With no fanfare our NLR/MBAPF project became the model for Myanmar’s national program to sustain rural libraries.
NEW LIBRARY CARDS MAKE HAPPY KIDS
THE task facing administrators and backers of rural libraries is immense. While lack of funding means many are under-resourced, a greater challenge, experts say, is simply getting people to pick up a book.
“Rural society has basically been divorced from reading for a century. We have only started to reintroduce it now,” said U Thaw Kaung, an expert in librarianship.
More than 50,000 village libraries have been established by the Ministry of Information, NGOs and private donors. While most are in need of an upgrade, more than 88 percent of villages – which contain about two-thirds of Myanmar’s population – at least have a library building.
During the reign of the Burmese kings, members of rural communities were encouraged to read in the pitakatike – an ancient library that stored payparabike (palm-leaf or gold-leaf manuscripts) – of the local monastery. At that time, monasteries were not only religious places but also the pillars of the educational system.
“There are records of some villagers who started reading in their village pitakatike and they eventually rose up to be appointed the king’s consultant on literature, stationed in the royal pitakatike in the palace,” said U Thaw Kaung, a former librarian at the National Library.
When colonial administrators replaced the traditional education system with a Western one, they mostly neglected to develop Western libraries in the place of the pitakatike. For this and other reasons, reading as a pastime has largely disappeared from rural society.
“Even after independence, this issue has never really been addressed. Consequently, except in some of the larger villages, people in rural areas do not read literature, generally speaking,” U Thaw Kaung said.
The Rural Library Development Foundation and the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association (MWJA) are the primary organisations that have been attempting to reignite the reading habit in rural communities.
In early February, they conducted an exploratory trip to libraries in Bago, Thanatpin and Kawa townships to ascertain what books are most likely to find favour with rural readers.
“The first thing we need to do is attract people to the library,” said U Maung Maung, president of the Rural Library Development Foundation. “We want to know what kinds of books can get people interested in reading again. Do they prefer sport journals, exam preparation books or something else? The foundation will have to supply the libraries with the kind of books that rural residents actually want to read. It will be useless if at this point we supply, for example, literature classics.”
To this end, officials quizzed librarians on local reading habits, and asked what the most popular titles at book rental stores were. The response? Comics, sports journals, religious books, love stories, thrillers, and magazines that focus on celebrities, horoscopes, palmistry and paranormal activities. News journals and exam study guides are also relatively popular.
The trip also confirmed that many people rarely, if ever, read anything. Daw Than Htay, a 48-year-old resident of Kamarse village in Thanatpin township, said she does not read for pleasure or to gain knowledge. When she wants to find a piece of information, she relies on members of her community for answers.
“I never turn to books to find something out. I usually just ask one of the elders in our village, or someone I think is knowledgeable. Anyway, there’s not that many things I want to know,” she said.
All the experts contacted by The Myanmar Times agreed that the content of the books stocked in village libraries was less important than actually getting people to read something.
“If they start reading … they will gradually move to more intensive books later on,” said Daw Khin Hninn Oo, a librarian at Yangon University’s Central Library.
MWJA vice chairman U Ko Ko Hlaing agreed: “We should really only focus on getting people to start reading. Once that happens, they will continue reading and choose more difficult books later.”
U Thaw Kaung suggested that while it was important to supply the books people want to read, libraries should also be supplied with both children’s books and more challenging literature, to cater for all needs.
“It would not be wise to only supply the books people want. We need to encourage people to tackle more difficult books,” he said.
The dilemma facing librarians and supporters of village libraries is one Dr Thant Lwin Maung – better known by his penname, Ko Tar – knows well: he was born in a rural community.
He believes it is important for libraries to project a relaxed atmosphere, particularly when people are visiting for the first time.
“Nobody will want to come if there are too many rules; it’s important that people feel free and relaxed at their local library. They might accidentally damage or even lose some of the books – don’t punish them for it. People will automatically look after the books properly when they learn to value them,” he said.
“We need to make sure that libraries have books that people are interested in and we need to make it easy for people to access them. That means don’t lock the books away in a cupboard.”
This is one point that Dr Thant Thaw Kaung from the Nargis Library Recovery Foundation stipulates when donating books to libraries in the Ayeyarwady delta.
“We donate books only if the librarian accepts the condition that they are displayed on the shelves of the library,” said Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, who also runs the Myanmar Book Centre. “If the books are locked in the cupboard, how can people read them?”