Deliberate Destruction: The Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian National Library

Deliberate Destruction: The Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian National Library

Content Note: The content of this post centres around the Cambodian genocide. While the post intentionally focuses on the library and restoration efforts, references to the genocide occur throughout.

The National Library of Cambodia, based in Phnom Penh, was constructed by the French in 1913 while Cambodia existed under French colonial rule. Gaining their independence in 1953, Cambodia struggled through years of warfare, bombings and coups before the Khmer Rouge emerged as a major power in 1975. For the following 4 years, Cambodia suffered under the Khmer Rogue regime and the Cambodian genocide. 

By Gonzo Gooner, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57569825

 The Khmer Rouge attempted to systematically destroy all remnants of the former “corrupt” culture and forcibly evacuated the city of Phnom Penh. Modern estimates place the total around 1.5-2 million deaths under the Khmer Rouge regime. These estimates include those killed by the regime, the civil war and starvation.

During their occupation of Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge destroyed most of the books and bibliographical records held by the National Library, to the point that less than 20% of the material survived. The physical building was used primarily for food and cooking storage, as well as living quarters for pig-keepers. The pigs had been placed in the library’s gardens. Books were removed to make space, some were ripped up to use as firelighters, or cigarette papers. John F Dean noted that of the original staff of forty-three, only three survived the Khmer Rouge regime.

The loss of the books and records held by the National Library highlights the vulnerability of collections. The threat by human destruction is more difficult to prepare for simply through planning. However, this case study can highlight the importance of interdepartmental and international support to aid recovery, conservation and salvage. Since 1980, various international governments and agencies have assisted in re-establishing the National Library of Cambodia and attempted to replace parts of their lost collection. Vietnamese librarians assisted in collecting what books they could from the surrounding street and homes, working to prepare the library to reopen. The Soviet Union provided large numbers of books to fill the shelves, as well as publishing works in the Khmer language and helping to rebuild Cambodia’s own publishing sector. Australia donated equipment such as computers and assisted in training new librarians.

Photo of the Deputy Director of the library, and the large pile of material needing catalogued and shelved. Photo by Helen Jarvis

John F Dean was part of one such team from Cornell University who aided Cambodian staff “to preserve scarce and unique library and archival materials” following the devastation of the Khmer Rouge and decades of war. By providing training and archival supplies, the remaining materials could be preserved against further destruction by humidity, insects and general neglect. 

This proved a particular issue in Cambodia due to the destruction of the educational and managerial structures by the Khmer Rouge. Education was viewed as part of Cambodia’s “corrupt, colonial past” and, as a result, many professionals and those with education above primary levels were executed. 

Access to training and supplies has allowed new professionals to maintain and preserve the library, allowing the Cambodian population access to material that had previously been withheld from them.

Works Referenced and Further Reading

Jarvis, Helen. “The National Library of Cambodia: Surviving for Seventy Years.” Libraries & Culture 30, no. 4 (1995): 391-408. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25542801.

Dean, John F. “The Preservation of Books and Manuscripts in Cambodia.” The American Archivist 53, no. 2 (1990): 282-97. Accessed October 1, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40293450.

“Holocaust Museum Houston”. 2020. Hmh.Org. https://hmh.org/library/research/genocide-in-cambodia-guide/.

2 thoughts on “Deliberate Destruction: The Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian National Library

  1. I love this post for several reasons! I have been aware of the genocide at the hands of the Khmer regime for a long time now, though I have not read much about the genocide itself and nothing about Cambodia’s National Library. I am aware how the Khmer Rouge were motivated to kill in order to strike back against and overthrow an elite, “intellectual,” royal system. People were killed for infractions as small as wearing glasses, which was perceived by many as an identifier of the intellectual elite. As such, it makes sense why the National Library of Cambodia was targeted. The Khmer Rouge wanted to erase their country’s history and build a new one under their self-righteous, authoritarian rule.

    The Khmer Rouge’s motivations and methods are unique to them but also draw parallels along similarly genocidal and fascistic regimes. During World War Two, the Nazis would preserve some records, books, and original works of art, but only if they were what they perceived as suitable products and depictions of their race. On the flip side, any books that were perceived as portraying Nazism negatively or other races positively, were destroyed at every opportunity. It would be fascinating to see the reasons and methods of record destruction across several different violent regimes. It may provide insight into how to protect archives against such forces.

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  2. This post was so interesting for me because it captured the part of the recovery effort that my own research couldn’t find. My focus was more so on an archive institute itself and my personal experiences with the Bophana Centre that this post almost fills my gaps perfectly, we should have collaborated – had we known! I would love to know what attracted you to this subject, personal experience, interest or just fascination? Either way it is succinct and very digestible!

    I had no clue that the Soviet Union or Australia was involved in the recovery effort and given the socialist roots of the coup and such, I wouldn’t have expected the Soviet Union to be involved. However, I am aware that it took YEARS for the international community, particularly “the west” to acknowledge any government that wasn’t the Khmer Rouge due to the associations with the Vietnamese during the recovery period! I wonder if this specific help from specific powers/countries moulded the new collections and the Cambodian national identity and to what extent? I certainly noticed the American/French influence and styles when I was a user in the Bophana Centre.

    Adversely, I also wonder if in some unfortunate way, if outside help has enriched the archive to some degree that Cambodia wouldn’t have had if it were left to its own devices given the effects of a post-colonial mould the country effectively fell into – by no fault of its own obviously. Colonial powers were forced to provide even more help as a result of such tragic events etc. Does, however, this make up for the loss of countless archives and to a wide degree a loss of identity? Were these considerations for you too?

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