For those who canot afford the luxury of travelling across the world, books offer a cheaper alternative.
In places where books are considered a luxury, if not a rarity, libraries provide a way to increase access to such treasure troves of knowledge, which is especially important considering the world is now increasingly becoming more multipolar. Information isn’t always as it seems, and to get to the truth, people must be able to access different narratives to formulate their views in an informed manner.
However, Cambodia faced a series of unique challenges that other societies did not have to experience – that is, the systematic erasing of any knowledge systems and valuable literature by the ultra-agrarian, anti-intellectual Khmer Rouge regime.
“When the incidents unfolded, in addition to the extrajudicial murders of Cambodia’s intellectual elite, there was also a structured attempt to erase literature that contained far more than just the history of the country,” said the brain behind Open Book, Catherine Cousins.
“As a result, quality literature was hard to find, which eventually led me to come up with something to bridge the gap.”
The reason behind Cousins’ decision is partly influenced by her experience as a teacher wherein she noticed that despite the relative rarity of good literature, it hasn’t stopped her students from seeking out good reading materials, and that the demand for such books actually extends beyond her pupils.
“When I decided to open this venue in 2002, I noticed that there are more and more people coming into from the surrounding neighbourhood,” recalled Cousins.
At first Cousins managed to hold down the fort by relying on book donations from the community, but as the popularity of her reading room grew, she had no choice but to think about future expansions to accommodate the influx of visitors who come to read at her humble reading room on Phnom Penh’s leafy Street 240.
“At first it wasn’t a library per se, it was more of a reading room as customers were initially not allowed to borrow our books to ensure we don’t lose any copies,” she said.
“Eventually we decided to charge a $15 lifetime membership fee, which could help us sustain and expand our collection and operations.”
Her decision has paid off handsomely. Open Book now operates in five different locations, three of which are located in Phnom Penh. Its original location is a simple premises, which looks more like an extension of a living room, filled to the brim with literature ranging from children’s fables, folk tales, to classical literature that spans across more than seven languages. In lieu of chairs and reading nooks, there are woven mats complete with cushions that are provided for readers to laze around on. There is also a refurbished cyclo that has been repurposed as a rocking chair.
“Information is very institutionalised these days, and it is reflected in the design of public libraries around Phnom Penh,” explained Cousins of her decision. “I don’t want that sense of austerity. I want people to come in and know immediately that this is a safe space where they can let their imaginations roam free.”
Due to personal reasons, Cousins has had to make the decision to split her time between Phnom Penh and Singapore, which meant that she no longer has the time to oversee the entire operation.
“In 2006, Open Book became a locally-registered NGO, and I am blessed to have met people with the same passion for books as I do,” she said. “Our local staff is very involved in keeping the spirit of Open Book alive, and we have seen great leaps being made to ensure the sustainability of our operations.”
The dedication of Open Book staff members is evident in the additional work and personal sacrifices that they have made to preserve the status of libraries as a bastion of knowledge. One such outstanding sacrifice was made by Sam Sophal, an Open Book staff member who joined the organisation in 2003.
“As a child, I never had the chance to read,” said Sophal.
“I wanted to read because I never had the chance to finish my education, but there were very little options available.”
Spurred by her own experience, in 2013 she decided to volunteer her home as a base for Open Book’s second location in Boeung Tumpun on the capital’s southern fringes.
“It isn’t an affluent area, but that hasn’t dampened the desire of the children in the area to seek out quality literature,” said Sophal.
“By no means is it a complex operation. It is, in fact, manned by my mother – but that’s beside the point,” she continued. “I want them to be able to read, because it helps them to think outside the box, trains them in critical thinking, and see the world in a more nuanced manner.”
Her passion for books seems to have rubbed off on her daughter, Nem Kanaka. Now 17 years old and with a penchant for teenage rom-coms, she helps Sophal to manage the libraries. “Reading is so underrated,” said Kanaka. “A film adaptation will never be as good as the original book, because books allow us to wander to the outer limits of our imagination.”