Long Beach PL Catalogs, Indexes Khmer Collection

For many years, patrons looking for Khmer-language books had to search the Long Beach Public Library's (LBPL) catalog in English first, or browse the shelves. Now, thanks to a Library Services and Technology Act grant administered through the California State Library and an in-depth collaboration with Long Beach’s United Cambodian Community agency, readers can search LBPL’s online catalog by author, title, or subject directly in Khmer.

row of Khmer-language books on shelf
Khmer-language books at LBPL
Photo by Christine Hertzel

Long Beach, CA, is home to the largest Cambodian and Cambodian American community in the United States, and the Long Beach Public Library (LBPL) holds the largest collection of Khmer (pronounced Ka-mai) language materials of any U.S. public library—approximately 5,000 adult and children’s books. Khmer is the official language of Cambodia, and is the language most commonly spoken by people of Cambodian descent.

For many years, patrons looking for Khmer-language books had to search the library’s catalog in English first, or browse the shelves. Now, thanks to a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant administered through the California State Library and an in-depth collaboration with Long Beach’s United Cambodian Community (UCC) agency, readers can search LBPL’s online catalog by author, title, or subject directly in Khmer.



Long Beach, a city of 486,000 in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, has an ethnic Cambodian population of nearly 20,000—the second-largest outside of Asia, after Paris. LBPL’s Khmer collection is housed at the Mark Twain Neighborhood Library, in the heart of the neighborhood known as Cambodia Town.

The branch librarian began collecting Khmer-language books in the early 1980s, when many survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime fled to the United States. Few bookstores at the time carried Khmer material; she often found photocopied books that had been brought over from Cambodia in grocery stores and fabric shops. In 2007, LBPL sent two staff members to Cambodia to buy books to supplement the collection, and again in 2012.

Cambodia’s publishing industry continued to expand; in 2018, the LBPL Foundation and Friends of the Library paid for Senior Librarian Jennifer Songster and then General Librarian for Teen Services Christina Nhek, who is Cambodian American, to attend the Cambodia Book Fair in Phnom Penh. They brought back 1,300 new Khmer-language books, CDs, and more. The branch began offering classes in Khmer to encourage use of the collection and to connect Cambodian residents to the library.

Because Khmer uses a non-Roman alphabet, metadata for the catalogued material was transliterated into English. Between half and a third of the collection was not catalogued, but rather grouped into one continuous record. Items were listed as ‘Khmer fiction” or “Khmer nonfiction” or might include a title. This “master record” contained barcode information and enabled patrons to check out materials, but they still couldn’t search items in the catalog. When she came to Mark Twain in 2014, said Songster, “I was exposed for the first time to a community that was not familiar with the library.” Many Cambodian residents she spoke with didn’t know about searching the library’s catalog, and wouldn’t have been able to find what they wanted even if they knew where to look. “It seemed really obvious that if people can't find the material except by browsing through it, then it's not an accessible collection. So it was at that point that I started thinking about it needing to be in the catalog in Khmer, and not transliterated.”

By 2018, circulation on the collection was dropping. LBPL applied for, and received, an LSTA Pitch-An-Idea grant to begin cataloging its Khmer-language materials.

Some of this funding went toward hiring Kan Sanghak, a Khmer language expert, through UCC. “We were really fortunate—he had experience creating community libraries in Cambodia,” said Christine Hertzel, manager of LBPL’s automated services bureau, who joined the library in 2018, shortly after the grant was secured. “They look a bit different than what we're used to here, but he was very familiar with the concept of libraries, very passionate about bringing that to community members, and also very passionate about the Khmer language and the importance of language in fostering connection to community and culture and heritage.”



The project began in January 2019, after Songster returned from Cambodia. New materials were cataloged right away, and about half the older materials were done by that September. Kan worked closely with LBPL’s cataloguer, using a special Khmer-character keyboard to enter each book into the library’s ILS. With few examples of other libraries doing non-Roman cataloging to learn from, Songster and Hertzel had to invent their own workflow as they went along.

LBPL wanted to make the records available to any library that could use them. This meant coordinating with OCLC, which did not ordinarily mix translations on records. “We didn't want to suddenly start adding all these records that were going to get flagged,” Hertzel told LJ. “So we worked closely with them to understand a little bit about what would make sense as far as translating subject headings—our subject headings are officially translations of Library of Congress subject headings. We did decide to delve into the concept of a hybrid record, which includes an English translation of a non-Roman language.”

Songster and Hertzel also needed to work with MARCIVE bibliographic services, which the library uses for authority record management and processing, to incorporate the new standards. “If we send off the Khmer records as is, they'll end up getting overwritten by MARCIVE's out-of-the-box standards,” said Hertzel. “We work with them to ignore certain indicators, or basically create a template of how to handle our Khmer records.”

The records also needed to be indexed to be fully searchable, Hertzel realized when she joined the project. The Khmer language is complex, with the world’s largest alphabet—74 letters—and multiple diacritics. Innovative, the integrated library system (ILS) used by LBPL, did not have an integrated Khmer index, so Hertzel worked with the company over the next year to develop one.

Besides the work needed to coordinate with various vendors and platforms, the cataloging process itself posed multiple challenges. Books published in Cambodia have different bibliographic standards from those published in Western countries, and may not provide publication data. Titles are customarily descriptions of their works’ subjects, and can run very long. Even for books that have been translated, said Songster, there is often not a one-to-one English translation of a Khmer title.

The Khmer index doesn’t have the offerings of suggestions for misspelled words that an English-language index does, “So if [a term] is misspelled even slightly it's not going to return results, because it doesn't have what it needs to find another word,” said Songster. “It’s easy to misspell something along the way.” (A Khmer keyboard will be installed at the branch's public catalog computer.)

There was also the question of whether to use transliterated author names, translated names, or given names in Khmer. “We talked through a lot and ended up defaulting to creating new authority records within our own ILS so that we could honor the fact that there's a trend in moving away from transliterated names and using people's given vernacular names or their preferred translation,” said Hertzel. “That was a new way of cataloging for us.”

A five-person group from UCC helped test the search features of LBPL’s public catalog, and their response was positive—both about the catalog’s accessibility and the library experience. “They were all library users but didn't have library cards,” Songster told LJ. “We sent out a survey afterward asking if they were likely to get a library card, among other things, and their response was that they were.”

LBPL has applied for another grant to complete the project. In the meantime, the team is troubleshooting a range of small issues, such as getting the library’s receipt printer to print Khmer, or tweaking the discovery layer—often the Khmer font displays much smaller than the English, with no way to resize each language’s text independently.

“It's been a group effort to be able to bring this to fruition,” said Hertzel—including the support of management and staff, good relationships with vendors, and encouragement within the Cambodian community. “It's been fantastic to come together as a team and learn new expertise, stretch our thinking, figure out a way to break library standards to make this useful.”

Janet Katz & Sanghak Kan on either side of library card holding Khmer-language books
Catalogers Janet Katz and Kan Sanghak
Photo by Christine Hertzel

Although the Cambodian community had only six months to use the collection before LBPL buildings closed under pandemic restrictions and the library moved to curbside pickup, and indexing was just completed in March—the Mark Twain branch reopened on May 18— Nhek, now the branch’s senior librarian, has gotten positive feedback from residents. The library has done some outreach about the Khmer catalog; LSTA funds paid for a video ad for the library filmed by a local Khmer television station as well as filming several story times in Khmer, community programming such as a concert featuring Cambodian musicians playing traditional instruments, and a "mini-library" of Khmer books to be used on-site at UCC. Kan, the library’s Khmer consultant, “ended up being a fantastic spokesperson and marketer— influencer, if you want to use that term—for the collection and for the library,” said Hertzel. Each week Kan brought in someone new from the Long Beach Cambodian community—business owners, university professors, artists, monks from the local temples—to photograph them with the collection, and he then posted the pictures to his social media accounts.

Songster and Hertzel hope that the library can ultimately encourage Khmer literacy in the community, as many Khmer speakers cannot read the language. The organizer of an initiative to establish a Khmer immersion school in Long Beach plans to incorporate the library’s collection.

Despite the many complexities involved in the Khmer cataloguing project, “I want people to be able to walk away knowing that this is something that they could do in their communities—I think this is a need that exists in more communities than we may realize,” noted Hertzel. “You’re not always going to know who’s in your service area. They’re not always going to come up to the desk and say, ‘Hi, here I am, help me, this is what I need.’” While LBPL was fortunate in having a clearly defined set of needs to serve its Cambodian community, she suggests that libraries check census data to see who lives in their neighborhoods and talk with other community organizations. “Pull in your vendors, pull in your language experts, pull in the cataloguing experts,” she said. “Admit your fear of trying something new, and then do it, and get the direction that you need from the people that you’re looking to serve. It really is a two-way relationship.”

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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