Notes from the Field

How Can Burma’s Libraries Catalyze Development?

February 27, 2013

A delegation from The Asia Foundation, Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), and International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) spent time in Burma (also known as Myanmar) last week to hear from citizens and representatives from government, civil society, and libraries to better understand the country’s development priorities and examine how libraries can help contribute to reform. The delegation was part of Beyond Access, a global community of public library advocates and practitioners. The group met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who discussed plans to launch a mobile library in her constituency of Kawhmu township outside of Yangon to “rekindle a love of reading and libraries in Myanmar,” and also Deputy Minister of Information U Ye Htut, who told the group that he would like to see a library in every one of Burma’s 60,000 villages. Below is an article written by Asia Foundation delegation member Wendy Rockett, recently published by Beyond Access. For more news from the Burma trip, see the Beyond Blog, or read more about the Beyond Access initiative.

The Asia Foundation's Wendy Rockett (left) and other Beyond Access team members meet with Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Burma MP Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Asia Foundation’s Wendy Rockett (left) and other Beyond Access team members meet with Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Burma MP Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We want Myanmar to be a knowledge-based society, a learning society. One that is very open, one where everyone is treated with respect.”

With these words, Dr. Aung Tun Thet, senior adviser at the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office in Myanmar, kicked off Beyond Access’ salon in Yangon with this vision for the country’s future. Although Myanmar has a high literacy rate and the number of news outlets has exploded since the dismantlement of state censorship, school drop-out rates are high and access to information remains a challenge, particularly in rural areas. Electricity is often unreliable, even in Yangon, and only 1 percent of the country has internet. In order to identify new ways forward, a wide coalition of people ranging from librarians and community groups to international NGOs and aid agencies to technology, publishing, and education professionals gathered at the National Museum on Tuesday to discuss Myanmar’s pressing information needs.

Local organizations highlighted the difficulties faced by rural communities and suggested ways in which libraries could be revitalized to play a central role in educating and informing remote communities. Daw Cho Cho Aung, a representative from the Bayda Institute, pointed out there is a lack of books in the Myanmar language. “English books are very precious. But those who live in rural areas cannot read them, which is why Myanmar books are needed.” U Htoo Chit, director of Thabyay Education Foundation, added, “We need not only books, but we need to also raise awareness about the importance of reading.”

Library in Burma

The library at Sint Gu, a remote village outside of Mandalay. As is typical in rural Burma, a community leader funded the construction of the library and a volunteer acts as the librarian. Photo/Wendy Rockett

May Moe New, managing director of the Myanmar Book Center, emphasized that libraries need to address the specific needs of the communities they serve: “If it’s a normal public library, people are not so interested to come. What we can do is provide everyday, up-to-date info in Myanmar language to these community centers in rural libraries at grassroots level.”

Technology was a hot topic of conversation. Martin of Kant Kaw Education Center suggested that equipping rural libraries with computers and internet access be prioritized. He pointed out that villagers often have “little or no current information on what’s happening inside Myanmar.”

Ed Anderson, The Asia Foundation’s program manager in Myanmar, suggested: “Instead of focusing library by library, book by book, we should look at the bigger picture.” He urged the group to “think beyond the building” and examine how libraries use technology to provide enhanced services. iG Publishing’s Dr. Aung Maw agreed: “We need to think about ways and means for access. Libraries are one of them. Radios and call centers are another means of accessing information.” He also suggested collating information central to people’s lives, such as news on agriculture, business, and health, from Myanmar’s numerous news journals and distributing them to remote communities via DVD. Journals are one of the main sources of information in the country. Other topics discussed included the importance of open government initiatives and public-private partnerships.

Monika Elbert of EIFL neatly summed up the main challenges facing library development in Myanmar, identified as the 5 c’s: connectivity, computers, content, competence of librarians, and community needs.

Editor’s note: This version has been edited slightly from the original.

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