National Library of Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia | C.1924

Photo Credit: Adrienne Shapiro

This single-storied library with its yellow pastel portico columns has survived a brutish history from French-colonial (hence the architectural lettering, “Bibliotheque”) rule to its suppression and takeover by the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian-Vietnam War.

In the 1970s, the building was unfortunately used for a stable and piggery, providing food for the Khmer Rouge as bookshelves were cleared for food storage. The disorder and neglect were so pervasive that books were used to light cooking fires and as cigarette papers, and by 1980, only about 20 percent of the collection had survived.

In 1999, the library worked in cooperation with French-colonial institutions to stage various live cultural events, giving way to the only surviving group in traditional Khmer shadow theater. For every month in 2000, the group performed the sacred Buddhist Ramayana shadow play, “Komka Tobtek.” Cambodian Sbek Thom shadow puppets are unlike other puppets because they are not articulated and their cow hide depictions are left uncolored, instead shaped to illustrate an entire scene.

Inside and away from the constant modernization of the city, the Library’s main reference room is a sanctuary to explore back issues of newspapers and magazines alongside the remnants of the old filing system. Within the stacks is a trove of obscure publications including 305 sastra/palm leaf manuscripts of Hindu precepts on microfilm, colonial-era periodicals, coffee table books form the Soviet Union, long expired law books from the U.S., Macedonian library catalogs in Cyrillic, and rare untouched works on Scientology.

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