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Loving Libraries in Cambodia

Loving Libraries in Cambodia

Over the past eight months, I’ve learned what it means to love libraries and information in Cambodia. What started as an internship with an NGO intended to last a mere academic quarter turned into three quarters of Directed Fieldwork in the Kingdom of Wonder filled with unexpected and quintessentially amazing opportunities, challenges, and explorations. I will attempt to describe some of the journey here.

The Winding Path to Phnom Penh

With some help from iSchool Academic Adviser Marie Potter, I contacted two former iSchoolers who had connections in Cambodia and worked out a plan for me to visit and work in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, in the fall quarter of 2013. The goal was to work on some projects with the Hun Sen Library at the Royal University of Phnom Penn (RUPP). After a month of touring Southeast Asia, I arrived to Phnom Penh and learned that the RUPP gig would not happen due to some management changes. There were also some allusions made to the recent election fiasco and the potential influence of foreigners on Cambodian students.

Fortunately one of my contacts was able to connect me with Ms. Terry Parnell, co-founder and supervisor of the Open Development Cambodia (ODC) project, currently managed and funded by NGO East-West Management Institute (EWMI). It was an instant “love at first sight” moment that day I met Terry, Penhleak Chan (or Pinkie, the project’s Outreach Coordinator), and Try Martin (ODC Director). The internship included a number of tasks related to ODC’s digital library, blending traditional librarianship by way of cataloging, selection, digitization, with facilitation of database design, the website’s taxonomy, and any other odds and ends coming up.

Awesome Contemporary Librarianship

The directed fieldwork with ODC was nothing short of sheer awesome contemporary librarianship. From speaking at conferences throughout Cambodia on the value of open data and open access, to meeting with publishers and researchers and software developers at social events and open houses, I slowly learned the depths of Cambodian education, the frustrating history and contemporary state of Cambodian libraries, the innovations in information distribution, and the landscape of humanitarian and development work being done in a variety of sectors.

During winter quarter, I connected with Ms. Kolap Mao, one of two MLIS-holding Cambodians in the country. Impressed by perspective on the needs for the development of education in Cambodia, I agreed to design and implement an information literacy (IL) training workshop for library staff for my DFW.

What I might call the most grueling self-directed experience since being an undergraduate senior writing an English thesis on Crime and Punishment, the training design involved many nights of writing and research on Cambodian education and learning platforms, core IL concepts, information and research needs for Cambodians in the 21st century, technological access challenges in Cambodia, and so on. I created nearly 100 pages of original content (much of which was borrowed from other IL experts), including an original paper on LGBT presence in Cambodia to be used an example for citations and high quality research, and a 50-slide digital slideshow.

Influencing the Future of Libraries in Cambodia

The workshop went off with great success. There were 26 library staff from 6 provinces in Cambodia, including library staff from the most remote regions of the country. The two days were exciting, challenging, and exhausting, but filled with surprises. Despite a poetry workshop or two, I had never been a facilitator of instruction, and along with Kolap’s general and translation support, the workshop brought a variety of completely new ideas and concepts to the minds of future leaders of Cambodia.

ODC also hired me for a six month contract project in addition to my DFW: to help find, hire, and train a Cambodian library staff (paraprofessional) on the NewGenLib ILS and internal policies. At the time of this writing I’ve been privy to the application process, designing and administrating and evaluating an information management test, and interviewing potential candidates. Needless to say, we’re still looking for a qualified employee.

Professional Development & Cross-Cultural Inquiry in a Magical Setting

Spring quarter is here and Cambodia is about to enter its hot season. My palms sweat as I write this and I flick little ants off the ping-pong table that is my desk in this apartment. My time here has had many ideal situations and countless successes, but it has also been filled with its challenges, crises, and burdens. Culture shock is a reality. So is poverty. And lawlessness. But Cambodia, like many other countries, offers to bend and tweak your perspective on life if you let it.

It’s hard not to love Cambodia and the people that live here. Several expats approached me within the first couple of weeks and told me I would find it hard to leave, and it’s true. There is an almost magical quality to the lifestyle here, making it pivotal to learning, professional development, and cross-cultural inquiry.

I heartily encourage everyone to take a risk and travel. Visit Cambodia and find someone to help and to, inadvertently, learn through. They’re everywhere, waiting to make you smile, waiting to turn your professional LIS program into something you never even imagined.

(Editor’s Note: We encourage you to check out Greg’s fantastic blog and read more stories about his DFW adventures in Cambodia.)

About Greg Bem

Greg Bem, MLIS '14, lived in Tuol Tom Pong I, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. In addition to his work with Open Development Cambodia (ODC) and the Cambodian Library Association, he has done extensive volunteering for Nou Hach Literary Journal, Our City Festival (OCF), Writers Alliance, and more. When he was in Seattle he gained LIS experience with Seattle Public Library, the Seattle Aquarium, the Zine Archive and Publishing Project (ZAPP), and the Audubon Center at Seward Park. He invites interested individuals to contact Margaret Bywater or Kolap Mao for information on DFW opportunities in Phnom Penh. He also invites you to read his Cambodian Library blog.


  1. Re: “… we’re still looking for a qualified employee …” – well, in developing countries is it not always better to consider training staff than expecting them to “walk in the door” right out of some university or other environment that might not even exist? What happens when you leave and still found no one? I’ve heard the same stories about the unfathomable hospitality of Cambodians myself though I never yet made it there. But I wonder: after the Pol Pot regime – aren’t there a lot of illiterates?

  2. Great point, Colm. The team constantly had high hopes for bringing in someone who had the experience needed, hoping someone who had been a librarian or at least the degree would walk through the door. Obviously we always had the “next best” option as an apprentice/para-professional we could train directly. Unfortunately even that ideal situation, of the new hire, yielded less-than-satisfactory results. We did, however, make the best of those in-house staff who we could pull into library duties; however, there were not optimal resources for training them to an optimal level.

    Illiteracy is a big issue in the country, but that doesn’t take away the need for libraries, particularly when dealing with library engagement from communities who are literate (such as journalists, or, another example, researchers). Its presence does create a variety of barriers that, in some cases, at least aid in pointing to the right directions. That many Cambodians are helpful and hospitable and the country’s overall culture promotes certain wellnesses does not, however, make the situation easier when organizations are looking for qualified professionals.

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