Where have our libraries gone?

Quintin Pastrana

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We have the lowest performance in schools, the highest youth unemployment, the highest teen pregnancies, and an appalling dropout rate with only 1 in 10 making it to university


“Perhaps no place in any community is totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.”

These words, from a now-deceased First Lady, seem quaint, if not a bit dated.

In our country, with its stifling creep of shopping malls, flyovers, and tenements – even as broadband drowns the aether, a library looks all but out of place.  

And yet, the world around us is rediscovering the power of this institution even as technology remakes the world our neighbours live in. Taipei, New York, Singapore, Sao Paolo, San Francisco, Tokyo, London, Silicon Valley to the West and Silicon Fen across the pond – these and many more cities have never failed to enshrine this undying institution while we barely mourn its absence in ours. 

Strange bedfellows increasingly share the notion of how libraries are a waste of space (politicians), that the cloud is where all the content should be (netizens). What they remain clueless of, in this and much else, is that it’s not about content, but context.

These aren’t your grandparents’ libraries. Around the world – in developed and developing countries, libraries are vibrant community centers, sacrosanct and patronized. They provide a sense of belonging, enlightenment, and quiet – a rarer commodity in this era of information narcissism and overload.

Whether they be the grand, shiny reading rooms in Manhattan, or sprawling mezzanines right above European shopping malls, or even the freshly painted reading rooms in Brazilian favelas, there is unquestioned value of how and why these places deserve and occupy such prime spaces.

What these metropoles and their denizens know more than most, is that the more they advance into the future, some things will stubbornly remain – and must. Plus ca change, c’est la meme chose. The sense of communal, civic space – the very womb of civility – depends on unfettered, physical access to learning, beauty and silence. Hence, the yardstick we place on cities being only as good as their parks, plazas,  museums, concert halls, sidewalks, walkways, and yes, libraries.

And they are filled to the brim, from the posh to the great unwashed – surrounded by walls of books, burying their faces in tomes or tablets, shedding class and quietly bathed in wonder. Malls, something we pride ourselves as having in spades, turn out to be the shopworn cliché, pardon the pun.

Beyond lip service

In the Philippines, the numbers speak for themselves, while we pay lip service to law. Since 1994, the state has been mandated to develop libraries in each city, town, and barangay. To this date, per our National Library, we have barely 500 functioning town libraries, many of them relegated in the backwater and backrooms of the community, making way for strip malls, pawn shops, basketball courts, and squatter colonies. This figure represents but a third of the total municipalities that need them.

Over a decade ago, the Department of Education had the noble idea to forge library hubs for each school district. Other NGOs have been focused on building public school libraries and daycare centers. These efforts, while laudable, come few and far between, and do not access and address the needs of the communities themselves.

Over 41,000 struggling barangays, and an almost equivalent number of public schools, have only a tenth of the number of libraries needed. In the meantime, the nation leads the region in the most unenviable distinctions: We have the lowest performance in schools, the highest youth unemployment, the highest teen pregnancies, and an appalling dropout rate with only 1 in 10 making it to university. 

These persistent figures belie the recent gushing over the country’s economic prospects. They also point to the unmistakable change in our collective psyche. One can argue that alongside the lack of governance, unbridled population growth, and trappings of a bustling country comes an erosion of culture, and with it a sense of civility and community that ultimately holds the body politic together.

Without this glue, this identity, any development initiative from education to poverty alleviation will always evade the Filipino’s grasp.

This explains much of our current ills, and yet it also points a way out. And one only needs a bit of common sense, a little benchmarking, and a smattering of physics to wield the solution. (To be concluded)Rappler.com

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.

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