Nay Pyi Taw, February 2, 2014 — The Asia Foundation and the Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation today released the first-ever national survey of Myanmar’s public libraries in conjunction with the opening of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations Library Development Forum 2014 in the nation’s capital with the theme “Libraries for Society.”
The Myanmar Library Survey provides a comprehensive picture of the country’s library network and community information needs. While much can be done to improve infrastructure and better support libraries’ role as information hubs, the general populace view them as highly valued institutions that positively impact community life. Libraries’ high standing in communities and vast network throughout the country suggest that they have the potential to be significant catalysts for community development.
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.
In the last few years, Myanmar has undergone rapid changes as the government embarked on an ambitious agenda of sweeping national reforms and integration into the global economy. Although the country has a high literacy rate and the number of news outlets has exploded since the dismantlement of state censorship, access to information remains a challenge; seventy percent of Myanmar’s 55 million people are living in rural areas, where poor electricity and roads are real constraints.
“Sustaining Myanmar’s democratic transition and increasing economic development will require an educated and engaged citizenry. Myanmar’s libraries have the real potential to catalyze the transition of Myanmar into a connected, 21st century state. The Asia Foundation has worked with libraries throughout Asia for many years, and we’ve seen the significant role these committed community institutions play in building a knowledge society,” remarked Dr. Kim Ninh, country representative of The Asia Foundation’s Myanmar office.
In conducting this study, researchers visited 206 public libraries – the majority of which were in rural areas – in 13 of Myanmar’s 15 states and regions and conducted more than a thousand interviews with librarians, local authorities, and library users and non-users. The Ministry of Information’s Information and Public Relations Department provides many libraries with funding, but the support is very modest and all libraries must rely on additional sources of support from philanthropists and communities to sustain their operations. Libraries are staffed primarily by volunteers, underscoring the commitment of communities to support them.
Key findings from the survey 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 felt 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 of libraries know about them and have been to them for community meetings.
Libraries have very basic facilities and services, relying heavily on donors and community support for their operations. Only 55% of the libraries surveyed had electricity; eighty-two percent did not have a toilet; and 59% of librarians indicated that there are not enough tables and chairs to accommodate users. Of the 44% of libraries that receive funding for books and journals, the average amount was $24 a year or $2 a month. Given severe budget constraints, there is typically no money available to pay staff and the majority of libraries rely on volunteers. As a result, libraries depend on philanthropic community members and other donors to cover building maintenance, furniture, electricity, equipment, and staff compensation.
Poor access to technology and information is pervasive, but mobile phones are playing an increasingly important role in connectivity. Nearly all of the libraries visited did not have a computer on-site and only two had internet connection. Furthermore, just 4% of library users and non-users have a computer at home and most have little to no computer skills. Only 9% of library users and 16% of non-users said they had access to the Internet; of these, nearly all connected via their mobile phones. People still 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.
The survey findings will be circulated amongst key stakeholders, including governmental officials, policy makers, local and international non-governmental organizations, civil society, and local communities, to help initiate strategies for strengthening and invigorating these valuable Myanmar institutions.
In Myanmar, the Foundation works with partners in government, the private sector, and civil society to build the country’s capacity for regional integration, strengthen the core institutions and processes of democratic governance, and support increased access to information. Books for Asia in Myanmar donates about 36,000 books a year to approximately 170 government ministries and agencies, schools and universities, NGOs, community libraries across the country’s 14 states and regions. The Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation (MBAPF) was founded in 2002 by a group of committed librarians, business and civic leaders with the goal of promoting knowledge and learning among Myanmar people, especially those in disadvantaged communities. MBAPF works in conjunction with local and international non-governmental organizations to assist libraries with training and donations of printed and digital material, and the preservation of Myanmar historical and contemporary print culture.