Palm-Leaf Manuscripts at the National Library of Cambodia
Cambodia suffered many wars in the last century. The period from 1975 to 1979, when the country was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, was the most brutal and destructive period in the history of the country. Under the Khmer Rouge regime, all cultural institutions were destroyed, including the National Library of Cambodia located in Phnom Penh, capital of the country. At the time, the National Library was turned into an office of the military, where soldiers burned furniture and books for cooking. Fortunately, by the time the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese army in 1979, a few thousand books in the library still remained. Among the surviving materials was a collection of about 500 palm-leaf manuscripts.
The palm-leaf manuscripts, written in Pali and Khmer, with some written in Thai, are important records of Buddhist literature, including Buddhist prayers and sermons, and Cambodian folktales. The manuscripts seem to date mainly from the 19th century, since the most practical preservation strategy had been constantly to copy deteriorating manuscripts, a task traditionally performed by Buddhist monks. Between 1989 and 1990, Cornell University assisted the National Library of Cambodia preserve the deteriorated manuscripts, by cleaning and storing them in archival boxes. The manuscripts were then microfilmed. Copies of the microfilms are currently available only at two American institutions, the Center for Research Library and Cornell University Library, while the one held at the National Library of Cambodia is unusable because the only microfilm reader in the library is not working.
This digitization project, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, digitized 511 palm-leaf manuscripts at the National Library of Cambodia, making them freely available online. Scholars worldwide now have access to these valuable primary sources for the study of religions, literature, and culture of Cambodia. By digitizing the manuscripts, the project also helped preserve an important cultural heritage of Cambodia.