Reconstructing Cambodia: The role of libraries in development

To the library

Libraries in Cambodia serve first order development needs: university education, development agencies, and official archives. Public libraries do not play a significant role.

Following Open Cambodia 2011, I spent a day touring libraries with Margaret Bywater, a 25 year veteran of Cambodian libraries and development work.

Margaret is at the epicenter of the movement to train librarians and open libraries in Cambodia. It is an uphill struggle because the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970′s targeted the educated, people who wore eyeglasses, people with soft hands, and people who could read. When reading has been purged from a culture, what is the role of libraries? A central development challenge in Cambodia concerns rebuilding the intellectual and learning infrastructure.

National Archives

The national archives are located in a French Colonial building in Phnom Penh. Special design was paid to air flow. The moisture and heat are prime archival challenges.

Libraries play a role in this process, yet there is no cultural or institutional momentum to build on. Libraries are building from scratch. We visited three libraries: the national archives, the newly expanded Hun Sen Library of the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and at the Cambodian Development Resource Institute–a library that hosts collections from various agencies working in Cambodia.

While libraries in other parts of the world are emphasizing the cultural, community aspects of their mission, Cambodia has different needs. These institutions are training people and building core knowledge infrastructure. Evidence of this is the way that library-trained workers are promoted to higher positions outside of the library. Margaret reports that it is difficult for libraries to grow when her best staff leave for greener pastures; library skills are broadly valuable in development agencies.

To see more photos from my Cambodian library tour, check out the set on Flickr.