Universities in Myanmar have been given e-libraries with hundreds of thousands of digital books and academic journals to help them catch up after decades of isolation under military rule.
The University of Yangon and University of Mandalay have switched on these instant library collections, which represent another sign of how the country – also known as Burma – is opening up to outside influences.
Students and staff can search databases and download books and articles onto computers in the library. The next aim is to give students access in their own rooms and using their own laptops.
After years of being cut off from the academic mainstream, the online libraries are reconnecting Myanmar’s universities with current and uncensored scholarship.
It can take decades or even centuries to build a university library collection. But this library for the 21st Century is available as quickly as the new fibre-optic connections will allow.
In Myanmar, it means leaping forward to a collection of 130,000 digital texts.
Oleksandr Shtokvych, of the Open Society Foundations, which supported the project, says it would not have been practical or affordable to wait for a traditional library of printed volumes. There was an immediate need for up-to-date materials.
“The libraries were depositories of ancient materials, more like museum exhibits,” he says.
Mouldering books in the library were still stuck with the ideas of 50 or 60 years ago, he says, making it difficult for academics to maintain international standards. They were also constrained by having to comply with a controlling state.
It was symptomatic of a decaying university system.
What made the need for improvement even more urgent was the return of the first undergraduates to the University of Yangon campus for over two decades.
Universities had been seen as centres of resistance to military rule and heavily restricted. Yangon’s university had been one of the most prestigious in South East Asia, but had been caught in a cycle of protests, repression and shutdowns.
Opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi had warned that the country’s “university system has almost been destroyed by half a century of military rule”.
“Campus life ceased to exist several decades ago,” she said.
But as part of Myanmar’s reforms in recent years, universities have been given greater freedoms, and young students have now returned to rejuvenate neglected campuses.
This wave of young recruits, the first undergraduates here after missing a generation, were selected as the “brightest and best” from their year group and have arrived with high expectations.
Susanna Lob, of Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), a foundation that worked with the universities in creating the e-libraries, says: “Online resources were the obvious way to go.”
As well as giving instant access to such a wide range of resources, a digital library allows unlimited numbers of students to use the same book or journal at the same time.
The new students are hungry to learn and speak good English, she says, and the e-library will give them the range of materials they would expect from a modern university. As well as books, there are magazines, newspaper collections and research archives.
EIFL negotiated with publishers to reduce the cost of the online library, with the titles provided worth $1.5m (£900,000).
Prof Kyaw Naing, pro-rector of the University of Yangon, says the e-library marks an important step forward.
He describes the frustration of previously being unable to access international academic journals and says that it will help to raise the quality of learning.
Higher education is a globalised, networked world and being excluded from it undermines academic credibility.
“We can’t go back, we want to go forward,” says Prof Naing.
Chief librarian, Daw Hlaing Hlaing Gyi, says how delighted she is to see the library “busier than ever”.
There have been other international library links. More than 5,000 law reports, statutes and textbooks have been donated by Oxford University’s Bodleian Law Library to help the law department at Yangon.
Oxford is also providing training in university administration.
Partnerships of US universities and businesses, including Johns Hopkins University, the University of Washington and Microsoft, have plans to bring teaching and training to Myanmar.
It’s also seen as an emerging market. In February, 30 US universities were in Yangon, the official name for Rangoon, trying to recruit students.
The University of Manchester, in another project funded by the Open Society Foundations, is providing online learning materials for a network of universities in Myanmar.
The Open Society Foundations was set up by the investor George Soros – and most of its work has been in supporting the transition of former Communist countries to democracy.
And alongside the process of opening up Myanmar’s universities to the rest of the academic world, there is also a political dimension.
The online library will open up a channel of information to young people, providing them with competing ideas and arguments from outside their once tightly controlled borders.
Once this idea of open debate and information has been released, it becomes much harder to return to censorship.
“We want to develop critical thinking,” says Mr Shtokvych.
“Once the genie is out of the bottle, you cannot chase it back.”