Filipinos don’t have a reading culture. It’s a sweeping statement, yes, but there’s truth to it. John Silva, executive director of the Ortigas Foundation Library believes it has something to do with the country’s economic situation.
“To me, libraries are a middle class phenomenon. And we are by no means middle class,” he said at the “Future of Libraries” forum recently organized by Instituto Cervantes de Manila. “I’ve been working in the education field, teaching teachers, and I know for a fact that our educational system is abysmal. We are the lowest in the ranks of comprehension and reading tests. And what does that mean when you have a population of students at the bottom of the reading list? That means they don't go to libraries. [Students] don’t read. I really believe that the library is in danger of being a fossil.”
This absence of a reading culture among Filipinos was challenged even more by the Covid pandemic. How have our libraries coped in the last three years? How have our librarians adjusted to widespread digitalization? What is the future of our libraries after the pandemic? These questions were all discussed at the roundtable talk attended by reps working in the management of public and private libraries in the country: Dolly Carungi of the National Library of the Philippines, Raquel Lontoc from University of Santo Tomas Library, Silva of Ortigas Foundation Library, and Xavier Leroux of Alliance Française de Manille. The event was graced by keynote speaker Carme Fennoll Clarabuch, director of the Culture and Community Area of the library of the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya. The panel discussion was moderated by Javier Galvan and Carlos Valmaseda, director and chief librarian of Instituto Cervantes de Manila.
Evolving role of libraries
The UST Library didn’t stop providing its services to students and faculty members even during the pandemic, said Lontoc. But this came with major challenges, foremost of which was the provision of services since students were not allowed inside university premises. Librarians had to learn to navigate new technologies to serve them.
One of the services launched, Lontoc added, was the library virtual office. Here, students and faculty members can talk to and receive the assistance of a librarian anytime from 8am to 8pm, Monday to Saturday. They have been conducting tutorials and orientations on the new library system as well online, something they never thought was possible pre-pandemic.
There has naturally been a decline in the borrowing of library materials. Lontoc said they were initially hesitant to engage a third party courier service to send precious book collections to borrowers. Thankfully, this has all been ironed out. They’ve resorted to sending scanned pages of materials online, mindful of copyright issues. She added that the UST Library will continue to provide the said services even post pandemic.
A major project the UST library embarked on and wished to sustain is the digitization of rare historical collections. “We digitize, restore, and preserve them. We upload them on our website and make them available to the public. This is accessible for free,” she offered.
Like the UST Library, Silva said the Ortigas Foundation Library—which carries rare Filipiniana books, photographs, prints, maps, and artifacts—also provided majority of their services online during the pandemic. He’s happy to note their website hits increased from 2,000 before Covid to about 90,000. They have also been working on the digitization of rare books and materials.
Silva said they have been successful in renting out their conference rooms in recent times, and more researchers have been visiting the Ortigas Library again. One famed author who recently came to do research work was James Scott, author of “Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila.”Meanwhile, the director of Alliance Francaise de Manille shared that they’ve undertaken two key actions. One is trying to bring new schools and kids to discover the library, which would hopefully encourage them to also learn French. It’s also bringing French language trainers to the library to recommend books. Alliance also has plans of investing in a video game space in order to attract more kids to visit.
Carungi observed that the roles of libraries have evolved especially over the course of the pandemic—from a physical resource center to an information structure that offers materials that can be accessible on site and online. The library is no longer confined within the context of a building. Like the National Library’s Book Cart Project, it reaches out to young children who do not have the means and access to reading materials. Libraries have also served as a valuable space for the public over the pandemic as it has been used to deliver social services (e.g. Covid vaccination centers, isolation rooms).
The rampancy of fake news was also discussed at the forum. And the panelists believe that librarians have a role in helping to curb misinformation and disinformation. “It’s our role as librarians to help [users] evaluate these resources,” said Lontoc. In UST, she says they provide information literacy programs and activities, as most young people are exposed to a ton of information on social media.
Blanco said it is important to develop children’s critical thinking at an early age. This way, when they get older and are exposed to a ton of information, they can recognize “what is rubbish and what is chismis.”
Are our libraries ‘endangered’?
All kinds of libraries are endangered these days, observed Clarabuch, who was formerly the director of the Catalan Network of Public Libraries. She mentioned that many public libraries in the United Kingdom have closed.
In response, Carungi underscored the importance of policies protecting libraries. “Like for example, in public libraries, we have a specific law that mandates the local government to establish public libraries and maintain its operation,” she pointed out. As for books being red-tagged, she said it is the role of librarians to protect the book collections in the library and make these resources accessible to everyone who needs to be educated and informed.
On a positive note, Carungi shared that many LGUs are recognizing the role of public libraries in educating the community. Many, she said, are allocating budget to their libraries—for improving physical infrastructure as well as services and programs. Good examples, she said, are the Quezon City Public Library and the Manila City Library.
Carungi reported that there are about 1,620 libraries and reading centers across the country—some 50 out of 81 provinces and over 100 out of 146 cities have libraries. “What we lack are the barangay reading centers,” she said. We have over 42,000 barangays but only have less than 800 reading centers. These numbers don’t include school libraries which are under the Department of Education.
According to Lontoc inadequate funding is the challenge being faced nowadays by academic libraries like UST as these rely on the library fees paid by students. Library fees have been cut by 50%. Funding is needed for the renewal of online databases and maintenance agreements with publishers, among others.
Clarabuch, meanwhile, shared 40 ideas that libraries could adopt to provide more innovative services and to become more relevant in the lives of readers.
1 Increase the public libraries’ Wi-Fi connection and loan of modems for the general public’s easier access to information.
2 Take the library to public spaces—including parks and streets. Put plugs and shelves at terraces or entrances of buildings so people can readily access reading materials.
3 Support food banks, offer to loan books and other materials as well as services to the community in coordination with those providing social services.
4 Offer workshops on the use of electronic books, especially among the elderly. Improve in-person experiences in order to reach the different sectors of society.
5. Provide audio books to sick and elderly people.
6 Offer paper and 3D printers. Collaborate with universities and research centers.
7 Establish an interlibrary loan—a system wherein one library borrows a book from another library for the use of an individual.
8 Provide digital spaces and lend PCs and laptops to aid students and schools in the area. Libraries and schools should work together
9 Create and share tutorials and courses.
10 Create virtual study rooms. Share knowledge with students online.
11 Create thematic YouTube channels.
12 Offer a home library service. This could be on a subscription basis.
13 Make calls to the elderly or people without internet.
14 Use messaging apps as a way for librarians to reach and connect with users.
15 Invest in email marketing.
16 Review the General Data Protection Regulation (RGPD) to be able to communicate in compliance with the law.
17 Organize a mailing campaign. Send newsletters, flyers, or give away a bookmark.
18 Take time to introduce the library to people in the neighborhood.
19 Think of campaigns and work with local businesses, freelancers, and organizations.
20 Tap library staff as part of the government’s information system.
21 Review intellectual property rights. Write a document that serves other groups and libraries for all types of digital presences.
22 Create a Covid Library Channel where people can find reliable news on health.
23 Engage people to create content (blogs, records, podcasts, magazines) about life during and after the quarantine. Encourage the community to share stories about their experiences.
24 Create a library channel connecting the different types of libraries in the country.
25. Support overall wellness of library workers.
26. Improve, edit, add resource materials on Wikipedia.
28 Extend library hours and keep library mailboxes open. Redesign librarians’ work schedules.
29 Libraries should work together and collaborate with galleries, museums, and archive centers.
30 Support book shops, publishers and work with them.
31. Organize “human library” events. Have volunteers (books) tell their stories to other participants (readers) and facilitate conversations.
32 Create campaigns to promote reading especially to the young ones. For instance, a rainy season reading campaign.
33 Make a public statement about our vision for the library and what it can bring to the community.
34 Engage volunteers in the programs of the library.
35 Make the library a welcoming, safe, and comfortable place. Establish optimal security protocol for users and staff.
36 Test the use of artificial intelligence (technological software) to improve the library’s services.
37 Provide staff with the technological skills and competencies for virtual environment.
38 Libraries need to be the institution fighting fake news.
39 Make efforts towards the digital transformation of libraries (e.g. registration of new users, reservation of books, rooms).
40 Present the library as a guarantor of democracy.