The debate over whether coffee shops should also serve as public workspaces sparks discussions among Filipinos. While some insist that cafes should adhere to their primary role of serving drinks and refreshments to dining customers, others argue that not everyone has access to an ideal study environment at home, making coffee shops a preferred option for work.
Amid this conversation, it's crucial to remember that in the Philippines, there are collaborative spaces welcoming students for free — such as the Cebu City Public Library and Information Center (CCPL), located on Osmeña Blvd., Cebu City.
The CCPL — an institution that traces its history to 1919 as the Cebu Branch of the Philippine Library and Museum (now the National Library of the Philippines) — has evolved with the times. Despite challenges, it found its permanent home in the Rizal Memorial Library and Museum in 1939, surviving World War II and continues to contribute to education, information and cultural enrichment to this very day. Its permanent closure was brought in 2008, but the city government decided to renovate the building instead.
CCPL becomes first 24/7 public library in the Philippines
In 2018, an engineering student made a simple request addressed to then Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña on his Facebook page.
“Mayor, I’m also hoping and praying that you will consider having the public library be open 24/7 for us students who really need to study in a library setting,” wrote Mitch Roldan, a fourth-year electronics engineering student at Cebu Institute of Technology-University. Roldan’s request gathered traction as it presumably echoed the sentiments of numerous students in the metropolis.
"Ok, give me a week," Osmeña replied.
On March 9, 2018 — coinciding with the country’s observation of Public Library Day — the CCPL became the Philippines' first 24/7 public library.
The impact was immediately felt. According to Cebu City Librarian Rosario Chua, the CCPL welcomed over 103,000 visitors in 2018, compared to only 26,000 in 2017.
In a 2018 interview with SunStar Cebu, Roldan, then a fourth-year electronics engineering student, said she didn’t want to burden her parents with additional fees by studying inside expensive coffee shops, so she sought the mayor’s help.
Innovations, inclusive learning
In 2020, the CCPL installed eight air-conditioning units, started renovation of its Braille Room, and made a significant investment worth P3.5 million in software and eight new computers. The library had also acquired an interactive bulletin board and P1 million worth of e-books in preparation for the easing of health and mobility restrictions. Pioneering inclusivity, the CCPL had also introduced a digital braille section for the visually impaired.
“Our main objective is to build an inclusive community. We have to get the involvement of all people from all sectors,” said Chua.
Currently, the CCPL boasts a collection of at least 25,000 books and can accommodate up to 150 individuals. Equipped with computers for research assistance, the facility provides free resources, including Wi-Fi, books and periodicals, creating an inclusive learning environment accessible to people across different economic backgrounds.
The library, with its mix of chairs and tables, presents a blend of styles that suggests room for improvement. The wooden, weaved and monobloc chairs in the computer area, reflect a somewhat disjointed aesthetic. Still, in the hallowed halls of this library, a colorful history of endurance lingers.
The library shelves, crafted from sturdy wood, stand in a compact arrangement, housing a decent collection of books. The low ceiling imparts an intimate atmosphere, creating a snug space as well.
House rules promote orderliness, requiring visitors to leave their bags at the counter and list their name and purpose of stay. Additionally, a simple dress code is in place, discouraging the wearing of shorts to maintain a formal atmosphere.
Hannah Jed Tabiolo and her friends, now an engineer, frequented the library back in 2018 during her academic journey, seeking solace in the collective energy of fellow students preparing for the board exam.
“The library was a great place; witnessing others going through the same challenging process provided a sense of togetherness that put me at ease,” she added.
Meanwhile, Hannah’s friend Manilyn Macna opted to study at the Cebu Public Library because of its round-the-clock availability, a boon for individuals gearing up for board exams.
On the other hand, Philippe Ramos, also now an engineer, who was a frequent visitor to the library in 2018, notes that the CCPL currently faces issues as a confined space, making it less conducive for both reading and studying.
“In a province, where public libraries are scarce, it would be beneficial if they reverted back to their original schedule of staying open until midnight, catering to students who love to study until the wee hours of night,” Ramos said.
Response to the pandemic, future prospects
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the operations of communal spaces around the world, including public libraries. The CCPL responded by initially operating four days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. However, it had to cease operations on May 9, 2020, in response to the nationwide lockdown.
Three years later, Chua has expressed her desire to reinstate the 24-hour service at the library, and also establish a dedicated space for individuals, especially students, who wish to stay overnight. “We want people to have a safe place to study and provide them an exclusive place,” she said.
During the 88th National Book Week celebration on Nov. 24, 2022, Cebu City Mayor Mike Rama pledged to establish a Singapore-like library for Cebuanos, potentially to be constructed at the South Road Properties in Cebu City.
Rama described the proposed library as "huge and definitely Singapore-like," emphasizing that it would not only house books but also be technologically advanced.
Chua welcomed the proposal because the CCPL in its current location — while it carries a rich history — remains limited in terms of capacity.
Inspiration from Singapore: Revolutionizing library spaces
Looking to Singapore for inspiration, its modern libraries have undergone a significant transformation.
The Punggol Regional Library, for instance, features a dedicated area on its fourth floor, known as MakeIT at Libraries, where patrons can explore fabrication technologies like 3-D printing and robotics. Adjacent to this space is Launch, a resource center for aspiring entrepreneurs, microbusinesses and gig workers, equipped with a meeting pod for consultations with start-up specialists.
The library's layout emphasizes accessibility, with large walkways, wheelchair ramps and accommodations like high-contrast keyboards and private "calm pods" for patrons seeking a quiet space.
Libraries in Singapore also aim to serve as "equalizers" in society, providing diverse facilities to cater to different learning styles. According to Shameem Nilofar, the university librarian at Singapore Management University, libraries can leverage their physical spaces to present information in various ways, ensuring they suit the preferences of different learners.
Vision for ideal, dynamic learning spaces
Mianne Castillo, a librarian based in Cebu, expressed her vision of an ideal library. She said an ideal library should evolve and embrace the concept of a “Learning Commons.” This concept entails creating a shared learning space that serves as a flexible and dynamic hub, encouraging individuals to participate in independent or collaborative learning activities.
“Through Learning Commons, we understand that people have various study habits and pacing when it comes to learning new knowledge or skills. Some would learn while listening to music, some prefer studying lying on a bean bag, some people would also want to share and discuss ideas with their friends, some would want to sip their coffee while reading, some also want to be in a silent space, and many more,” she said.
As a librarian, Castillo understands that learning can take various forms and doesn't require constant silence or reading to fully comprehend an idea. In adapting the Learning Commons, the library becomes more open to technology, socialization, meetings, playing games, studying and content creation.
“I really believe that one can learn and explore more information outside of a book. This is an ideal library for me since it is considerate to the different preferences of the people while having fun learning, too. By this, the renovation of the public library is necessary in order to serve the people more spaces where they can execute these kinds of things,” she said.
Debate over study spaces in cafes
In November 2023, Scottish travel vlogger Dale Philip ignited an online debate as he criticized students who dedicate hours to studying or completing paperwork in coffee shops in the Philippines.
“Look at all these guys with their laptops, just sitting, using it as their personal office. I would hate that. I would hate that, somebody just doing their homework right there. I was thinking about getting a Matcha Frappuccino in there but there was a big queue,” Philip said.
“I would hate to have a business where people just come and use it as their personal office, use your WiFi, your electricity, buy like, one coffee. So, I don’t understand why they let people do that and I don’t understand why people want to do that either.” Philip continued on about his confusion about the entire concept and questioned why these students don't bring their work to their homes, condominiums or hotel rooms.
The comment section of his video garnered diverse reactions, with some agreeing and others engaging in debate.
User tonirmorales contested two aspects: "Some people feel more productive in a cafe because at home, it might seem like you're not accomplishing anything. Unlike at coffee shops, where you absorb the energy of people working and studying, providing motivation." She also emphasized her second point about ordering additional coffee or items from the coffee shop's menu to justify the extended stay, preventing the establishment from incurring losses.
X (formerly Twitter) user @maroontito which now has 9.4M views on his reposted video of Philip said: “The audacity of white people to make a living off of Filipinos while simultaneously criticizing our own culture and social norms. Didn’t even bother blurring their faces. It makes my blood boil.”
In a separate social media post, user Lacruiser P. Relativo expressed his views in a lengthy Facebook post:
"It's past midnight, but I can't ignore the unusual situation happening in our coffee shops today. You've turned your establishments, whose primary goal is to generate revenue in the competitive market, into mere extensions of your living rooms. Don't get me wrong. I'd appreciate it if your purchases could justify your extended presence in the coffee shops, but that's not the case. I was surprised to see tables with no one around but bags strategically placed to signal that they're occupied."
Relativo clarified that his post wasn't meant to create enemies but to raise awareness and consideration for other customers. He also appealed to his city government to make libraries available 24/7 to accommodate students who prefer studying without relying on coffee shops.
CCPL impact, influence on public spaces nationwide
Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, the CCPL had reported hosting approximately 150 visitors daily in 2023. While the numbers dropped, Chua emphasized that even in the digital age, the demand for library services remains evident among the public.
These numbers in library usage highlight the positive outcomes that result when a local government unit (LGU) listens and responds to the pleas of its younger constituents. Such a simple and proactive approach opens up the prospects of having a significantly improved library that caters to students.
Since becoming a 24/7 public library, the CCPL has inspired other libraries around the country — like Quezon City and Davao City — to follow suit. Its intent on showing people that a public library is more than a place for borrowing books but can also be a study and research area was met positively by the public. Innovations that were also welcomed include allowing people to drink coffee inside the building and providing visitors with access to Wi-Fi, among others.
Despite efforts to make public libraries more relevant to the youth, a sobering reality persists: Are libraries, in their traditional form, gradually slipping into the shadows of societal indifference?
Cafes undeniably offer conducive environments for both students and professionals. This modern shift in preference to go to cafes reflects a complex interplay of societal dynamics and changing leisure preferences. Whether one likes the ambiance, the food or the coffee while working, it all depends what a productive space means to the consumer.
Positioning public libraries as modern workspaces
There is no need for a tug-of-war between cafes and public libraries in terms of hosting a dynamic workspace or study or research area. Instead, positioning libraries as viable options for students could potentially bridge this perceived gap and contribute to the recognition of physical libraries as essential workspaces.
The fact that modern public libraries are essentially free for use, provides Wi-Fi connection and provides people with a space that is generally free of distractions makes it an ideal place for work and study.
“The reality is that students from some schools in the city look for a place where they can study individually or in groups, and more often than not they go inside branches of popular fast food outlets occupying tables intended for regular customers, the reason why they end up being driven away,” wrote SunStar Cebu columnist Bong Wenceslao in 2018.
By fostering the ideal modern public library setup — akin to the promised Singapore-like model and in line with the aspirations of Cebu librarians — LGUs can help turn public libraries into easily preferable options for students.
The envisioned enhancements, spanning from infrastructure modifications to expanded services, would not only meet but exceed the expectations of students, thereby reducing their reliance on coffee shops as makeshift study spaces.
With professional staffing, careful promotion and marketing, strategic partnerships and collaborations, and timely technological integration, LGUs can boost the appeal of public libraries as vibrant communal spaces.The objective is not to replicate every aspect of a cafe, but by implementing thoughtful improvements, public libraries can enhance their appeal as productive workspaces to different stakeholders.
The current operating hours of the CCPL are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday. It is closed during weekends and holidays.