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The National Library of Cambodia. Moeun Nhean

Early Khmers were bookworms, evident from ancient libraries

With technology taking over in this day and age, the activity of reading paperback books is losing its shine, but Cambodian libraries continue to remain an important place to improve one’s education.

Reading has for centuries been one of the greatest pillars of foundation for education, but with encyclopaedias, newspapers, magazines and various other types of documents now readily available for reading over the Internet, it begs the question if
Cambodian libraries are still relevant today.

Libraries in Cambodia have been around since the French colonial era with the first to set up being the National Library, located west of Wat Phnom in the centre of the Phnom Penh.

Furthermore, before the 19th Century there were accounts of unofficial libraries scattered in ancient buildings, such as in Buddhist pagodas.

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Books still provide students and the public with a world of knowledge. Moeun Nhean

Aside from the historic religious monument that is the Angkor Wat, there are thousands of temples built during the Angkor period that house similar structures to that of the Khmer version of a library.

Temples such as those found in Prasat Banteay Chhmar, Preah Khan Kampong Svay and Beng Mealea have been found to contain grand library structures on its grounds.

Sambo Manara, a history professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and Pannasastra University of Cambodia, said that when it came to the preservation of documents, Cambodian ancestors had perfected this art form.

“If we look at the Angkor Era, we will see thousands of libraries across public gatherings on Cambodian territories and previous Khmer territories,” he said.

“It’s important to remember that wherever a temple was built, there will also be a ‘Thormatrai’ which acts as a modern day library. Furthermore, on the grounds of Angkor Wat, there are two buildings which were called the libraries of Angkor Wat.”

Klot Vibolla, who has been a general manager of the National Library of Cambodia since 2003, said Cambodians should be proud that the beautiful structures of the libraries have been preserved.

“We should be immensely proud that the grand library had been passed down from our ancestors from thousands of years ago,” Vibolla said.

Meanwhile, Hin Sophorn, an expert on culture and archaeology and deputy director at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts office in Kampong Thom, said libraries have a deep-rooted history in Cambodia.

“Amongst the Prasat Sambor ruins in the Sambor Prei Kuk area, we found many structures similar to that of a library scattered within the vicinity,” he said.

“It contained a seventh-century architectural design, dating back to even before the Angkor era.”

Fast forward to more recent decades, and libraries, no matter how ancient, continue to be a champion for academia, research and general knowledge creation.

In 1996, Cambodia created the Cambodian Librarians and Documentalists Association (CLDA). Despite the program’s importance, Hok Sothik, head of CLDA, said it had failed to attract much interest from the public with the association counting only about 50 libraries as members.

According to Sothik’s observations, there aren’t a large number of people interested in the activity of reading.

“From my direct observation, I think only about 10 percent of the population is keen on reading for leisure purposes,” he said.

“This number is still very low for my liking when compared to the reading population of our neighbouring countries.”

Vibolla, a strong advocate for reading programs, including making sure there is a book exhibition every year, said that while reading may not be hugely popular among Cambodian youths, the number of libraries across the country had increased.

“There are libraries at a national level and within universities across 60 locations,” she said.

“There are also a few private libraries in existence. Here at the National Library, we currently have more than 100,000 books on hand.”

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The ancient library of Preah Khann. Moeun Nhean

She continued, “Every day, we receive students, local and foreign researchers, as well as tourists coming to read books here. Sometimes, our number of visitors swells up to nearly 200 people per day.”

Chea Savy, professor of literature teaching 12th grade students at a high school in Siem Reap, remarked that he always encouraged his students to go to the library to find books to read.

“From my observation, students who go to the library to read or do exercises are outstanding students,” he said.

“All in all, the majority of knowledge, both academic knowledge and other, are mostly obtained from reading and where best to read than at the library?”

Ou Venchhean, 17 and her friend Eung Guech Cheng, both students of professor Savy, said they both venture regularly to the nearby large Wat Damnak library in Siem Reap to study and find new books to read.

“The Wat Damnak library is full of diligent students and I like reading books about Cambodian history, as well as fantasy novels,” said Venchhean.