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Myanmar’s Libraries: A Potential Catalyst for Community Development

February 5, 2014

By Kim N. B. Ninh

Despite five decades of near-isolation, the culture and appetite for education and reading is still very much alive for the people of Myanmar. The country maintains one of the highest literacy rates in Southeast Asia – 92.7 percent, according to government figures.

However, a just-released survey by The Asia Foundation and the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation finds that one of the key institutions contributing to this culture of reading, the extensive network of community libraries throughout the country, is lacking in adequate infrastructure and secure funding to continue fulfilling their role as major community information hubs.

Myanmar Community Library

There are 55,755 registered public libraries in Myanmar, but only 4,868 are considered active. Above, a community library in Pyinmana, some 200 miles north of Yangon. Photo/Wendy Rockett

In conducting this study, the first-ever on Myanmar’s public libraries, researchers visited 206 public libraries – the majority of which are in rural areas – in 12 of Myanmar’s 14 states and regions, as well as in the capital of Naypyitaw, and conducted more than a thousand interviews with librarians, local authorities, and library users and non-users. There are 55,755 registered public libraries in Myanmar, but only 4,868 are considered active. Prior to this study, very little was known about these libraries.

The survey concluded that Myanmar’s libraries are highly valued institutions that are seen as indispensable to community life, and while underfunded and lacking in resources, their central role in rural communities throughout the country and the voluntary support they receive in terms of staffing and donations suggests that they have the potential to be a significant catalyst for community development.

Other key findings include:

  • Libraries play a central role in village life, and they exist in even the most rural and remote communities. Ninety-seven percent of respondents said that their library has “some impact” to “very big impact” on community life. Many libraries are located in the center of the village or on the main road and often function as a community center. Even non-users know of libraries in their communities, and many have been there for community meetings.
  • Funding for libraries is limited and often unreliable. Most public libraries have no real budgetary support. Only 44 percent of libraries surveyed receive funding from any source; those that receive funding reported that the average amount was $24 a year or $2 a month. Once a library is built, recurring government support from the Ministry of Information to village libraries is limited to $20 a month for the transportation of books and journals, but even this modest support is not available to all public libraries. As a result, libraries rely on philanthropic community members and other donors to cover building maintenance, furniture, electricity, and equipment.
  • Village libraries are staffed largely by volunteers, who are poorly compensated and trained but are largely an educated group. Due to the severe budget constraints, there is no money available to maintain paid staff and the majority of libraries rely on volunteers. Given limited budgets, 98 percent of libraries surveyed have never invested in formal librarian training. Nevertheless, librarians are largely an educated group: 39 percent have finished high school and 31 percent have graduated or are attending university. Nearly half the librarians (49%) were under 40 years old, while over a third were between 40 and 59 years old. Among the 206 librarians interviewed, 67 percent were men and 33 percent were women.

The survey finds that village libraries, such as this one above, are staffed largely by volunteers, who are poorly compensated and trained but are largely an educated group. Photo/Wendy Rockett

  • Library collections are small and generally not sufficiently updated to meet users. People rely on books and printed materials as a major source of information, but the collections of libraries are generally seen as lacking. Fifty-nine percent of library users were unsatisfied with books and periodicals because they were outdated.
  • There are very few ethnic -language books in libraries. Shan-language books were the largest number of ethnic language books found in libraries, yet only 12 libraries carried them – 9 in Shan State, one in the Mandalay region, and two in the Bago region. Five libraries had Kayin-language books, disseminated in different regions (Naypyitaw, Kayah, and Kayin), and four libraries had Chin-language books (all in Chin state). In the Yangon and Tanintharyi regions, libraries had no books in ethnic languages, only Burmese and English-language books. Books in English were reported to be carried by 59 percent of libraries.
  • Libraries have very basic facilities and services. Forty-five percent of libraries surveyed do not have electricity; 82 percent do not have a toilet (suggesting that users cannot spend an extended time at the libraries); and 59 percent of librarians indicated that there are not enough tables and chairs to accommodate users.
  • Poor access to technology and information is pervasive, but mobile phones are playing an increasingly important role in connectivity. In 98 percent of the libraries visited, there were no computers on the premises or in any part of the facilities. Only two village libraries among the 206 surveyed had internet access. Just 4 percent of library users and non-users have a computer at home and most have little to no computer skills. Only 9 percent of library users and 16 percent of non-users said they had access to the internet; of these, nearly all connected via their mobile phones.

The survey findings will be circulated among key stakeholders, including governmental officials, policy-makers, local and international nongovernmental organizations, civil society, and local communities to help initiate strategies for strengthening and invigorating these valuable Myanmar institutions. The fact that these libraries constitute an existing network of information as well as community hubs with significant community support to enable them to operate underscores their organic nature such that, with some targeted support, they could significantly help to improve the quality of life for many in Myanmar.

Kim N. B. Ninh is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Myanmar. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Myanmar
Related programs: Books for Asia, Technology & Development
Related topics: Education, Literacy


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