In response to recent calls in academia to scrutinize ongoing neocolonial relations in contemporary knowledge production, Burma Studies Group has sought to identify concrete steps that scholars of privilege in its community (those who are privileged along class, gender, and racial vectors, in particular) can work to support those who lack those privileges. We are hoping that an ethic of engagement and non-extractive collaboration (ideas for some of which are described below) should be mainstreamed as a norm and expectation of scholars.
- Mentoring services for Burmese scholars
- Virtual / Online Teaching for students in Burma
- committee for
For applications to higher education institutions, scholars from Burma can use support and assistance in crafting successful applications. Different applications for different programs require significantly different narratives (Masters wants a life story / future trajectory, whereas a PhD only wants a description of the academic project). If you are interested in supporting a scholar’s application or if you’re a Burmese scholar looking for some mentorship, please fill out this form.
Virtual Federal University:
Wondering how you can contribute to the anti-coup uprising? The Virtual Federal University is seeking content input from scholars. See the New Guidelines Document for Course Creators to know how you can get involved.
Recruiting an Ad-Hoc Committee to End the Romanization of Burmese in Libraries
There is an initiative being suggested by some American librarians and taken up by friend-of-the-BSG and U Michigan grad candidate Matt Schissler. He has written the explanatory note below.
We are recruiting an ad-hoc committee for those who would be interested in helping contribute to this important initiative. We will likely draft a BSG letter endorsing the initiative and also try to recruit other academic institutions and Burmese intellectuals to sign as well. If you are interested please email email@example.com.
Note from Matt Schissler: I think we now have a real shot at getting materials catalogued in Burmese script and scripts for other ethnic languages, for a few reasons. This should happen, for a few reasons. There is something practical that a collective of Burmese-speaking scholars can do to help make it so. Also, there is a separate initiative to change the Romanization system currently in use, which has pros and cons that need to be factored in.
I recently joined two meetings of the Committee on Research Materials on Southeast Asia (CORMOSEA), the group which coordinates work by libraries holding SEA materials in the US: their “Collection Development Annual Meeting” and then the meeting of the Technical Processes (“Tech Pro”) subcommittee. One of my goals was to bring up the issue of how Burmese language materials are catalogued.
The basic point I made was to raise concerns about the continued practice of cataloguing only using English romanization for materials from Myanmar.
First, Romanization makes it hard to find materials held in US libraries. One has to learn the romanization system, which is not intuitive, and not necessarily the same as the various other systems in circulation. One result is that materials held in US libraries are probably under-utilized. I wonder if this may also have consequences for how budgets are allocated to acquire and maintain materials from Myanmar.
Second, this is a moral issue. Materials in Burmese and other languages from Myanmar are not only for scholars who can take the time to learn the multiple romanization systems. They are also for people who identify with those languages. Those folks should not have to learn what amounts to two more languages—English and the romanization—in order to find materials written in Burmese, Mon, Shan, etc. Cataloguing in English locks things away in a walled garden, and there are inequities in who can scale those walls. It’s worth noting that things are done differently for materials from many other languages that use other writing systems, including Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.
Why is it important to take this up right now?
First, it is technologically feasible. NIU began cataloguing in Burmese in Sep 2021 and has already added Burmese script to at least 3,700 records. Harvard has also tested logging in Mon, Shan, Pa’O, and Sgaw. Obviously the National Library in Myanmar is cataloguing in Burmese. This can be searched online. Old difficulties (Zawgyi…) may be behind us. And there are also hints at the potential capability to automate some of the process, such that if materials are catalogued in Burmese script, a romanization can be generated for a parallel entry. We should always be cautious of techno-fixes. But I have heard that Arabic and Slavic language library communities have had luck with this. Apparently, the British Library is also working on something similar for Burmese. This general Script Converter has Burmese also, though not for the Library of Congress romanization style (see http://aksharamukha.appspot.com/converter).
Second, right now may be fortuitous convergence of interests. CORMOSEA appears receptive. Recent experiences with COVID-related library closures have also given things a kick, highlighting just how inadequate the romanized catalogues are when one cannot browse the stacks in person. The NIU representative at CORMOSEA shared that this was a key reason they started adding Burmese entries. Many libraries are also now attempting their own “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” initiatives (for example: https://www.lib.washington.edu/about/edi/critical-cataloging-and-archival-description). I think cataloguing only in English is clearly a DEI issue.
Finally, there is another effort underway that needs to be considered carefully. This is a proposal to modify the romanization system that the Library of Congress uses, which I believe was originally developed by Saya Okell. Virginia Shih, the SEA librarian at the UC Berkeley library, has been working on this with help from SOAS and the British Library. An online survey has been circulated about the issue (which I missed—did others see it?), and a proposal for revisions to the romanization table has been developed, though I believe it is not 100% finalized yet. My understanding is that the intention is to approach the Library of Congress and ask them to adopt the new modified system. However, in the CORMOSEA TechPro meeting that I joined, once the discussion of logging materials in Burmese script began, there was then a debate over whether it is a good idea to push for changes to the romanization system while *also pushing for parallel logging in Burmese. Both changes entail their own labor and resources. Concerns were also expressed that yet another romanization system would compound confusion while not solving the underlying problem.
What can BSG do?
Cataloguing in Burmese and other ethnic languages will take time and labor and that costs money. One concern that was raised with me is that most libraries don’t have staff who can type in Myanmar etc. It would be a large undertaking, particularly if one factors in parallel logging both for new material and also everything already catalogued. But libraries have successfully grouped together to address similar problems, with other non-English materials cataloged only in English. Funds can also be raised.
I’d be interested in putting our heads together on how to help with the above. But in the short term, a clear request came from the CORMOSEA “TechPro” subcommittee meeting: can Burma Studies scholars weigh in? I was told that a letter calling for cataloguing in Burmese, from a collective of Burmese-speaking scholars, would be helpful. I got the sense it could come from the BSG, or if not the BSG officially then it could come in the form of a letter that gathers individual signatures. I understand that one key actor in all this that they would need to engage is the Library of Congress, and I was told that a public letter taking a stance on this issue would be particularly helpful for that.
Is this something that the BSG can take up? If so, please include me in whatever modality that takes shape. If not, I’ll just put myself out there and say, if anyone else is interested, let’s get together and work on this.
Finally, however this is taken forward—either within the BSG or separately—it sounds like a clear decision needs to be made: we can call for cataloguing in Burmese and ethnic languages—or we can call for that plus also call for changes to the romanization system. Right now, my personal opinion is that I agree with some of the others in CORMOSEA: we should focus energy primarily on the former, getting materials logged in script. The current romanization system is imperfect, but if forced to choose, I’d prefer materials logged in Burmese/ethnic languages + imperfect romanization, over materials logged only in (a newly imperfect) romanization… But I don’t know the extent to which it is truly a forced choice.
I freely acknowledge my lack of expertise in all this. I could be radically misunderstanding the limits to what is possible and the convergence of interests. But there are ongoing conversations about decolonizing universities, disciplines, and area studies communities like this one. It might seem small and not all that exciting, but I think library catalogues are a front worth opening…