The pace of change in Myanmar is frenetic. Throughout this week, at meeting after meeting, we were told how things that were impossible two years ago were now on the doorstep. Myanmar now has one of the world’s lowest mobile penetration rates, but new telecoms legislation is pending that targets 75% within two years. Within the last month, Myanmar’s debts to the international financial institutions have been cleared, opening up the door to new funding. Just within the last week, the government was asked by the UK to join the Open Government Partnership.
For Beyond Access, we’re interested in how libraries fit into this new picture. Among our coalition, we’ve visited many countries where we see the potential for libraries to engage more purposefully in development efforts. We’ve produced briefs outlining opportunities in the Philippines, Georgia and Peru. While in these countries, we’ve been able to identify development priorities to which libraries could contribute, Myanmar strikes us as starting from a different place for a couple unique reasons.
First, in most countries, when we start talking about libraries, the initial response is about students or children. Our partner EIFL’s 2011 Africa library perceptions study confirms this association – most people consider libraries to be an extension of the education system. In Myanmar, this wasn’t the case. We heard more frequently people talk about public libraries as a community information institution – where people could learn about health issues, farmers could get information on agricultural methods, government information could be found, and where people of all ages could find something to read. Certainly, some of this reflects public libraries’ home in the bureaucracy under the Ministry of Information, where for a long time, they were seen as the propaganda arm of the government. But as governance reform makes those associations fade and internet connectivity creeps ever further outward, it creates an opening for libraries to easily slide into the role of information hub for everyone in the community.
Second, Myanmar’s public library system is huge and growing. Statistics from the Myanmar Library Foundation and the Ministry of Information put the number at 4,868, and the ministry wants to have a library in each of the country’s 60,000 villages. While we often find countries in the process of scaling back their public library systems because they no longer see the relevance, Myanmar’s government and people see the public library as an essential institution for every community. Philanthropists throughout the country have a tradition of donating to the creation of local libraries, like in the village Nyaung Bin Pu, two hours outside Mandalay, where a doctor we met funded the construction of a library for his home village. While reading and literacy are the priority right now, nearly everyone accepts that digital information will gain importance rapidly and that libraries must be able to meet this need soon as well.
We also learned that Myanmar has an admirable reading culture that even supports for-profit book-lending shops that set up near bus stops and train stations to rent out books as video shops used to do with tapes. We heard – curiously – that many libraries are often open from 4-7pm and on Saturdays, because this is when people are home from work and can visit the library. In so many countries, part of the reason library usage is declining is that libraries are open from 9-5 on weekdays – exactly when everyone is doing something else.
All of these factors add up to suggest that Myanmar’s public libraries are well-placed to support the country’s new drive for reform and development. This new phase for the country will require an informed citizenry and strong community institutions to support a more participatory approach towards governance and a new diversity of economic opportunities. With the right bit of encouragement and support, we’re convinced that Myanmar’s public libraries can play a central role in fulfilling these needs.