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Burmese librarians visit NIU during tour of U.S.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University is the last stop for four Burmese librarians learning about technology, preserving books and more this summer.

They want to take that information back to Myanmar, also known as Burma. They also visited Rutgers University, Arizona State University and the University of Washington earlier this summer.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said librarian Sandra Oo. “I know what we have to do to advance our library system. I can share and distribute this great knowledge.”

It’s a unique opportunity for NIU, said Catherine Raymond, associate professor of Southeast Asian Art History. NIU is home to the only Center for Burma Studies in the country, so having the librarians visit is important to Raymond. Myanmar is a country with about 55 million people in Southeast Asia bordered by Laos, Thailand, China, Bangladesh and India.

“We are able to exchange knowledge,” Raymond said. “This is why we’re doing what we’re doing [at the Center for Burma Studies.] This is a wonderful, additional way of discovering the world.”

The program is funded by an endowment that was created at NIU in honor of May Kyi Win, a Burmese librarian who worked at NIU’s Founders Memorial Library from the 1990s until her death in 2002. The endowment was specifically for other Burmese librarians, but until a collaboration was established between Myanmar and the United States, the endowment was unable to be used.

“We tried for 10 years,” Raymond said. “We didn’t have the official relationship due to the political situation there. But we hope to do this again in the future.”

Two more Burmese librarians will arrive in November to take part in a similar program. Raymond said this program is important since President Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar in 2012, which signaled change for the country following a leadership change there. 

In the past six months, the librarians have learned about open access information, which grants users access to collections of scholarly resources. Prior to that, the only way to do online research in the country was through Google, said librarian Ni Ni Naing. It didn’t serve scholars well.

“We are learning to use open databases,” Naing said. “Our library is important and it’s good for the development of our future.”

Librarian Yin Yin Aye said although there are many differences between NIU’s Founders Memorial Library and the Yangon University Library in Myanmar, she looks forward to sharing the digitizing and book preservation skills that she’s learned.

“This is a great chance for us,” Aye said.

While the librarians are here, they have time to explore the DeKalb area. Raymond said he planned to take the group to Hopkins Park for the Fourth of July fireworks, and the Ellwood House Museum to show them a “traditional, wealthy American home.”

Raymond said the group has tried barbecue, Mexican and Thai food. However, librarian La Pye Win Htun tried McDonald’s in Arizona and didn’t want to try it again.

“They’ve been internationally well-fed in DeKalb,” Raymond said.

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