Late last year, my research on libraries in Myanmar, democratic reforms, and the role of information in development was published, Myanmar Libraries after the Opening Up. The working title was “Portrait in time”, which seems ever more appropriate given what happened immediately before, and after, the article was published.
I worked on a development project with Myanmar Library Association between 2013 and 2016, and had been hoping to return this year to participate in the CONSAL conference but the timing of my relocation to Australia meant that wasn’t possible. Each of the projects I managed as part of the Building Strong Library Associations programme was fascinating in its own way, but Myanmar was intended to be perhaps a little more ambitious – here was a country that was undergoing democratisation under our feet, and the watching eyes of so many sectors seeking investment and development agencies. My research traced the recent development of libraries and efforts to build the sector’s capacity leading up to and after the first democratic elections held in the country in nearly 50 years, at the end of 2015. During visits to the country, I learned about the impact of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 that led to national legal and policy reforms, and a gradual ‘opening up’ of the country. When we arrived in 2013, we found a library sector in need of modernisation, networking, and professional skills, yet with a solid foundation of nearly 5000 libraries across the country to build on. My mobile phone did not work on my first trip, and by 2016 everyone around me was on Facebook and Skype. The promise of change, democracy, and development during those years was enormous.
Yet, as it so often happens, history and politics intervened in 2017, and much of the promise remains unfulfilled. The attention on Myanmar now is frequently for the wrong reasons, as unrealistic expectations are reckoned with and serious human rights failings are challenged. Just a few months on, the research feels like a snapshot in time of what could still be, if Myanmar can overcome backsliding on national reforms, and make significant investments in infrastructure and skills. These are especially critical when people are targeted by misinformation and haven’t had the chance to develop the ability to appraise information spread through social media. Libraries must still be transformed to meet the changing needs of information users in a young democracy.