Growing up in Iloilo City, I was surrounded by books, thanks to mom, a pharmacist; and dad, a doctor, who were both teachers. My aunt became the first librarian in town. My uncles were voracious readers and subscribers to monthlies like the Reader’s Digest, Contest, National Geographic and Life, which I devoured with relish. Mom kept detailed “baby books” for the seven of us, writing on mine: “Recognised the alphabet at two, at four reads kindergarten books… at five, reads everything – newspapers, the book of knowledgeprimary and secondary school books…exceptional understanding…”
Popular displays at home were encyclopedias – Grolier’s (11 volumes) book of knowledge (20), and the popular science book (ten). When I was in high school, Mom bought a 24-volume set from Collier’s on an installment basis from a family that was moving to the United States. In addition, we had children’s books – dinosaurs, which fascinated me; the Andersen and Grimm fairy tales; and lots of comics. In elementary school we had the Osias series of Philippine Reader books I to VI, passed down by four older cousins, the title page covered in all their names, to which I easily added my own.
My librarian aunt often gave us books for birthdays and Christmas. Once she gave me a book, forgetting that she had given me the same one the year before.
In high school, I finished school library soap operas like The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Agatha Christie Mysteries. I spent my 1975 summer vacation doing YCAP (Youth Civic Action Program) at the municipal library as an assistant. I’ve dusted shelves, covered books with plastic wrap, and repaired old books by manually boring them with an ice pick, binding them, and tying them together with “hello veinpass through a candle, then threaded through a large sewing needle. Binding fabric with gum arabic has been applied to the spine. Using this technique, we made our own notebooks using leftover lined paper from exam notebooks.
Reading was a great introduction to the great outside world, an endless source of pleasure, stimulating my imagination, coloring my dreams and nightmares. Decades later, the hangouts would be second-hand bookstores and book rental clubs. Wherever work took me, I visited public libraries in New York, Washington DC, Baltimore and London. The Welch School of Medicine Library at Johns Hopkins was open 24 hours a day in the 1990s, with couches where students could actually take naps. Some of the collections – particularly those in the Treasures section of the British Library – made me gasp with wonder. In the Reading Room of the British Museum, I saw familiar names engraved on a plaque of notables who had been there – Rizal, Ho Chi Minh, Dickens, Marx, Darwin, Woolf, among others.
And that’s why Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas’ initiative to have a library in each of the city’s six wards is commendable. RA 7743 (1994) mandates public libraries in every congressional district, city, town, and barangay; 25 years later, a National Library study found that only 3% of the ideal number had been achieved.
Iloilo City, known as an educational center for the region, has eight universities. It had the first government high school outside of Manila, Iloilo National High School. The city of Molo, the cradle of Filipino scholars, known as the “Athens of the Philippines”, had colegios at the end of the Spanish era and the first public elementary school in the country, the Baluarte element is said to have inspired students to learn more and reach greater heights as statesmen, feminists, educators, judges of the Supreme Court and Senators of the Republic.
The city’s public library is now at the Graciano Lopez Jaena Learning Center in Jaro; he has a sparse collection, and almost nothing on the national hero. Most books are donations. This doesn’t befit a city that prides itself on so many other things. It is located in a new, airy building, has free internet and plug-in connections, and is open until 8 p.m. six days a week. An average of 30 to 50 people visit daily. Most users are students, board exam candidates and researchers. Young people say they like the library because it is “quiet, practical, conducive and free”. In the past, they went to study centers, which charged an hourly rate, or studied in quieter cafes and fast food outlets.
Another district, Villa de Arevalo, recently inaugurated its library. Site searches for libraries in the districts of Molo, Mandurriao, Lapuz and La Paz are underway. The Iloilo Provincial Library has started digitizing its collections. Bring your own USB stick and they will copy things for you, although the quality (photo files) is still poor. PDFs would be better, or formats that allow you to turn pages like a “real” book.
Libraries also need to attract more young readers. Storytelling and reading sessions have become commonplace. The town’s librarian, Marion Aguirre, explains that they carry out outreach visits to barangays and organize “read aloud” sessions on their Facebook page. To serve more, reading corners in local jails, detention and rehabilitation centers have been established. The library has received braille donations and has developed workbook-like modules for children with learning disabilities. Collaboration with other government offices and the private sector is ongoing. Special events like National Book Week, Ilonggo Book Fairs, and occasions like Halloween and Christmas have themed activities. A recent visit to Iloilo by Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte, accompanied by Senior Vice President Gloria Arroyo, included a visit to the town library where they read stories to children gathered for the event.
San Agustin University Library and Archives, UPV Center for Western Visayan Studies, and Central Philippine University Luce Library have good collections, but being school libraries one must special effort to access it. Other period collections, mostly from the American and early post-war era, are at the Makiugalinon Press and the Rosendo Mejica Museum.
Technology has radically changed life and reading habits in ways never imagined before: Internet, search engines, social media are everywhere. There is unparalleled access to digitized material that one can easily download or scan. Your entire library can be on a single USB drive. Online, Project Gutenberg and specialized photographic archives are endless sources of information. Card catalogs, thick, glossy newspapers and magazines are a thing of the past. One is bombarded with real-time “news” from a variety of internet and cable TV sources. Our keystrokes are constantly monitored and algorithms determine what we see on our social media feeds. I always prefer to hold a book, turn the pages, smell the paper and ink, use a bookmark, and smell the kind of shine you won’t get on a screen. Long trips are an opportunity to select a small volume to carry, then leave it for others to enjoy.
The city’s annual library budget is around 2.5 million pesos, increasing every year, but it also includes hiring salaries, utilities, subscriptions, so there isn’t much left over for acquisitions. . The librarian wants digital ‘talking books’ and subscriptions to sites that offer free downloads, so that ‘people can just ask us if we have a title and then we can search and send them the links’.
The most notable of Panay’s public libraries is the Leocadio A. Dioso Memorial Public Library in Pandan, Antique, which I stumbled upon on a Sunday a few months ago. Named after a former Filipino legal adviser and presidential diplomat, the library was built from the collections of Dioso’s four children. His son, Leo Jr., created it after retiring from the UN in 2004.
Although privately owned and operated, Dioso Library officially operates as the Pandan Municipal Library. It is the only public library in the North of Antiquity, which has 10 of the 18 municipalities in the province. The collection of over 20,000 volumes and DVDs would put most public libraries in the country to shame. Leo Jr., suave and youthful at 82, showed me the kids’ section with its colorful posters, stuffed animals, puzzles, and games. We lamented the falling rankings of young Filipinos in reading and math, now lagging behind ASEAN neighbors. As access remains difficult for those in other townships and barangays, Leo hopes for a mobile library, so that the goals of encouraging reading, literacy and improving one’s life chances can be achieved.
Palanca Hall of Famer Butch Dalisay sums it up: “Without libraries, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have become a writer if I hadn’t first been a reader. – Rappler.com
Vic Salas is a trained physician and public health specialist, now retired from international consultancy work. He is back in Iloilo City, where he spent his first quarter century.