Why it’s Crucial to Leverage Libraries for Access to Information in Myanmar

In September, IREX and Beyond Access partnered with IFLA and the New York Public Library to host a discussion about access to information and the Sustainable Development Goals. During the event, librarian Myat Sann Nyein shared her experience leveraging libraries for community development in Myanmar. These are her remarks. This piece was originally published by IREX.

During the darkest years of the former regime, information was under threat. In libraries, we started creating spaces for education, information, and people-to-people connections. We worked with libraries because they are a neutral, safe community space open to everyone.

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I have served as a librarian since 1985 because I believe in the power of information to improve and transform the lives of our fellow citizens. The recent changes in Myanmar have opened up new possibilities. But most people need help making the most of them. In the last few years, I’ve been part of an effort that has helped public librarians reorient towards new user needs. Libraries in Myanmar are no longer places to just find books; they are places that help people adapt to the information age.

Public libraries are not only a Western feature. We have over 5,000 community libraries in Myanmar and they play a central role in our lives. They are among the most trusted community institutions in the country.

The world needs ambitious goals like the new Sustainable Development Goals, but we also need to think of the “how to.” I have witnessed how aspirations are transformed into action through libraries throughout my career.

In Parl, a satellite town of Yangon, children who live on the street have no access to formal education. These children typically come from families who are struggling to keep up with the country’s changing economy. The local librarian knew these children and started thinking about what role the library could play in their lives. She invited them to use the library and they came nearly every morning. She taught them how to use tablets and showed them how to play educational games. They returned to the library again and again.

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Before they started visiting the library, their families did not regard education as important. But the library helped them become eager to learn more and more. The librarian then persuaded their parents to take some of them to the orphanage center to continue their studies.

The technology attracted the kids into the library, but now their lives have been changed. This is just one example in Myanmar. More than 26,000 people used tablets at libraries in the last six months, and each of them has a story.

We are going through a transition in Myanmar right now, from military regime to democratic society, which requires officials in every community to translate this new vision into action on the ground. Technology must be part of this process, ensuring an informed public and government. In many places, the library is the only place to use and learn about technology.

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In Myanmar we are struggling with human trafficking, which occurs primarily from villages. In Yedashay, the government public library is contributing to the solution.

Local police officers are leading an awareness campaign for people in the nearby villages, though they do not have the right resources and tools. The librarian invited police officials to come to the library to learn how to use the Internet to seek information about trafficking. Sharing this information, the police started building an informed coalition against human trafficking in the villages.

Libraries in Myanmar are doing these sorts of things every day, in 5,000 communities around the country. And they could be central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Google has not made libraries outdated – I have seen that there’s never been more of a need for libraries than today, when the ability to use information is what determines success in the global economy. As we think together about how to achieve the 2030 goals, libraries must be part of the discussion and part of the solution.

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