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.

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