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.
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.
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).
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.