Picturing: The Promise of Libraries in Myanmar
April 2, 2014
Libraries and reading have a special place in Myanmar society. Yangon, the country’s largest city, is teeming with book vendors and libraries. The American Center and British Council libraries were venerated sources of up-to-date publications during Myanmar’s deepest periods of isolation. Smaller community libraries like this one have cropped up in response to community needs. Photo/ Geoffrey Hiller
However, the 70 percent of Myanmar’s population who live in rural areas face a different reality than the urban residents of Yangon. Electricity, paved roads, and other basic infrastructure services are still largely missing in these areas, making it difficult for rural communities to benefit from the rapid development experienced by the country’s urban centers. Photo/ Micah B Rubin www.micahbrubin.com
Although a rural village may lack reliable electricity or running water, chances are they have a library. Myanmar has close to 5,000 active libraries, many of which are in rural areas. The Asia Foundation recently conducted the first-ever national survey on Myanmar’s libraries and the reverence for these institutions were one of the most striking findings. When asked whether libraries have an impact on community life, 97 percent of people said they have a positive influence on their communities. But the majority of village libraries, such as this one, are severely under-resourced, lacking basic resources like books and furniture. Photo/Wendy Rockett
With greater investment, libraries have great potential to become community-based information hubs. A mobile library in Kawmhu – a rural district about two hours from Yangon – is attempting to lead the way. Kawmhu’s 123,000 residents are mainly farmers and fishermen. Despite its proximity to Yangon, it experiences similar development challenges as other rural districts in the country. For instance, electricity is unreliable and a fixed line internet connection unavailable. Moreover, good quality books are scarce. Out of Kawmhu’s 126 villages, 28 have community libraries but they are not well stocked. Photo/Wendy Rockett
Daw Khin Kyi Foundation (DKKF), established in 2010 by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in memory of her mother, began a mobile library in 2013 to improve access to information in Kawmhu. Its collection sets it apart from other libraries in the area – the books are current, high-quality Myanmar-language publications. The library bus, donated by Hino Motors, brings books directly to schools and libraries in 23 villages on a 2-week rotational basis. Above, the typical frenzy of browsing and borrowing that occurs at each mobile library stop. Photo/Wendy Rockett
Through the generous support of individuals who contributed to our Books for Myanmar Fund, The Asia Foundation made a grant to the DKKF mobile library for the purchase of its first collection of local-language books. The library currently has more than 13,000 adult and children’s books in rotation and serves 4,500 students and teachers. Photo/Wendy Rockett
The principal of Zayetkone Village primary school, one of the schools on the mobile library’s route, said that the students would not otherwise have access to books as appealing as the library provides. One hundred of her 166 students are members. Schools in Myanmar typically do not have their own libraries. The only books available for students to borrow are stored in the principal’s office and are often government-issued textbooks like these. Photo/Wendy Rockett
In addition to the mobile service, DKKF organizes computer training, English-language classes taught by the British Council, and education and health talks at their base of operations in the Kawmhu administrative office. Ko Saw Nyi San, operations manager for the mobile library project, stands in the middle of their computer room. DKKF is trying to persuade a telecom company to bring internet to Kawmhu so that they may expand their computer program to include internet training. Photo/Wendy Rockett
Since re-establishing a resident office in Myanmar last year, The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program has supported local organizations such as DKKF to improve access to information and assist library development. And, since 2007, Books for Asia has donated approximately 36,000 books each year to educational institutions throughout the country in partnership with the U.S. Embassy’s American Center. Photo/Wendy Rockett
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