Local Women Supporting Cambodian School Libraries

Book buying in Phnom Penh with Meas Siphen
Book buying in Phnom Penh with Meas Siphen

Fourteen school libraries, a teachers’ conference and a farewell function for a school principal — Helen Walch and Judith Miller’s recent visit to Cambodia was definitely not a leisurely holiday. The two local women are trustees for Books for Cambodia, a small charitable trust that supports the development of some rural school libraries in two Cambodian provinces. They have recently returned from a three week visit there, to see how the work of the trust is progressing.

While the trust raises money in New Zealand and Australia, all the funds are spent in Cambodia on library development. The trustees work closely with the local coordinators, Im Mach and Meas Siphen, a couple who are teachers in Takeo province. Most schools have no government funded libraries, and Books for Cambodia is filling a vital need to make books and reading more accessible to some school students.

For a school to be supported, it must already have a room available and a designated librarian, as well as support from the local community. The coordinators buy books from shops in the capital Phnom Penh, arrange for bookshelves to be built, ensure there is furniture, and provide librarian training. They also provide ongoing support for the librarians to ensure they are managing the libraries well.

Helen Walch with primary students
Helen Walch with primary students

Helen talked about their visit “We went into schools where the library was full of children poring over the books. Primary school children were reading aloud to each other, high school students were reading quietly to themselves. They enjoy novels but also access the non-fiction books on agriculture, history, geography and health.”

In the eight years the trust has been operating they have been able to support 13 schools in Takeo province and are now working with a local organization in Kampot province to help 5 school libraries there. Another is being added this year. Judith commented that there is no shortage of schools that would like the trust’s assistance. The problem is the capacity of their local partners to work effectively with the schools in the time they have available. It isn’t just a matter of buying books and walking away – the schools need ongoing support and advice.

She also described some of the other problems they have encountered: librarians being re-allocated to teaching roles because of a teacher shortage, termites eating the wooden shelves, the lack of experience amongst teachers and librarians about how to best use school libraries.

Judith Miller and Helen Walch with retiring principal
Judith Miller and Helen Walch with retiring principal

Judith and Helen find their involvement with the trust really rewarding. They see the results of their work and enjoy the connection that they have with a society that is so different from ours.

The Books for Cambodia Trust has raised over $120,000 since its inception. Interested in the trust’s activities ? Visit their website www.booksforcambodia.org or contact Judith or Helen on 06 364 6602. It’s a fascinating website.