A librarian where there were none

Wanna Net isn't certain what day or year he was born but does know one thing: He's one of the very few, maybe the only, Western-trained holder of a graduate degree in contemporary library science in Cambodia. Net recently completed a master's degree in library and information science at The UW Information School and an international development certificate from the UW Evans School of Public Affairs.

His goal: to expand libraries in a culture where libraries haven't been cherished centers for education.

"Cambodian libraries are underdeveloped," said Net, who believes he's about 29. "Lack of a reading tradition is one the many factors that constrain this development. Not many Cambodian people understand the value of libraries. Most think that they're for storage rather than lifelong learning, so it's a great opportunity for me to contribute."

For centuries, Cambodian cultural traditions have been handed down via dance, art and oral storytelling rather than in written texts. Cambodia is also one of the poorest countries in the world, so libraries haven't been a priority.

Then too, nearly all libraries were destroyed and all but several hundred intellectuals killed when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime decimated Cambodia in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Net's story is all about work and luck. Sometime after the Vietnamese routed the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Cambodian farmer Nin Soam and his wife, Touch Prom, fled with their family into the jungle. The couple found Net as a malnourished toddler alone in an ox cart - while the fighting continued around them.

The family wound up in a refugee camp along the border between Cambodia and Thailand, where Net eventually finished elementary school.

Soam and Prom always wanted to take their family home, however, and 1993, they managed a return to Takeo, a remote province in northwest Cambodia.

Net wanted to continue school, but there was no middle or high school, and no relatives in the nearest provincial town, so like other poor children, Net lived with Buddhist monks in the town while attending classes.

By the time he finished high school in 1999, Net had also lived with the family of a school friend and a kind New Zealander, someone he met on a street, who both sheltered him and paid his school fees.

Eventually, and while continuing the long string of part-time jobs he'd had since a teenager, Net earned a business degree from the National University of Management in Phnom Penh.

At the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Net will help plan a 2,400-square meter (25,820 square foot) addition to the Hun Sen Library which will double its current space.

He'd also like to better organize the library, eventually making it the leading library in the country. Along the way, he wants to help more Cambodians better understand the value of great libraries.

"I feel there is much work to be done," Net said.