PUBLIC LIBRARIES ARE THE FUTURE
Feature photo courtesy of @oprisco
In a time when demographics determine who gets around in this world, the public library’s open-door policy is a compassionate and revolutionary act in itself.
When I was in the third grade, my parents plucked me out of a small school where I treated everyone like siblings and threw me into an all-girls institution with around 2,000 students. There, I was made fun of for speaking in straight English when choppy Taglish was the norm, raising my hand before the teacher finished their question, and running for class officership— basically for being a Tracy Flick in the making. Because of my knack for violating unspoken social norms and driving people away with little to no effort, I was unsurprisingly on my own most of the time.
One day, while my classmates were trading chocolate-flavored snacks and pushing one another on the playground’s rickety swing set, after a period of aimless wandering, I found myself gravitating towards the school library. This was the start of our love affair, the first of many afternoons we would spend getting to know each other. I would run my fingers along cracked spines for hours, tracing embossing across genres, languages, canonically revered writers and their quiet, subversive contemporaries. Sometimes, the desire to read would overcome me so quickly I’d sit cross-legged on the floor and finish a book right then and there
In those moments, I made the acquaintance of founding fathers that shaped nations and feisty female protagonists who rebelled against the status quo. I learned of structures that kept people in positions of power and the social ills that plagued my nation, albeit in oversimplified, watered-down ways. Sometimes, a curious onlooker or two would peep over my shoulder, marking the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We would often exchange insights shortly afterward, our conversations laced with the distinct naivete found in kids not old enough to tie their own shoes. My penchant for storytelling and discussion might have ceased to exist, had it not been for all those days I spent in the library, where the instinct for storytelling was this institution’s very foundation.
Unfortunately, access is a privilege, not a birthright, and has been so for generations. My safe space was within the confines of a private school located in a gated subdivision. Where I’m from, public libraries fall short in all aspects: infrastructure and facilities, learning materials, and manpower. Restoring them to their former glory will require major budget allocations, but government attention is fickle and fleeting. “If the current administration is a fan of reading, the support is there,” says Bless Velasco, chief of the Public Libraries Division of our National Library. “But if not, the [library] staff encounters difficulties. How are we going to train them if we have no resources? What do we do?”
In an attempt to meet the bare minimum, the administration recently renovated the main building of our National Library. But closing it down for what seemed like a never-ending series of repairs rendered it inaccessible to the members of our workforce who often frequent its location. Patrons were mostly kept in the dark regarding the status of its completion until months later, when operations had to be put on hold due to the pandemic. If that’s how our authorities treat what is supposed to be our country’s premiere library, it’s no surprise that only 1 out of 10 Filipinos are aware of any public libraries within their vicinity, and only 11% of adults have actually paid visits and borrowed books.
This is a sad sight to behold, but honestly, are we even surprised? Mass digitization heavily influences how today’s generation spends their leisure time and chooses to educate themselves. Now that the rest of the world is just a swipe or click away, doesn’t the limited purview of public libraries simply pale in comparison? Frankly, this is an understandable perspective point. Yet we might be forgetting that abuses are much more likely to take place once reliable sources are gatekept and eventually closed off. It’s no wonder Filipinos are notorious for their blind faith in fake news. Most still regard a decades-long dictatorship as the golden age, even though it led to a national economic downturn and the loss of our sovereignty. And the same people are allowing history to repeat itself right now with part-time president, full-time fascist Rodrigo Duterte. We never learn and, in my opinion, that’s largely because we don’t have the means to do so.
But what if public libraries can help fill in the gaps of our collective knowledge by democratizing information? In a time when demographics determine who gets around in this world, a public library’s open-door policy is a compassionate and revolutionary act in itself. Zadie Smith says it best in Feel Free: “What a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.” These structures do not discriminate on any basis and do not need anything in exchange for the right to avail of their services. All one needs to bring to the counter is an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a laminated piece of paper with their name on it.
Within the four walls of a library exists a limitless repository of reference materials written and published by experts in the field and verified through multiple rounds of fact-checking. Sometimes, there may be public documents and artifacts, which serve as firsthand witnesses of events. These spaces act as safeguards, keeping the truth away from the prying hands of historical revisionists or political opportunists. They also preserve it for the benefit of future generations despite the rapid, unprecedented changes in recording and storage systems. Many often believe that their contribution to society ends here, that libraries are nothing more than warehouses for yellowed, frayed pages. In reality, the modern reading room has upgraded to meet the needs of the current generation: it’s become commonplace to see shelves of VCDs and DVDs or desktop stations with unlimited Internet access that ultimately aim to bridge the ever-growing digital divide.
But convincing and comprehensive facts are not always enough, as they could prove to be fallible upon close inspection. During these moments, critical discourse is crucial in either widening our perspective or simply setting the record straight. Public libraries work wonders as third spaces and serve as platforms for panels, conferences, and even the occasional informative puppet show. Utterly unfair are the stereotypes of looming, shushing librarians demanding a literal blanket of silence; most are loving, radically passionate, dedicated to the flourishing of others. Beyond archiving books and documents, the welcoming spaces of public libraries have the potential to evolve into active cultural centers that engage different sectors of society. This may sound like a utopian ideal fresh out of the latest sci-fi page-turner but imagine if all of us could have a place a block away from our homes, where we are free to learn about any topic that comes to mind and bounce ideas off with people who are just as passionate about them? Doesn’t this sound like the perfect breeding ground for a well-informed populace? Doesn’t this sound like the only truly hospitable environment for democracy?
Sadly, with COVID-19 looming over our heads, the future of public libraries is uncertain and will remain this way indefinitely. But it seems like libraries have been under constant threat since before the pandemic entered the picture. After all, an oppressive state fears an educated citizenry, so much so that they will suppress any form of progressive thinking. Whether it is done intentionally or not, we may never know. But many have speculated that this is why both our public school system and state-sponsored educational modules are devastatingly substandard.
Needless to say, information is power, and tapping into this source is the key to a meaningful participatory democracy: one where citizens can monitor and hold their officials accountable and speak on decisions that directly impact their daily lives. It is vital to empower especially those on the fringes of society to claim this fundamental human right and effectively close the gap between the government and their constituents. Sometimes, it takes nothing more than a building full of books on every corner of every street across an entire country to do just that.