Monday, November 29, 2010

Must we buy books we want to read?

by Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:46:00 11/26/2010
Inquirer. net Filed Under: Education

“Life happened because I turned the pages.” —Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (1996)

BAY AREA, San Francisco—If I cannot restrain myself from talking about public libraries in a developed country—the one (and only) principal reason I envy the life here—it is really to highlight how literacy and access to books ought to be a basic right that each and every citizen enjoys.

No, I do not have the illusion that American society is not confronted with a declining literacy rate and a fading interest in books. But its citizens are constantly reading more than we do. They read while waiting for the train or a concert, on train rides, even in the course of a morning walk—all of them keeping a book or even a Kindle on hand so that no time is ever wasted. I’d crane my neck, curious to know what they are reading. Most of them carry copies from their public library, as the library name was prominently stamped on the books. (Yes, many others are busy with their mobile phones.)

How could this habit have been acquired if these readers were not immersed in their early years in schools and an effective public library system? No wonder American comic strip characters make a big fuss about acquiring a library card. A library card is indeed a proud badge to own.

Marvin Atienza, a Chevron executive in Concord, recounts that in his school library in Cavite, he would salivate before the locked bookcase of the complete set of brown and gold gilded Encyclopedia Britannica volumes, something he could not yet be allowed to borrow because he was just in grade school.

Fortunately, today’s enlightened teachers know that when the inclination is there, prescribed learning dates should be thrown out the window. Seize the teaching moment as it comes few and far between.

Bless Marvin’s curiosity for not being doused. He went on to become the very first student in his grade school to become a scholar at the Philippine Science High School where he thrived in being constantly challenged. Today in the book paradise that is the US, he is a public library regular and takes pride in having a library card.

Fellow reading advocate RayVi Sunico continues to remind of this contradiction: we, a country whose economy has yet to boost the quality of life and purchasing power, are the very country that has to purchase books that we need. Little wonder that between the more basic needs and books, books are easily dismissed as luxuries.

RayVi’s tireless refrain on the paradox: “A good public library system means reading is not dependent on purchasing power. This is why I point out that the richer the country, the less money people have to spend on buying books.”

Let me not be perceived as merely raving and ranting about the absence and the dismal state of existing public libraries in the country. To date, no one has challenged my lamentations, but I continue to patiently wait, as only reactions in unison with my views have come in.

And there seems to be a glimmer of hope. I stumbled on what appears to be positive news from Mindanao: In 2009 the Davao City Public Library headed by Nora Fe Alajar had been selected by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts as the most outstanding public library in the country. The library in downtown Davao promotes reading among the children in 14 villages through its mobile libraries. Other libraries in the short list were those in Dagupan, Angeles, Zamboanga, Bacolod and Talisay.

There is a blog anonymously run by “Mindanao Librarian, Region XII, Philippines.” I’m impressed that she does not bother to identify herself except to say, “I am passionate about public and school libraries being socially-inclusive learning spaces. I am also a staunch advocate of reader development, particularly for the traditionally marginalized Mindanaoans. I have great faith in the power of information to transform individuals and communities. I dream of the day when Mindanaoan children will be better able to navigate and compete in a world driven more and more by new information challenges.” Shouldn’t that be every librarian’s credo?

What’s even more heartwarming is that she actually enjoys reading—and lists Jessica Zafra’s “Twisted” series among her favorites—and keeps abreast with what’s current, what’s popular and what might appeal to reluctant readers. For how can a love of reading (a truly tired phrase today) be passed on if the librarian does not have it herself? The Mindanao Librarian needs to be lauded and publicly acknowledged.

National Book Week carries this incredibly ponderous theme, “Pandaigdigang Pakikipag-ugnayan sa Pamamagitan ng mga Aklat at Impormasyong Teknolohiya at Komunikasyon.” Could we not do as well with something catchy and memorable as these popular slogans, “Hooked on Books,” “Get Caught Reading,” or “Any Day, Any Time, Any Book,” in Filipino?

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz is a member of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People, the Foundation for Worldwide People Power, and a trustee of the Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

National Book Week: celebration or lamentation?

by Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
(This first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, 11/13/2010.)

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.—Jorge Luis Borges

BAY AREA, San Francisco ~ I can never forget the horrified reaction of a well-known writer of children’s books from a developed country that I had invited for an author visit to the international school I was previously associated with. In the course of a briefing I was giving her, I casually mentioned that the school library, which carried all her titles, had to be up to state-of-the-art standards and complete with the latest releases from abroad especially in the absence of public libraries in the country. She made me repeat the last part of my statement and then asked, “How do you survive?”

Barely, I found myself confessing to her. Come to think of it, how do we survive? With that new consciousness, I began to grow resentful about having to beg, borrow or steal, but mostly buy, every book I wanted to read.

That is why my favorite refuge during this extended visit to the Bay Area has been its public libraries. Not the shopping centers nor bargain stores—who needs them with a Greenhills bazaar and a 168 hagglers’ market back home? It was logical that I would opt for what is a rarity in Manila. Book havens where rows and rows of open shelves make every title available for easy browsing, where nooks and table tops are offered for every reading mood, where librarians smile, delight in their jobs, and take the extra step to answer every query.

In these buildings they proudly announce that all their programs are free for everyone, yet also that they have had to reduce their days and hours of operation because of budget cuts. But what mattered most were there, books to satiate you.

The Burlingame Public Library on the San Francisco Peninsula is more than a hundred years old and is proud of its history. It had an interesting display of the pioneering librarian’s record-keeping system and stationery supplies, even the yellowing architectural drawings of the impressive Italian-styled building, showing a respect for antiquity and librarianship. It recycled its card catalogue by installing the card drawers against a concrete wall and inscribing on them the names of benefactors.

It has a busy calendar of activities—toddler storytelling time every Friday morning, a themed display on books which had been banned—with the usual suspects, Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird—marking its 50th year in July (a potent tool for attracting the reluctant, of course), even a reading-to-dogs program by children. The place is busy for both adults and children. The most striking thing is that all leave the library looking so content and happy with their latest bag of reads.

And whether the grownups were just reading the papers, working on their netbooks, or doing serious research, they were all so engaged that when my mobile rang and I made the grievous mistake of answering it, what demeaning hushes and icy stares I got.

I do feel deprived that no public library in the country has made a difference in my life, again stressing the fact that the world of books is not within everyone’s reach. If we go by official statistics, there are thousands of public libraries—I fervently hope they are touching the lives of readers, as I only know of the more progressive ones in Quezon City and Davao City. And I would be so happy to be proven wrong in my thinking, in my information, in what I am gladly willing to concede as irresponsible and rash observations. Let them be deemed false and misleading, please.

I have to admit that there are libraries in Metro Manila which have been so hospitable to research and learning—the Lopez Memorial Museum and Library in Pasig with the peerless Mercy Servida; the Rizal Library on the Ateneo campus in Loyola; and the Filipiniana section of the National Library. But where to go when one wants to read for the sheer delight of it? Sadly in Manila, it has been the bookstores where one has to make a purchase.

My experience with our other public libraries shows the pathetic lack of books save for discards from the United States on totally irrelevant topics and multiple copies of the life and speeches of Filipino politicians—nothing that would stir minds and imagination, much less foster an interest in books. A great test is, would you take these books to bed with you?

It is a good time as any for public libraries to herald what they are doing at this time as we yet again celebrate National Book Week in the third week of November. Mandated by President Manuel L. Quezon’s Proclamation 109 in 1936, it is lamentable that it is still far from a revered or anticipated tradition.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz is a member of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People, the Foundation for Worldwide People Power, and a trustee of the Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation.