Internship Week 10: History and Potential

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This week I’m actually going to be focusing elsewhere than ODC. I recently took a trip to the National Library with Margaret, which is located just north of Wat Phnom, near the Raffles Hotel, in Phnom Penh. As a result of the visit, and a spontaneous imagination, I have pondered the situation of libraries, particularly public libraries, in Cambodia.

I should preface this post with a note expressing my lack of expertise, and any criticism I have is based on only three months of being in the country. There are many details that will be left out because I simply do not have a full grasp of them, including the remarkable strength of the library staff members that diligently devote themselves to the library and keep it afloat. But these details are important, and often exist under many abstract surfaces. To not acknowledge their existence, even briefly as I am doing here, would be a major mistake when talking about the situation of information provision and information centers here in the Kingdom of Wonder.

Also, another edit: after writing a lot of this post, it came to my attention that there have indeed been numerous events (including an art exhibition) in the library, and so a lot of what I say below is simply commenting on spaces that don’t see enough use. And information centers that do see use can always see more use, so my post is still a bit valid. I have to throw in an apology for coming off in tone like I know everything about the National Library and think that there is absolutely nothing going on within its walls, which is completely false.

An additional aside: I still haven’t been to all of the libraries or information centers in Phnom Penh and so I will certainly not be able to highlight or touch upon all the functioning spaces in the city. Particularly, I have yet to visit the National Archives, the CDRI library, the Buddhist Institute (which is currently located in a construction zone), and the library of the Cambodian Senate.

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Visiting the National Library

It was another hot day at ODC and I had arranged to meet Margaret near her apartment. We met in the early afternoon and drove together to the historical building that is the National Library. The first thing you notice when you arrive to the National Library is the space in front of the National Library. A gravel driveway leads to a gravel lot giving space to countless vehicles. As Margaret informed, much of this parking lot (the front yard of the library) is due to employees of the US Embassy. It is quite a sight, and we almost couldn’t park there because there wasn’t enough room.

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Originally built during the French occupation of Indochina, the library itself is still standing despite the alternative uses of the building during the Khmer Rouge. The building has undergone several recent renovations, and remains a beautiful building, but one can’t help but feel pity when seeing much of the disrepair. From mold to neglected re-coating of paint, the space is unsightly and sports more beauty through its decay than what has been kept up.

Despite the decay, the building is remarkable in its presentation of space, and is almost reminiscent of a Carnegie Library in the United States for its square design, blended with French colonial architecture. The signage is in both Khmer and French, and some visual art continues to be preserved in all their degrees of flourished adornment on the exterior facades. The interior of the building? A large main room that features the circulating and reference collections, a handful of tables for study, racks of children’s literature, and some computers that look like they haven’t been used in a while and come from the 90s.

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Fans hang from the ceiling keeping a mild current of air, though it was still quite a bit muggy and stifling when I visited. Next to the main room, which also houses the work stations of the catalogers and circulation staff, is the administrative room, where the director and the higher-ups do their work, and several archives that I was not able to examine. There was quite a bit going on with the team when I visited, so I did not get to inspect the archives or some of the narrower recesses of the offices. I did get to take a look at the stacks, though, and one of the lovely sections belonged to the “king’s family,” and featured mostly coffee table books from a decade ago, mostly on international countries. Unfortunately most of the exploration of the stacks felt more “prison-like” and opposing (dare I write the often-ALA-used “chilling”?) than I would have liked, but since much of the library appears to be non-circulating documents, I understand the apprehension.

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A couple of other thoughts on the visit: first, one disheartening element of the experience was the lack of customer service upon entry. While the administration was kind enough to say hello, the library staff working at the desks in the main room did not so much as say hello. I’m not sure if it was because we were obviously foreigner-expat types, or if it’s part of the culture of the library as a whole. I sincerely hope the friendliness and outreach is more present for local Cambodians.

I also noticed that while some of the collection was in English, and most in Khmer, the majority of the signage was in Khmer. And while this makes sense being in Cambodia, it’s curious as there are significant populations of English, Chinese, and Vietnamese language people with vibrant, engrossing cultures living within the confines of Phnom Penh. All of these “markets for libraries” could potentially benefit from the National Library.

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You might be asking yourself: why isn’t Greg talking about the people using the library? Well, despite the table space, the library was quite empty. This might have been due to it being an afternoon. Or it might have just been an “off-day,” but there were only 5 or so people, all young, using the space. It looked like they were all studying (and in some cases, sleeping), and, in fact, it reminded me of some of my library experiences at Olney High School in Philadelphia. Despite the depressing circumstances, Margaret did let me know that the library does get a lot of student use and she has seen the place packed. Packed, however, does not go a long way as the seating capacity is certainly less than 100. While the library could certainly add more tables, the established interior design did not seem to promote any expansion for seating.

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The visit, on the whole, lasted just under an hour, which gave me a taste of the space and the context for which it sits. Some other points of information that are obvious to me but not the general reader: despite the Ministry of Culture existing to help support institutional structures like the library, it does not provide much at all in the way of funding for the library to exist. It is rumored that library staff (and librarians proper) make extremely little money per month and work the gig out of their belief in the library (isn’t that all librarians, really?). So the point here is that despite any perceived negative statements above, the National Library is under a lot of influence and control from the government and, ultimately, larger social constraints. An aside: we have to keep in mind the privilege of American history with its appreciation of libraries and the value system therein. While libraries in America are under threat in many cases, a lot of the population acknowledges and values them despite the pressures against their value from evolving technology. In Cambodia, the Civil War and Khmer Rouge in the second half of the 20th Century, and the countless struggles thereafter, have resulted in a reset of similar value systems. And so it seems, to me, that libraries have to start from scratch in proving their value and their relevance, especially in the 21st Century.

Thinking about Information Centers

A library is a center of information: it provides resources (documents, tangible or intangible) and services (in whatever form they might take) to its interacting populations (members or otherwise). This community in turn utilizes the facility of the library in order to meet its information needs. An information center doesn’t have to be a library, of course, but the library, or ballahlai, is a formidable option as a center or focal point for all of the above.

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An information center doesn’t survive on its own, and as much as these centers want to act as silos, the mere fact that they do encourage interaction (on some level, with their populations) means they’re not as isolated as they think, or present themselves to be. But an information center can appear quite dead and dysfunctional if it doesn’t have A) the advertising and promotion of its services through the community outside its walls and B) the staff and resources to support the goals of the center. The latter, the resources, support the methods of presenting, facilitating, and measuring the resources and the services and assistance given to those the center serves.

If there is no greeter to welcome me to a library, how will I feel that I am welcome there? If I saw a bar with a flashing neon sign that read “Bar,” but there was no one in the bar, I would not be having a positive experience. The design of the bar, just like the design of the library, needs to not only describe its intention but carry its intention out into truth through results. So we must ask ourselves, “What does ‘library’ mean to me?”

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Libraries as Places

With this post I’d like to continue to focus on the physicality of the library, or the tangible qualities that makes the library visually identifiable and interactive. Maybe it’s because I’m working almost entirely on the digital elements of the ODC library. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in where I spend my time when I’m working or having fun or studying. Or all of the above. Regardless, the physicality is king when it comes to facing the challenges of the neglected information center.

What can physical spaces offer you? For one, they bring the community together in an immediate way, a way that allows everyone to see each other and know who the other community members and supporters are. The physical space then allows wonderful conversations to occur. Even though the name of the game today is “anonymity” and “displacement” due to the Internet, the value of being around peers is a different and coextensive value.

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One thing I’ve started to pay attention to more and more, especially since becoming an educator of some capacity, are the variety of learning styles that exist outside of the classroom. The way we seek out and retrieve information is different for everybody. Some can do just fine behind a laptop all day. Others get distracted and need to be sitting in front of a Powerpoint, or a book, or someone talking to them. Think about how successful a new chef would be if she/he had to learn the trade entirely from a tablet. You need to the kitchen. So let’s bring the kitchen to the library. But hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Most importantly, the physical space encourages people because it shows participants what other folks are doing. You go to a physical space and see ten people reading and studying in silence, and you’re going to be encouraged to read and study in silence. Broader still, if you know a culture of research is going on because you can see it happening at the reference desk, you’re going to be encourage to try it out and be on the “in” crowd of the culture. And as more grow to have a “soft reliance” on the space, I think that’ when the magical things happen, when it grows.

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SmallWorld (above) is a great example of this propelled behavior. The space encourages collaboration and the organizers are open to innovative use of the space. I recently did a presentation there for Open Access Week and it was wildly successful, and I think a lot of folks learned from it. But the point isn’t that I did the presentation, it’s that folks of all kinds are doing the presentation, and going beyond to do other fantastic events and activities in order to benefit Cambodians with diverse interests. From gaming to Google app development to critical dialogue to day-long bike trips, the organization succeeds in facilitating the exchange of information, but more importantly, knowledge. There are experts and champions of the information who are supported and promoted into positions where they can optimally share with others.

Imagining the National Library

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There’s over a million people living in Phnom Penh, which is a significant population. By the Western Standards I can’t help but talk about since I’m from the West (and I acknowledge them as the “Other” and “Imperial” etc), the public library of the city should be drastically bigger to support its population. Here’s what I think the library could offer to invite more people into its walls:

  • Study Sessions for Students and Non-Students
  • Think Tanks and other private meeting sessions for small groups
  • Task Force space for government and NGO operations
  • Meta-sessions that encourage media literacy and discuss the value of the library
  • Readings/talks/lectures of all kinds
  • Greater connections to minority populations (previously mentioned)
  • Greater emphasis on the “nation” since it’s the National Library (something like Singapore)
  • More exhibits and stationary exhibitions
  • Finding other ways to raise money rather than using their front yard as a parking lot
  • And this would lead to the front yard being available for some other awesome projects

Alternatives to the National Library

It’s interesting to think about the National Library in a silo-manner when there are many other libraries in the city that can offer similar services. Collaboration and consortium-like activities should obviously be encouraged, but in some cases, the public library is the leading information center due to certain cultural barriers. In Cambodia, I’ve started to notice a sense of exclusivity that exists within the university. While anyone can simply walk into a university and use the library to study, I’ve talked with Cambodians and they’ve mentioned the same thing over and over: they won’t go in if they’re not paying. If you’re not a paying student, you’re not a student, is what this says to me, and it’s really unhealthy. The libraries at Pannasastra, the Royal University, and the National University of Management (pic below) are the three academic libraries I’ve seen since moving to Phnom Penh, and they are all wonderful facilities. To not believe they are accessible even when they are is daunting to me. Or haunting. Yes, haunting.

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Similarly, one can conduct plenty of free research at other non-library information centers, like Bophana Center, the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DCCAM), and the Center for Khmer Studies (in Siem Reap). But just how many people know that these spaces exist? I had a hard enough time just trying to find the Documentation Center, even though the staff were wonderfully helpful and provided the antithesis to the National Library folks (though I emailed them in advance, which might have had something to do with it). I think at the end of the day, it would be really important to ask young people and old people about all these great spaces for information retrieval and access, and see if they have actually heard of them or visited them. Pairing that up with what forms of advertising and promotion go on to increase the presence of these spaces is another question.

I also wanted to throw in a side note about Monument Books and Java Arts, two spaces which offer events in the presence of books and stationary art. They are awesome, and are a great example of other types of spaces people could be using as information centers. Similarly, the New Leaf in Siem Reap, which I just visited, provides fantastic book resources and donates books to lots of different spaces.

Book Fair

Oddly enough, in a week the National Library will be “revolutionizing” its space by throwing its annual book fair. I haven’t been to one, so I don’t really know how it will pan out, but they’re closing the front area off to cars and putting in tables and all manner of other structural supports to allow vendors, exhibitors, and presenters the chance to use the space in a productive way. It should be awesome.

I will be there on Saturday morning (hopefully) to see a poetry reading I helped setup by connecting my friend Soknea at Nou Hach with Kolap, who is one of the heads of the book fair. I’ll also be presenting (definitely) for ODC on Sunday morning.

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The book fair brought smaller ideas to my mind. First, you’ve got to make use of what you already have. If you have spaces and objects and items, you should really consider how these can be used in new ways. Think about what you have but not in the way you have it. This aphoristic tidbit is something I think everyone should apply to their spaces, but also to their lives.

I also thought to myself: this is so great even though I don’t know what’s happening in it because it’s happening. The mere idea of its existent got me excited. Activity of some kind is better than no activity. Of course, this is just my opinion. The flip side of the coin is that having activities that are bad might actually put your information center at risk, but that’s a long conversation and only needs to be touched on here.

One of the great things about the book fair is that it’s the epitome of collaboration. Empowered by participants and audiences alike, the book fair brings together a diverse crowd that will talk, will be happy, and will think about the future. Collaborate first to discover of future collaboration and future possibilities of the space.

Ultimately, what I think it will come down to is a question of “community.” The inclusive act of the book fair, and any other replications or events that go on within the National Library’s walls, will create a certain kind of literacy, a “community literacy,” where people will start to find the space as a producer of events and a magnet of cool people and cool ideas in the city. This is idealistic and who’s to say if anything more will occur after the book fair, but I sincerely hope so.

Ultimately the library is about information needs, right? And how the people who use the library can benefit, of course. I think that it’s important to constantly be aware of how the greater community perceives the event, and respond to those needs. If they really, really like the lectures and presentations, then there should be more of those available through the National Library in the future. If they really like the exhibitions, then having collaboration with those vendors and organizations seems like a positive way to go forward. The same with the poetry reading. Let the community redefine how your space is used, but support and augment that redefinition on your own term.

I mentioned the poetry reading and I would love to see a poetry series at the National Library. Anything related to the arts is going to bring in people, some crowd, great or small. By evoking the power of Cambodian tradition and the historical culture, the National Library could start to get a greater cultural following (and flowering) itself. Even if it wasn’t a huge program, simply having poetry readings there once a month would be fantastic.

My Role in All of This

How do I see myself, grand intern from Seattle, in all of this? I strike a hard balance between supporting the projects and simply hanging back and studying what’s going on (as best as I can, since many of the “issues,” as mentioned before, exist under the surface. As a natural connector and a community organizer and a (generally speaking) innovator of space, I can’t help but think about ideas and share them with people here who often look like they could use the support.

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From the digital library presentation at the book fair (and later at BarCamp), to a Cambodia Library Association internship in the Winter Quarter, I’m going to be consistently tapped into the issues identified above and finding solutions for those.

But at the end of the day, one person can’t do everything and one person shouldn’t be doing everything and one person shouldn’t even be a concept on the table. And so everything here is a framework for interaction and collaboration with the librarians who have been here much longer than me. But most importantly, for me, exploring the National Library seems like a fun challenge and opportunity for discussion.

As a follow-up, I will write about how the book fair goes in a couple of weeks and maybe there will be even greater insights made.

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2 thoughts on “Internship Week 10: History and Potential

  1. Pingback: Internship Week 11: Thinking “International” | Greg Bem's Cambodian Library Reflections

  2. Pingback: Internship Week 12: Adventure Works Both Ways | Greg Bem's Cambodian Library Reflections

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