Concluding Part: Where have our libraries gone?
[Editor's Note: This is the continuation of Part 1 published on January 31.]
By focusing on municipal libraries as a platform for development, we do more with less. Rather than build one library for each village or elementary school, which at the current rate would get us halfway by the 22nd century, think of building community clusters.
Community libraries can easily be built or incorporated into municipal government facilities, which, thanks to Spanish and American colonial planning, occupy the most prime real estate. These central locations are accessible to the public school system, major establishments, and the general public. Libraries can sprout up right by the public plaza, usually across the Church building and munisipyo.
Each library that rises here can serve as a truly shared resource, and as counterpoints to the threats of dogma and demagoguery. Alcoves of the mind, if not the soul, easily drawing the citizenry to the center. Away from the monotony of work and the crowdedness of homes. A place where you can actually hear yourself think, and not be told who or what to believe in. A sanctuary to let your eyes wander through jeweled walls of the written word.
With a book or tablet in hand, rise above the shoulder of giants, and step over our dead selves to aspire to greater things – to paraphrase a poet and scientist whose own worlds opened up in libraries. When the screen pops on or your fingers find the first page, trust that you’re in good hands and that the rest will follow.
It may strike you as noble, if not plainly naïve. But to quote a Prime Minister: Believe in your own experience. Many of us have seen in these quiet spaces, miracles that speak to the sacredness of the ordinary:
A woman in her department store outfit, rushing in to pick up a daughter immersed in today’s homework, who stops to gaze lovingly, and then hugs her from behind.
Policemen taking a break for the beat, cooling themselves from the midday heat, catching up on the daily news, or closing their eyes, imagining themselves elsewhere.
Nurses running through their NCLEX practice exams, every now and then looking wistfully out the window and across oceans to a better life.
The war veteran resting his cane as his fingers furrow through the last page of Nick Joaquin that he left off while his apo thumbs through Neil Gaiman.
The housewife ditching her last trashy romance novel and deciding to upgrade to serious fiction before you can say Judith McNaught.
The street urchin, sitting freely, eyes piercing through a picture book and trying to make out the words, unafraid, unembarrassed, as the painted giraffes and animals shelter him from the squalor he will one day rise away from.
It is a common sight in each of the town libraries we’ve helped develop, and others we seek to learn from.
In Brazil, where favela crime rates have been reduced by the community and literacy programs hosted from these community centers.
In Nepal, where these libraries were considered free spaces to debate freedom amidst Maoist rebellion on one end, and a crumbling monarchy on the other. These days, with the help of the international community and returning emigrees, remote libraries grow and go through many incarnations: wedding venue on weekends, midwifery classrooms on weeknights, and incubators for future leaders in between.
In Cambridge, England, where historical buildings meet cutting edge discoveries -- right on top of its spanking new mall, spouses deposit their hapless halves at the new Central Library, right on top of John Lewis, to keep them calm and occupied while they invest some hard earned money.
Or in Tondo, our newest library, where children leave the thick, blackened river and claustrophobic shanties for a few hours to enter new worlds and trace loftier dreams.
These are but a few of the miracles that movements like the Library Renewal Partnership (LRP) seek to enable in this country. With the aim to build and develop, by 2020, over 200 libraries and empower at least 2 million citizens in partnership with local governments, it seeks to do two things.
First, make the law work by empowering local governments to sustain their mandate to build libraries – complementing the space and personnel they can provide with books, computers, and know-how to build a community-based culture of learning.
Second, to get the total number of these municipal libraries past the halfway point – which as a professor once said – is the point of no return to create enough positive inertia to build all the remaining town libraries across the Philippines and replicate these community building institutions for good.
From a research paper on educational Public Private Partnerships (PPP), to a clumsy experiment in Kalibo, Aklan, the LRP now has over 50 libraries to show for, showing the way to build an interconnected archipelago of learners, citizens, and leaders who will get this country on its feet again, and walking in the right direction.
Call it PPP, a social enterprise, or a quixotic stab at citizen empowerment.
We like to think of it as a homegrown way to rediscover and put the bayanihan spirit to work. And that work is to rebuild communities. Communities that, in turn, build the educated citizenry that Rizal believed we needed before we could become a true nation. And we will do it one book, one tablet, one library, and one community at a time.
Quintin V. Pastrana was educated at Georgetown, Oxford, and Cambridge. He is a Philippines 21 Fellow of Asia Society, the leading organization dedicated to promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among peoples, leaders and institutions of the US and Asia in the global context. He is also a corporate executive, founder and managing director of the Library Renewal Partnership. To learn more about and support the LRP, visit www.librarypartner.org.