LIBRARIES AND I

  • By Maung Hlaing
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    People reading at the library of Sarpay Beikman.  Photo: Sandar Soe

IT was during the days early 1950s when our nation including rural areas saw the recession. At that time, there were no enough schools let alone libraries.
To make matters worse, due to the insurgency, peace and stability did not prevail throughout the country. We were brought up while the governemnt troops and destructive elements were playing hide-and-seek, killing each other in those days. Severe exchanges of fire between the government forces and the insurgents were very common to us.
In such a situation, how could we widen our horizon? How could we take happiness in reading? How could we build a learning society? No reading rooms. No reading materials. As for us, we had completely to rely much on the monasteries where we pursued monastic education. Members of the Sangha taught us primary education simply because most of us were not able to go in for formal education at government schools – primary, middle, and high schools – for various reasons.
Because of the teaching monks, we came to know how to read and write. However, we had no access to the place where we could continue to read and write.
Before long, we could see a silver lining in the dark clouds of those days. It was nothing but a so-called library that emerged in our ward. It was not much more than a reading room known as only a single library called “Lin-yaung-chi,” or “Glean of light.”
When I was sent to State High School, our school library attracted me when the class was in recess. The school library was larger than the one we had in our ward. To my memoirs, there was only a reading room run by Information Department known as Information and Public Relations Department (IPRD) today. No matter how they were called reading rooms, reading centres, or libraries, they were the storehouses of knowledge. They were the places where we could seek knowledge. Actually, they promote our lives!
It seems like just yesterday or the day before yesterday that we had lived in the undeveloped society.
According to historical records, the library movement in Myanmar began at the beginning of the Bagan Dynasty. King Anawrahta built a palace library in A.D. 1058 for the purpose of spreading cultural and religious knowledge among the courtiers and laymen.
Then again in the 18th Century, a year after ascending the throne, King Bodawpaya took an inventory of the inscriptions, palmleaves and parabaiks and caused copies to be made in order to launch the library movement. Such an undertaking was not only advantageous to laymen of those days but also a treasure to hostorians. There is no reason to doubt that due to the farsightedness of the Myanmar kings, the library movement gained momentum to an appreciable extent.
During the colonial period, the aims of the movement faded out. However, even during the war, a group of devoted literary men continued the task of creating Myanmar manuscripts while working in the Bureau of Libraries and Literature of the Directorale of Education. People like U Thein Han (Saya Zaw Gyi) carried on this work. Yet after independence, I was told that because of lack of patronage, the movement was not revived. The task was resumed only in the wake of the nationwide literacy campaign. According to statistics gathered for the International Book Year (1972), there were no less than 700 libraries all over Myanmar at that time. In the time of U Thein Sein Government, a total of 55,755 village libraries were opened nationwide. I was flabbergasted.

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When I moved to Yangon to work as a junior clerk in the Telecomminication Department (South Burma) in 1967, my office was not far from the Sarpay Beikman Public Library and the National Library. Since then, these libraries have became my treasurehouses. And the librarians also became my mentors who taught me how to use catalogues and helped me visit the world of books.
Sarpay Beikman Public Library was a first and foremost free public library opened in the post-independence period. It was established on 13 March, 1956 in the Sarpay Beikman Building (at 529-531, Merchant Street in Kyauktada Township, Yangon.) It was one of the few free public libraries in Myanmar. It was learnt that the library attracted from 200 to 450 readers daily in its early days. It had nearly 13,000 books, both English and Myanmar. An integral part of the library was a Children’s Branch situated on the ground floor of the building.
Today, the Sarpay Beikman has kept a collection of over 60,000 Myanmar books (including rare ones), over 25,000 English books, over 15,000 magazines, 35,000 journals, 850 monthly files of newspapers, 110 C.Ds and 20,000 e-books.
The National Library has a long history. The Bernard Free Library (1883) was handred over to the Ministry of Culture in 1952 and renamed State Library, which was opened at the Jubilee Hall in Yangon on 1 June the same year. After being renamed National Library, the facility was moved to a building in Pansodan Street and then to Yangon City Hall.
According to the Global New Light of Myanmar, 29 July 2016, the National Library has a large collection of books, periodicals, manuscripts and other rare books, holding 172,556 books, 435,580 periodicals, 12,323 palm-leaf manuscripts, 345 hand-written letters, 25,468 rare books and other library materials.
When I joined the Worker’s College, although I spent most of my leisure hours at the college library, I hardly visit the Yangon University Library and the Universities’ Central Library. Anyway, libraries can improve the image of the people and the nation. There is no nation that is not proud of its national library.
During my stay in Washington D.C in 2016, I happened to visit the Library of Congress. According to the pamphlet they gave me, the Library of Congress is the world’s largest repository of knowledge and creativity, with a growing collection of more than 162 million items, including books, print materials, sound recordings, photographs, maps, sheet music, motion pictures and manuscripts in more than 470 languages. I was told that the library of Congress was established in 1800. (I wish I had such a library in our country.)
Now, we can be proud of the National Library (Nay Pyi Taw) which is located near the Kumudra Circle in Ottra Thiri Township, Nay Pyi Taw. The foundation was laid down in 2010 and the library was open to the public in 2013. The National Library of Myanmar is one of the national level institutions of the country under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. The Library provides the services of reference, reading room, periocicals, children corner, photocopying, library and the Internet.
Although Nay Pyi Taw, the capital city of Myanmar, can possess the national image, as for Yangon, the commercial city, when?
On 28 July, 2016, a coordination meeting took place at the Presidential Palace in Nay Pyi Taw to discuss the relocation of the National Library to a convenient environment in the commercial hub of Yangon City. The meeting reached an agreement to move the library from Yankin Township to Pabedan Township. To be objective, the new location of the National Library will be at No.604/608 Merchant Street, Pabedan Township in Yangon.
Due to the ups-and-downs of life, the library was moved to two new locations before setting in Tamway Township. The library building in Tamway suffered some damages from the Cyclone Nargis in 2008. As a result, it was move to Yankin Township which is rather far from downtown Yangon.
Being a book lover, I for one, have been longing for a grand and impressive one in Yangon. Be patient! It is in the offing!

Ref:
– The Guardian Daily, 30-1-1974
– The Global New Light of Myanmar, 29-7-2016
– Programme Book on 17th Congress of Southeast Asian Librarians

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