Restoration of institutional libraries in Phnom Penh

Preservation of the literary and religious heritage that has been handed down on the very fragile medium of latania leaves, has long been the concern of the EFEO. In the early years of the 20th century, its scholars were working with the texts accessible in Phnom Penh, deemed to be the most sacred and prestigious. Unsurprisingly, they found therein the transcription into Khmer and the partial vernacular translation of the major texts of the Pāli canon along with their commentaries.

In 1925, a royal decree established the Royal Library of Cambodia of which Suzanne Karpelès, on secondment from the EFEO, was the first director. In 1943, under the direction of Pierre Dupont, likewise a member of the EFEO, this library was made part of the Buddhist Institute founded back in 1930. This institute remained the melting pot of Khmer studies in Cambodia after independence in 1953, but was closed overnight by the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975 and its collections were turned upside down. Following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, a number of outstanding individuals took it upon themselves to gather and protect the manuscripts of the former Buddhist Institute wherever they could be found. The largest part of the former collection was thus sheltered by Venerable Preah Vanarat Ken Vong, one of the first six Khmer monks to be re-ordained in Cambodia after 1979. After some vicissitudes these manuscripts ended up in Wat Saravann, of which Venerable Preah Vanarat had become the abbot. In 1992, two years before his death, Venerable Ken Vong appealed to the EFEO-FEMC team, asking that it be entrusted with the job of restoring this collection, by far the richest in Cambodia, and to have it classified.

Another part of the former Buddhist Institute collection was housed in the National Museum. In 2002, the EFEO-FEMC team was commissioned to see to its restoration and to make an inventory of it.

The next year, the EFEO-FEMC team took on the job of restoring and inventorying the manuscripts of the National Library in Phnom Penh in which the ceiling had fallen. Like the National Museum, in the 1980s, the National Library had become home to part of the former manuscript library of the Buddhist Institute. This is the second largest collection for size and significance after that of Wat Saravann. By restoring the two key manuscript libraries housed in national institutions under the Cambodian Ministry of Culture—which included the making of several hundred traditional holders of plaited bamboo wrapped in cloth and furniture of a special design for keeping manuscripts—the EFEO-FEMC team made good on a commitment made in May 2001 by School Director Professor Jean-Pierre Drège at ceremonies marking the school’s 100th anniversary in Cambodia.

In January 2004, the team finally had access to the last known remains of the former Buddhist Institute collection, long housed in one of the Silver Palace buildings, itself located in the Royal Palace compound in Phnom Penh. The task of restoring and inventorying this final collection made up mainly of texts in the Pāli language has now been completed.

 

The inventory of institutional library collections in Phnom Penh—including that of Wat Saravann, the National Museum, National Library, Silver Pagoda and Royal University of Phnom Penh—is the focal point of Part Two of the Inventaire provisoire des bibliothèques du Cambodge (Provisional Inventory of the Libraries of Cambodia), Part One dealing with the monastic libraries in Phnom Penh and Kandal province, while Part Three is devoted to inventorying collections in the monastic libraries in Kompong Cham province. These three sets of documents, of which the substance is now materialized, are to serve as the basis for developing the overall descriptive study of Cambodia’s traditional Khmer literature as wished by George Cœdès nearly a century ago and which, by a peculiarly odious irony, could only be completed after the most terrible destruction of manuscripts imaginable.