How to start a library

According to my informal survey, the one thing that Cambridge has the vastest number of is, not pesky punt tour promoters, but libraries. There are hundreds of them. The University of Cambridge alone has 115, not to mention the ones in the community and schools, and the other university of  which Cambridge is home. As the title suggests, this post is about building a library. We did not set out to build a deposit library as such, but neither did we envision our library to be something like the random pile of unwanted Lonely Planets in the MCR. So this is what my friends and I did to the children in a village school in Prey Run, Takeo Province, Cambodia during the Christmas and New Year break.

These are the secret ingredients of the library from our secret recipe:
  1. Books
  2. Bookshelf
  3. Library system
And the secret procedures:
  1. Buy books.
  2. Put them on the shelf.
  3. The library system runs itself. Done.
But as with most things in the real world, starting a library cannot be done by a series of 3-step procedures. So this is what really happened, and it's not done yet:

1. Book: The truth behind Amazon Prime and The Book Depository Christmas Guarantee
To start a library, one needs to decide what to put into it. You might have thought my training in children’s literature criticism would come in handy when choosing books. In fact, I was overwhelmed with more questions than sound judgments. But one's supervisor always saves the day. So I began with a list from Maria, and added some suggestions from my colleagues and let it grow. Bearing in mind Chimamanda Adichie’s caution against The Danger of a Single Story, I was mindful of the variety of experiences, cultures and values represented in the books. For instance, Cambodia only has two seasons (the rainy season and the dry season). It is, therefore, apparent to exclude books like Maisy’s Season. But somehow personal preferences made books like Not Now Bernard appear on the list. I know, children in this village live in stilted houses, they don’t necessarily have toys and TV, and certainly not their own room, then I resolved to the justification that THIS BOOK IS FUNNY!! But on the hindsight, I realized that many of the children we met in the villages have very busy parents like Bernard's. The parents are often working two jobs day and night, and most of the children are left alone or to the care of their grandparents. So maybe Bernard’s tragedy isn’t altogether alien? Here are some of the other choices:

An over-representation of personal favourites

These books didn’t just smoothly sail into our hands. Before I talk about the logistical nightmare, I should point out that we have decided against calling for donation of old books as we foresaw all we could get were likely to be stacks of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl and Magic School Bus (due to their popularity among Hong Kong parents as literacy indoctrination instruments. Did I mention this library project is under a Hong Kong based NGO called Project Little Dream? Our potential donors were likely to be our own parents and their friends, whose children have outgrown The Famous Five.) 

Magic Tree House and Disney Magic from the donated collection

Also, we didn’t have the time to sort and store the donated books, so we shopped! And we thought we had chosen the straightforward consumerist solution!! Since the saintly Book Depository offers free worldwide delivery, I fed the list of 100+ items to its system. Long story short, some books got delivered, some didn’t, and some were said to have been delivered but in fact hadn’t, and the incomplete shipment arrived late, 3 days after we left for Cambodia. Maybe I should have known better and avoided the Christmas rush, but Christmas comes every year and they should be prepared for customers shopping in bulk, I suppose? Anyway, after I came back to the UK, I wanted so badly to get the missing items overnight through Amazon Prime. The truth is, 1-day delivery only applies to a selected few items, so save your £49 for something else!

But our task wouldn't be interrupted by these First World Problems. We went to Prey Run to set up the library as planned, only without the books.

2. Bookshelf: From the black hole to the glass box
We didn’t come with books, but the village school actually had some. There was a pile of books donated by someone else. While sorting through those books, one of us discovered a few old textbooks and completed exercise books which belonged to the daughter of her high school teacher. I guess you can’t be picky with giveaways, but I was secretly proud of our decision of not accepting donated old books. Nonetheless, books are books and that was a good start. 

Spoils from looting the Black Hole 

Numbering the books for cataloguing 
We hi-jacked these donated books, sorted out the better ones, and bought some more from the biggest bookstore in the capital Phnom Penh. We were ready to move onto the second step, only we didn’t quite have a bookshelf yet.

Our teammates battling the creepy-crawlies in The Black Hole.
The huge cabin was where the books were kept. It was dark and deep, and it didn’t keep the water and the creepy-crawlies out. Some of the books were ruined in a rainstorm during the last rainy season. So we replaced the black hole with a glass case. 

We've got company!
The books are divided into three levels of difficulties,
placed on different levels in the shelf. 

It is not the safest choice of material, but we picked the best we could find in Takeo town. Apart from the rain, I hope the glass can stand up to the excitement of the children as they smothered the new installation in their school.

Taking a really close look

3. Library System: Library Card, Borrowing Record

This is the library card. It is just a piece of paper in a plastic holder. It does not have a barcode corresponding to a digital borrowing record and an electronic catalogue. There is no electricity in the school. But books don’t need electricity. They just need to be put in a place where children can reach them and choose from them. They also need to learn how to take care of the books and return them so that other children can read them. We discussed with Teacher Thym, the teacher and only staff in the school who will double as the librarian, and come up with a simple system. We even put the ground rules in black and white, Khmer and English. 
A simple borrowing records which requires no copying of
book titles over and over again.  
Library rules in Khmer and English
 The plan is to train up the older children in the school to help with the borrowing record so that Teacher Thym would have more time to read with the children.

Working out a way to run the library feasible for Teacher Thym 

Potential student-librarians
Unfortunately we couldn’t stay any longer to read with the children and see if the borrowing system works. But next month or so when our friend in Phnom Penh delivers our parcel of books to the village, we could get some updates about the library.

Reaching the climax of the story
Struggling to share a picturebook with nearly 40 children

A girl eager to show us how much she can read.


Starting a library is good, but why English books? Isn’t that a blatant act of cultural imperialism?
A sample page from a book in
the children's books section. 
There are still many questions to be answered, and this one being the loudest in my head. But as a start, the limits of our knowledge only allows us to do what we have done. Partly because we cannot read Khmer, and therefore do not have the ability to choose the books for the library. What little we could understand from the illustrations, we are not sure whether the Khmer books we found in the bookshop in Phnom Penh are appropriate.

Also, reading shouldn't only reflect local experiences. As much as I want to find books that are culturally relevant and appropriate, I can’t say for sure I’ve made the best choices. The library is still deficient in many ways. But it is at least better than a library locked behind bars or a chest collecting dust in a messy heap.
A library donated by  Book Bridge,
which didn't open at the announced
opening hours during our stay.
A book box in an orphanage.
There are plans to expand the library collection with more Khmer titles, and to invite the people from the village to use the library. We are not sure how the library will be when we visit again in the coming Christmas, but we hope this is a good start to a good thing.

Hope they like the gift!

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