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Invest in our libraries

The success of the recently concluded Manila International Book Fair, returning as an in-person event after an absence of two years due to COVID-19 restrictions, once again reminds us of the love that Filipinos have for books, for reading and for the communities built around both. It’s a love that we’ll need to spread and cultivate if we’re to overcome many of the problems we face, including the learning poverty rate which I wrote about at the start of this month: a 90.9 percent (even before the advent of the pandemic) is massive, and means that an estimated 9 out of 10 children at the Grade 4 or 5 level in the country are not proficient in reading.

One of the swiftest remedies to this is more practice reading and, even more important, the cultivation of that love of reading in our young people that so many of their elders clearly possess. After all, once you have the love for reading, as any bibliophile will tell you, the practice will come – there are few things more voracious than a reader on the prowl for their next book.

Of course, that presumes that there are more books to be had, and for many in our country that is not a given. Most bookstores are concentrated in the cities, and while there are mass market editions available, the price of books still makes them a luxury expense for many.

Of course, in the distant past books were an even rarer commodity, exclusively the province of the elite and the wealthy. This was true even for that institution that we most closely associate with the idea of public reading – the library.

Libraries have been with us since ancient times, even before paper itself – the Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia had libraries of clay tablets with their cuneiform script. But these were located in palaces or temples, for the use only of scholars and royalty… who were likely the only ones who could understand writing in the first place.

While there were scattered early attempts to use libraries as a way to spread learning and culture, for much of early history they remained private and exclusive – even when they were opened to the public, books were often chained to desks or lecterns to avoid theft, a far cry from the modern association of libraries where books can be borrowed.

But as times change, as their communities changed, libraries evolved. Public library movements sprung up across the world and public libraries became sites of the public good, where people could access books and a safe space to read them, to commune with the thoughts and ideas of other human beings from across time and space, whether on their own or with the help of seasoned readers assigned there as librarians.

As the sheer number of written works increased, the librarian’s role only became more important – to help navigate the sea of words, to curate the very best and most authentic works for the readers.

To cultivate a love of reading, a culture of knowledge and empathy, we need to help our libraries grow. This means we need more libraries – both public libraries and school libraries, and there must be an allocation in the budget for the building of library hubs and learning research centers. But building libraries is only the first step.

As I mentioned last year, a 2017 readership survey pointed out that few Filipinos borrow books from libraries and that a vast majority are not even aware of whether there is a library near their homes – all this despite the existence of 1,455  Natural Language Processing (NLP)-affiliated public libraries. Libraries must not only be concentrated in cities or within gated compounds; they must be actively promoted within their communities. A library can change lives, but only those lives that it is able to reach.

And that reach can be extended as libraries evolve. With the changes wrought by the pandemic and remote work/learning, it seems reasonable that an online presence for public libraries is becoming more and more important. The recently filed Senate Bill No. 477 or the Philippine Online Library Act, which mandates the Department of Education (DepEd) to create digitized copies of all textbooks and reference books it deems necessary for the public education of our elementary and secondary learners, should be given careful consideration for that very reason.

While the internet allows ready access to information through phones and devices, we all know by now that not all of this information constitutes knowledge or facts. A true online library would be more than a mere search engine, with trained librarians that are able to reprise their roles as navigators and curators on the digital stage. As stated in one of the “5 Laws of Library Science” by S. R. Ranganathan: “The Library is a growing organism.”

But for libraries to grow, they need care. As a public good it is only right that they are supported by the government, by public funds devoted to public use and that they are accessible to everyone (open access) and protected from undue interference. The support should not only go to the building of the physical infrastructure but to the training and human needs of its librarians and other staff members, for it is this human element that sets libraries apart from mere databases of words and documents.

There must be transparency and streamlining of the processes involved in acquiring new books and the transfer to storage of old or outdated material. There should also be clear guidelines for how private citizens can help their local libraries, whether through donations of cash or of their own books.

Libraries are magical places, spaces for imagination and growth, sometimes possessed of a breath of their own, inhaling and exhaling books in the cycle of borrowing and returning. They have the potential to be, in this era of confusion and alienation, a way to bring people together and to open minds and hearts.

Invest in our libraries. To paraphrase journalist Walter Cronkite, whatever the cost of improving our libraries, that price is cheap compared to the cost of ignorance.

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