Jul 20 2012

National Library, Phnom Penh

Published by at 8:42 am under Sightseeing & activities


On oh-so-elegant Street 92, planted between Raffles Hotel Le Royal and the impressive Ministry of Economics and Finance, the National Library is off the radar for most visitors to Phnom Penh. Set in lush gardens, the number of cars and motos may lead you to believe Khmers have a passion for reading, but actually it’s a spillover car park for nearby buildings, including the National Archives behind.

Bibliotheque - that's French for library, that is

Bibliotheque -- that's French for library, that is.

Built in 1924, the low but graceful building was used as a piggery by the Khmer Rouge, an apt way to show their disdain for education. Books were thrown out into the streets or used to light fires and only around 20 percent survived. Despite efforts to rebuild the collection through donations, the contents of the bookshelves are still limited, if eclectic.

For a word nerd, the thrill of the library is the evocation of former splendour. As you walk in, the smell of old books is unmistakable. Under high ceilings with hanging fans, wide wooden tables are occupied by a few students frowning with concentration. Natural history prints line the walls. The big wooden library desk is carved with laurel wreaths, echoed in the beautiful index card filing cabinets, complete with brass handles. The series on American jurisprudence, printed in 1936, may be useless for information purposes, but the hardback cloth covers and embossed letters make them irresistible to pick up.

Word nerds this way

Word nerds, this way!

In fact, the library is a treasure trove of the unexpected. Fans of the French series “Qui sais-je?” can happily peruse from La Gaullisme through to Hypnose et Suggestion. Plenty of old kids’ books line the shelves, as well as volumes on Animal Feeding Abstracts and Poland’s Security Policy 1989-2000. The lending library’s cataloguing system includes poetry, philosophy, religion, geography and the arts in Khmer, English, French and German, although if you have something specific in mind, you may be disappointed. There’s a selection of magazines and newspapers in Khmer, Chinese and English, and even some braille documents. Look out for the monthly newsletters (“bulletin mensuel“) from former king Norodom Sihanouk, which include details of his activities, old pictures of Cambodian agriculture, information on the king’s filmography, song scores and recipes (later, the king kept a blog).

National Library (and unofficial car park)

National Library (and unofficial car park).

In an air-conditioned side room, 100-year-old palm and mulberry leaf manuscripts are carefully wrapped in red cloth and stored in glass-fronted cabinets. Another room houses the Patrimonial Section, where Khmers can research their family history.

National Library
Street 92, Phnom Penh
Open 8:00-11:00, 14:00-17:00 Monday-Friday

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6 responses so far

6 Responses to “National Library, Phnom Penh”

  1. mitbongon 21 Jul 2012 at 3:23 am

    The national museum was not used as a piggery during the democratic Kampuchean times it was at all times guarded by revolutionary solders and the books were pulped by the hang samrin Vietnamese regime in 1980 not the Khmer rouge.

    mitbong

  2. Abigail Gilberton 24 Jul 2012 at 9:48 am

    Hi Mitbong

    Our research showed that pigs were kept at the National Library, and that books were damaged and destroyed by Khmer Rouge soldiers.

    There’s an interview with Ben Sarin, the former chief of libraries, where he describes books being ripped apart and used to make cigarettes. There’s also research by Pierre Evald and a description in the of the uses of the library in the 1970s in an academic paper from Cornell University, which worked with the library to transfer the manuscripts onto microfilm.

  3. mitbongon 27 Jul 2012 at 10:19 am

    If all the books were burned how it is that only 7 precent were damaged
    you state the library was used as a piggery but your own links state that it was the grounds and veranda’s that were used not the building itself.

    Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History
    By Milton E. Osborne
    ………………………
    Page 151
    The national library was simply left alone, despite the destruction of some of its books, while the national archives building directly behind the library appears to have been uses at different periods as a piggery on its ground floor and for accommodation. Although newspapers held on the ground floor were destroyed, there was no systematic effort to destroy the thousands of archival dossiers held on the upper floors.

    Page 149
    shortly after the pol pot regime was defeated in 1979 the new authorities pulped the remaining books when there was a need for paper

  4. mitbongon 05 Aug 2012 at 7:12 am

    so are you going to amend you story?

  5. Abigail Gilberton 14 Aug 2012 at 6:45 am

    Hi Mitbong

    Ben Sarin is quoted as saying that 7% of the country’s books were destroyed, not of that one library’s. There were other libraries, and of course people’s personal collections. The veranda is a part of the building, so I don’t see an inconsistency there.

    I appreciate you offering alternative research and you’re always welcome to comment on our posts.

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