main problem with the collection itself is insect infestation. No conservation program exists for the main collection, and a combination of insects and mold is rapidly eating away the books that remain. The building was built by the French in the 1920s with the best building design for libraries available at the time. It is designed for maximum air flow, which helps minimize mold growth. But since the library lacks screening to prevent insects from entering, the windows are kept closed, creating a hothouse effect perfect for molds. The back windows leak during the rainy season, increasing the moisture in the building. The electrical wiring in the building is the original wiring and more than half of the lines are inoperative. The celling fans designed to keep the air circulating do not rotate in the main collections room.

While Gail's work has addressed some of the main problems with the library, my own work deals with some of these problems, but only as they affect a small segment of the holdings. Those of us in the Cornell University team are working with the oldest and rarest works in the collection: the palm leaf and mulberry leaf manuscripts. The work involves several stages. First the manuscripts are cleaned by dusting each page by hand with a soft brush. Then boxes are constructed to house the documents of special materials, which are insect resistant and lined with an insect repellent. Finally, selected manuscripts are microfilmed so that more than one copy of the work will exist and in more than one location. In addition, Cornell is microfilming all of its Khmer-language holdings - approximately 1,00 titles - and holdings on Cambodia in Western languages - another 2,000 titles - and returning them to Cambodia. Funding for this project - from boxes to microfilm readers - has been provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.

This work, as the above description should make clear, will make only a small dent in the needs of the National Library. The whole building must be rewired, the windows must be screened and the back windows must be sealed against the rain. Staff training is needed in language and in basic cataloging skills. A comprehensive conservation program is needed, with an emphasis on fighting insect infestation. And, slowly but surely, the books must be further organized and catalogued so they are accessible to the readers - to complete the transformation from a building full of books into a library.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

14-3 Cambodia

September 1990
Country