Helping libraries in Myanmar

Helping libraries in Myanmar
16 July 2010

Dr Helen James, one of our Petherick readers, recently came to talk to me about the work being done by Dr Thant Thaw Kaung of the Myanmar Book Centre in Yangon, Myanmar.  Dr Thant has been working to help libraries devastated by Cyclone Nargis which hit the delta area of Burma and the outskirts of Yangon two years ago. Dr Thant is assisted by a US-based NGO, the Nargis Library Recovery Foundation which is shipping consignments of books to be donated to Burmese libraries. Dr Thant is also a well-regarded supplier of books and journals for the NLA’s collection and we deal with him regularly. We contacted Thant and he sent us a description of his main needs. High on the list was English language academic books to give directly to university libraries in the cyclone-affected area. The Manager of our gift and exchange program, Julie Whiting, selected a boxful of good quality duplicates to send to Thant to pass on to other libraries. These are books where for one reason or another we have received extra copies that are not required for the collection. Julie picked out some relevant new academic and reference books in the subject areas of social and applied sciences, many with a regional focus. We packed them up and sent them off to Myanmar (Australia Post seemed to cope) and a few weeks later Thant replied to say they had arrived in good order. He wrote: ‘These books are extremely useful for our libraries. We will be donating your books to the Myanmar Fisheries Association Library, the Myanmar Agriculture University Library and the Myanmar Maritime University Library.  Again, thank you so much for your donation and we really appreciate your support’. People often think first of giving books to libraries that are in trouble. It’s a natural response to want to help rebuild devastated collections, or add to existing collections that don’t have many books in them to start with. The trouble is, book donations to developing countries are often not well matched to what the local libraries need. Sometimes the books are old, or in subject areas that are not of interest, or (very likely) they are not in the local languages that people are comfortable reading. Then the consignments need to be cleared by the recipient through local customs and, even more challenging, catalogued and processed by local staff of the libraries. No gift is ever rejected but that doesn’t mean the books will be read, sadly. I’ve seen many dusty shelves of unread donated foreign books in libraries in Indonesia. One sight I remember was a set of 19th century surgical textbooks in German (Gothic script, too) in a university library in rural East Java. The gift was well-intentioned, just ended up in the wrong place. That’s why I was intrigued to read what Dr Thant and John Badgely, a retired librarian from Cornell University and founder of the Nargis Library Recovery Fund decided to do with some of the container-loads of books that John was sending from the US to Myanmar. Many of the books will go straight to university libraries, like the NLA’s donation. But a portion of them are being sold at Book Fairs in Yangon (where there are more English speaking readers) and the proceeds of the sale put towards buying locally published Burmese language books to donate to village and school libraries in the devastated areas. There’s a great description of one of the book fairs on the Foundation’s website. This strikes me as a genuine win-win situation. Those who can afford to pay for books, do pay, the local book trade benefits from some sales of locally produced books and everyone gets the books they want.  Hats off to Thant and John Badgely for thinking it up. Amelia McKenzie Director, Overseas Collections Management