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Between Public and Power: A Colonial History of the National Library of Cambodia

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What is the history of the National Library of Cambodia? What cultural and political roles did this institution have during the French colonial period and in postcolonial Cambodia? This talk shares archival research findings on the National Library of Cambodia during the French colonial period. Dr. Nguyen unearths the social life of the library and the significance of the colonial library institution as a symbol and technology of textual authority. Dr. Nguyen analyzes how the colonial library architecture, organization, and operations contributed to defining an abstract Western notion of ‘public’ and ‘textual authority’ that perpetuated colonial hierarchies of privileged knowledge access. This project contributes new findings to understanding Cambodian histories of print culture, colonial society, and urbanism. As a scholar of libraries and Southeast Asia, Dr. Nguyen provides a theoretical and methodological framework called ‘bibliotactics’ to critically examine institutions of knowledge in colonial contexts.


Cindy Nguyen is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow based in the History and Literature departments at University of California, San Diego. She specializes in the history of Southeast Asia print culture, digital humanities, and libraries. Her book manuscript, “Bibliotactics: The Social Life of Libraries and Colonial Control in Vietnam, 1865–1958” reveals how the library reading room became a space of urban sociability, cultural imperialism, and self-directed education. Nguyen is also a public scholar and community artist exploring themes of memory, translation, and migration. To learn more about her historical scholarship, teaching, and digital humanities work, see her website https://cindyanguyen.com

Moderator: Dr. Steve Heder, London School of Oriental and African Studies. Dr. Steve Heder has studied, worked in or taught about Southeast Asia and China since the early 1970s. He holds a PhD in Politics and has worked for the United Nations and various human rights organizations. He is currently a Research Associate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute. His particular research interests have included democracy, revolution, genocide and human rights.

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