Monday, September 23, 2019

Sunday Essay: A vote for public libraries

Editorial Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

WITH the elections barely three weeks away, I’ve decided to add another item to my wish list for public leaders. I will support candidates who have a clear plan for establishing or upgrading public libraries, or a track record for doing so. This will probably yield a short list of candidates, but a voter can dream, can’t I?

Ranged against a list of other needs, public libraries may seem frivolous. Even in a more affluent society like the United States, public libraries that depend on taxpayer funding and private donations “are chronically underfunded and subject to the whims of politicians and philanthropists,” Sue Halpern wrote in last week’s issue of The New York Review of Books.

And yet libraries remain essential social infrastructure, arguably as important as community sports facilities, parks and student housing: spaces where citizens can meet one another and form connections that will help create a more civic-minded, more harmonious society. Halpern wrote: “A public library is predicated on an ethos of sharing and egalitarianism. It is nonjudgmental. It stands in stark opposition to the materialism and individualism that otherwise define our culture. It is defiantly, proudly, communal.” (Read the full story here:

Cebu City’s residents are fortunate in this regard. In March 2018, the Cebu City Public Library and Information Center began operating 24/7, as Mayor Tomas Osmeña’s response to a request that engineering student Mitch Roldan posted on the mayor’s Facebook page. Other cities like Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu also maintain public libraries, but Cebu City’s is the first in the country to operate 24 hours a day. I have only been to the Cebu City Library during the daytime—and once met with a mentor in its cheerfully furnished reading nook for children—but its Google reviews are all positive. The only request seems to be for more new books.

It’s inspiring to think of how this institution has not only survived, but transformed to meet a new generation’s needs. Three decades ago, I went to the Cebu City Library at least once a week for several weeks to work on a paper (what my teacher quaintly called a “baby thesis”) on Charles Dickens. It had books and critical essays that the library in the high school I attended didn’t have, and going there gave me an excuse to drop by a new doughnut shop in Fuente Osmeña when I walked back to my father’s office a few blocks away. There was another well-stocked library in Cebu City then, which the US Information Service operated in the old Social Security System Building on Osmeña Blvd., but only college students were allowed inside that air-conditioned haven for lovers of books, movies and microfilmed newspaper archives. One of the first things I did as a college freshman was apply for a USIS Library card.

Who among Cebu’s public officials and other aspirants for public office have invested resources in a library or reading center in their cities and towns? Under a law enacted in 1994, every barangay was supposed to establish a reading center. It fell to the National Library and the Department of Interior and Local Government to ensure that each city, town and congressional district had at least one public library. But like the law that requires rainwater harvesting, Republic Act 7743 needs a major push.

One need not be a bookworm to appreciate the need for public libraries. More than access to books or to spaces where people can read and think in peace, public libraries can provide the chance to secure essential services and opportunities. In some cities like Butuan and Quezon, public libraries provide computers where citizens can apply online for government clearances or search for jobs, the Beyond Access program reported in 2017. Its report commended librarians who worked hard and were willing “to push outside the traditional limits within which libraries worked.” Let’s use our votes to help them get all the additional support they need.


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