The new “Let’s Read” or “Tos Yeung Noam Khnea Arn” library in Kandal province – which opened in April – has been attracting a steady stream of students from Koh Khel village where it is located who have enjoyed being able to read the books in its collection and are now saying they’d like to see it expand.
Located in Koh Khel commune of Sa’ang district in Kandal province, both younger and older readers surrounded the small blue library constructed of wood and crowded inside where they are greeted by a painting of the Khmer flag and a picture of students connecting together the words “Let’s read”.
The project to build the library was initiated by a Cambodian couple in the US – professor Pou Sovachana and Say Seyheang – who also own a Little Free Library that is situated in front of their home in Long Beach, California.
“He was in the US and he set up a library at his home in Long Beach and this time he wanted to build it in his hometown,” said Yek Say, the father of Heang who also resides in Koh Khel village.
“At first, my daughter said she wanted to do it in front of my house. I said that if they built it in front of my house, it would not be successful because it is too far from the school and if they placed it near the school, then the students coming out after classes might see someone there reading and decide that they want to read too.
“Some children are shy and may prefer reading to games, but other children will want to learn to read well for praise and attention from their teachers,” Say said.
After careful consideration, the library was installed along the fencing by Vorn Chanthary’s house, a local businesswoman who also volunteered to keep an eye on the facility.
“It was because he used to see me when I was a vendor near the school and I always had books for sale to encourage the children to read. He said that his daughter wanted to put the library on my property and of course I said yes,” the volunteer librarian told The Post.
“I have been trying to encourage students to read books for a long time, so when his daughter had the idea for a library for children, it was in-line with what I already wanted and we volunteered to take care of the books,” she said.
Chanthary said that the library took about two weeks to build and set-up and that the sponsors spent about $700 on the carpentry, painting and the initial collection of books.
The “Let’s Read” library opened its doors on April 14, 2022 lending out storybooks written by Sipar and many other popular Khmer writers.
“For his birthday this year, my husband had only one wish – he wanted to build a small library in his hometown. Now, we have built this library for him so that all of his relatives, friends and the village’s students will have books to read,” said the library’s co-founder Heang at the library launch event.
Heang said that she and her husband were firmly behind the practice of “DEAR” – or Drop Everything and Read – in their lives and she hoped it would be adopted by the local students as well.
“If you want or desire something your first step can be to just read a book on that subject and soon you will know a lot more about it and you might even know how to achieve whatever goals you are wishing for,” she said.
The library is divided into sections. The upper shelves are for adults and can store about 40 books. They are currently stocked with books on subjects like agriculture, the law, spiritual topics such as dharma, entertaining novels and various other books selected by sponsors. The lower shelves for children’s books can hold around 60 to 70 books appropriate for children.
“Our library is still small. We do not have room for every book, but every two weeks or 10 days we will change out some of the books in the collection,” said volunteer librarian Chanthary.
At first, she was also worried that the rain would leak through the roof and the books would be damaged, but she later learned that it w fully waterproofed. Yet she said she will take action as necessary to protect the books, which she inspects daily when she locks up the library at night.
“We also do not have enough time to take care of the books properly. Some students will borrow books to read and then bring them back and they are a mess. Another issue is that we can’t record anyone’s names when they borrow books because that would require a full-time staff person, but so far the students have been good about returning them, though they are a bit late sometimes,” she said.
The libraries section for children has reading materials appropriate for children ages six to 15-years-old, but from time-to-time she has spotted young children trying to reach books on the higher shelves by standing on chairs.
“Because of Sipar, they sponsored the picture books and the children are most interested in his books. Secondary school students are still young and do not bring cell phones to use at school so they are very interested in finding books to read,” she said.
The presence of the little lending library in Koh Khel village was welcomed by Korn Luch, a staff member at the study office of Koh Khel Secondary School.
“I can see that the students are reading a lot lately, but it’s mostly the female students. The male students are still very lazy,” Luch told The Post.
Concerned about the tendency of students to use their phones during school hours, Luch said he always tries to encourage students to read books and he works hard to promote a reading culture at the school.
“Students today do not like reading books, generally, they just like looking at their phone – even while in school,” he said. “We suffer from a serious lack of literacy and an absence of a reading culture throughout Cambodian society, which harms our language and our cultural heritage. But if we all work hard we can begin to reverse this and teach our students to get into the habit of reading.”
He expected that trying to encourage students to study harder and start reading daily can have the effect of attracting other students to embrace those practices as part of a movement towards creating or recreating Cambodia’s reading culture.
Say, the founder’s father, has also noticed that more children are now reading in their free time than before the library opened, which indicates that part of the problem in getting Cambodian students to read more often is the lack of available reading materials and books.
“Honestly, I want to do this kind of thing more and more than I want to do anything else at this point in my life. I want to help people and give books to children to educate them and I hope to continue doing so as long as there are children who need something to read,” he said, adding that if he could he’d buy them all ice cream and candy every day if they promised to keep reading.
Heang said that next she plans to buy a bus and make a mobile library – known in the US as a “bookmobile” – and perhaps that would also serve free snacks to children to get them interested in reading.
Chanthary said that the library has been so popular that some of the students have practically read all of the books it carries and she wants to find a way to get more books for them to read.
“Most of the readers are girls and the students are mostly in high school. They borrow books to read together and they like the challenge of reading difficult books like Buddhist proverbs or philosophy,” said the volunteer librarian. “Adolescent students read fast – they read fast and finish all the books for their age and then they want to know when new books will come but they remain in short supply.”