A Prince for all Pages

As this year is the 150th anniversary of Prince Damrongrajanubhab's birth, Life visits the library which boasts of a rare collection of his works and books

The serenity of the Prince Damrongrajanubhab Library, set far back from the ever-bustling Lan Luang Road, will make anyone forget the busy world outside.

The library, a three-storey, white, European-style building is graciously located on the compound of the Varadis Palace where Prince Damrongrajanubhab (1862-1943) had lived until the last days of his life. Part of the palace is now open as a museum.

"Visitors to the palace museum will learn about Prince Damrongrajanubhab's life, while those coming to the library will learn about his works," chief librarian Yanee Kuharat said.

The library, which houses some 7,000 books in Thai and English that belonged to the Prince, was an initiative of the late MC Poon Pisamai Diskul, the Prince's daughter, who inherited all the tomes from her father. Some were the Prince's own works.

Photographs of monarchs and members of royal families and dignitaries in Europe that were sent to Prince Damrongrajanubhab. Each bears the owner’s signature and a personal note.

It was said that MC Poon Pisamai thought of establishing a "Damrong Room" between 1932 and 1942, the period when the Prince was in exile in Penang following the political change that abolished absolute monarchy. She wanted the public to know more of the Prince, who proved to be a trustworthy figure for King Rama V, his older half-brother, at the time when the monarchy introduced drastic reforms during the threat of colonisation.

Princess Poon Pisamai once said she would be heartbroken if she was to find the Prince's works or notes on sale at Werng Nakhon Kasem used book market. The Pridi Banomyong government allocated the budget for the library's construction.

Initially, the library was established in 1947 on a space between Wat Maha That temple and the then Vajirayan library in Phra Nakhon district. It was moved to the palace compound in 1989.

Of the collection, history and archaeology textbooks _ a main interest of the well-rounded Prince who was named the Father of Modern Thai History and Archaeology _ occupy the most space in the library. The Prince pioneered what would later be known as modern Thai history, through a new style of history textbook writing.

In his memoir, published in the local administration book Thesaphiban, the Prince said King Rama V appointed him interior minister, transferring him from the Education Ministry, in 1892 without prior knowledge. The shift came only one year before the Ror Sor 112 incident at the peak of the colonisation crisis.

The Prince had focused his attention on education and history (then part of the Education Ministry) and was not keen with the new job. He expressed his concern to the King, and asked to return to his old job, one he profoundly loved, if he was unable to perform impressively at the Interior Ministry.

But the King was confident that the Prince would succeed with his new assignment streamlining local administration work _ a very important task at a crucial time.

A book containing the Prince’s handwriting.

''The Prince was a hard-working person who had made huge contribution to this country. Three days before his passing, he was still signing papers,'' Yanee said.

Obviously, the Prince was an avid reader. And his book collection is a national treasure, the librarian said.

This year the government kicks off grand celebrations to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Prince's birth, starting officially tomorrow. It also coincides with the 120th anniversary of the Interior Ministry. In 1962, the Prince became the first Thai to be honoured by Unesco as a figure of world importance.

''This place is a source of rare books, several of which can't be found elsewhere,'' said Yanee, who has been in charge of the library for 10 years.

Many on the shelves are first editions with leather covers and gilded-letter titles.

Textbooks that the Prince used as a young student are well kept at the library. These books contained his name in his own handwriting. They are kept along with a collection of textbooks from Suan Kularb School, a school to produce civil servants, founded by the Prince.

A staffer repairs a library card.

There are also personal notes between the Prince and King Rama V as well as members of the Royal Family.

''The library also possesses a large number of the Prince's manuscripts,'' Yanee said, adding that some can be viewed by visitors.

Also interesting is a set of travelogues, written by the Prince, of the trips he made both in the Kingdom and in foreign lands, said Yanee. Most of his domestic travel was made during his time as interior minister.

''This is what the Somdej (Prince Damrongrajanubhab) and Somdej Phra Dhebharatana (Princess Sirindhorn) have in common. The Princess always writes about the places she visits. She is also an ardent reader,'' the librarian noted.

According to Yanee, the library has begun an online project which is continuing slowly because of budget constraints. Only a little more than 350 books, or 0.5% of the entire collection, can be read in digital form.

''We could make only 30 books in the first batch. When Culture Minister Anurak Jureemat visited the library, I showed him a photo of an ancient temple in his hometown in Isan, taken by the Prince during his tour of the Northeast, the minister was thrilled. He then allocated 1 million baht from the ministry's coffer to the project.''

A post-graduate student who visited the library for his research made the law books available online.

''The books were so fragile they were about to fall apart. The student then donated 10,000 baht to have them scanned, and preserved,'' the librarian said. Apart from books and documents, the library also boasts a large set of vintage photographs, more than 10,000 items, which can be viewed online. ''Some were taken by the Prince. Some were photos of the Prince, shot by King Rama V and others,'' she said.

Also open to viewers are the Prince's personal effects, postcards and photographs from some European monarchs, among them King George V and Queen Victoria of Britain, which are displayed on the library's second floor.

When asked which of the Prince's works should be recommended to young readers, Yanee said without a second thought, San Somdej, a correspondence on various topics between the Prince and Prince Narisaranuvattivong, also his half-brother and a great scholar. Original manuscripts are kept at the library.

''The collection, which comes in 55 parts, gathers a wide range of knowledge on art, history, culture. It's truly worth reading,'' she said.

Librarian Yanee Kuharat oversees the collection of rare books, many of which can’t be found elsewhere.

The Prince Damrongrajanubhab Library on Lan Luang Road will welcome Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn tomorrow. The royal visit, which coincides with the Prince’s birthday on Thursday, is to herald a series of celebrations to mark his 150th birth anniversary this year.

A textbook from the early years of Suan Kularb School, and textbooks that were used by Prince Damrongrajanubhab as a student.

An original set of history textbooks in leather covers with gilded-letter titles. The library also houses original works by well-known authors like HG Wells and Charles Dickens and plays by King Rama VI.

About the author

Writer: Ploenpote Atthakor
Position: Deputy Editorial Pages Editor