By DOM GALEON and JOHN LEGASPI
Images by RIO DELUVIO
A house of books. That is essentially what a library is, from the oldest one recorded in history, which is the Library of Ashurbanipal (c. 7th century BC), to the most modern one in the world today. It is, perhaps, a need that came with humankind’s ability to record anything—from official registries to texts of history and literature.
A library is a repository of human knowledge, of human history, and of human ingenuity. Since its establishment more than a century ago, the National Library of the Philippines has been serving the same function.
Fast forward to today and the National Library continues to serve its purpose, albeit with a more modern touch, under the leadership of NLP director Cesar Gilbert Adriano and assistant director Ed Quiros. In celebration of the National Library’s 125th anniversary, The Philippine Panorama sat down with the country’s top librarians to talk about the future of libraries in the Philippines.
How has the National Library been maintaining its collections over these past years?
ADRIANO: Our mandate is to conserve and preserve the recorded cultural heritage of the country. So we’re more on preservation and conservation.
Being a public library is secondary. Our main function here is to preserve important rare documents, like the Noli and the Fili. We have employees here in-charge of maintaining these. One way is to keep them in a vault with 24/7 air-conditioning, where temperature is controlled, kept neither too cold nor too warm. They’re the experts at this, particularly those in the Filipiniana division.
How did the National Library build its collection?
ADRIANO: Some of these were donations. It all started when the National Library, the National Archives, and the National Museum were all one institution. But when these were separated, the collections, especially the books, went to the National Library. Archives got the government publications. The Museum got the artifacts.
QUIROS: Some of the items were bought, like the Spanish collection, which we call the Tabacalera Collection, from Madrid. Tabacalera was a Spanish company that used to operate in Manila. When the Americans took over, all Spanish companies folded and went back to Madrid. Later on, it was discovered that Tabacalera had a beautiful collection of books, which the Philippine government decided to buy. Others are donated, like the Manuel L. Quezon collection, which he stipulated in his last will and testament to be donated to the National Library. We also have other collections like that. Some were kept here at the request of their owners. When they died, they donated their collections to the National Library. Some are local, some are foreign. For example, an American who was assigned to the Philippines had a collection of Philippine postcards from 1908 to the 1920s and they’re all housed here now.
My vision, which is the priority under President Duterte’s term, is the establishment of public libraries all over the Philippines.
Are there innovations to make the National Library more accessible today?
ADRIANO: Yes. We are in the process of digitization, which we have started with our Filipiniana collection. But because every day we receive something new, there’s always material to digitize. I think that is the role of the National Library though. Still, we mostly buy books, hard copies, because our clients come here to still look for these.
With everything going digital, has the National Library’s visitors decreased in number?
ADRIANO: No. In fact, we get more people now. I think it’s because they come here to find materials that are not accessible online.
How many visitors do you get regularly?
QUIROS: The building has been under renovation since 2012. It has been in partial operation these past years. Before the construction
started, we were getting around 1,000 visitors per day, Mondays to Saturdays. That was the daily average in a year.
Is there a particular department or section that visitors frequent?
ADRIANO: The reading room.
QUIROS: The copyright section.
Does the National Library have projects in the different regions of the Philippines?
ADRIANO: Yes, absolutely. The National Library is the mother of all public libraries. When we say public libraries, they’re under local government units, like the Quezon City Library, for example. But as the mother of public libraries, we are in charge of training their people because not all public libraries are staffed with librarians—we need more librarians in the Philippines! For now, the non-librarian staff in public libraries, we train them. That’s the main job of our Public Library division.
Apart from the trainings and seminars, we also have activities open to the public like paper conservation, read-alouds, storytelling, and even puppet shows for local communities. Puppet shows, yes, because that’s basically storytelling in a different format.
Gov. Adriano, for your two years here, what issues have you encountered? What are the biggest challenges you have?
ADRIANO: Honestly? Budget. My target, at least for the term of President Duterte, is for all LGUs to have public libraries—all of them, no exceptions. There is a law, RA no. 7743, which mandates the establishment of public libraries. But it’s not been fully implemented because local libraries are at the mercy of whatever mayor’s priority. If it’s not in the mayor’s priorities, then they won’t build a public library. If it was one mayor’s priority but he lost in the elections, the new mayor doesn’t usually continue it.
I want to ask the Office of the President to require all LGUs to establish public libraries and the National Library will take care of training its staff, giving it additional budget. If you are the LGU and you establish a public library, we can give an initial allocation—whatever is needed, encyclopedias, for example—and we just add to it every year.
Does this issue with budget affect your ability to improve your collections?
ADRIANO: The National Library has a budget for acquisitions. We buy every Filipiniana material that comes out. By Filipiniana we mean books on the Philippines or books made here in the Philippines. We also buy foreign books but most of our budget is allocated to Filipiniana
materials. The budget for this is readily available, we never have a difficulty securing that.
But for other needs—for building improvements, for modern equipment—it can be tough to ask for budget. We also received budget for a gas-based fire suppression system. In case of fire, we don’t have to worry about getting the books and papers wet.
What are your plans for the future of the National Library?
ADRIANO: We want the National Library of the Philippines to look like a national library, not a haunted building or anything like that. (laughs). In my two years here, we have been able to ask for a budget for the final stage of the retrofitting [of the building]. I’ve been to national libraries in other ASEAN countries and, sad to say, ours isn’t on the same level as theirs yet. Hindi mo pa mapagyabang talaga yung sa atin. Indonesia has a 23-storey national library. Singapore’s is also impressive. But now, ours is beginning to be something we can be proud of.
What makes the experience of coming to the National Library a special one, a unique one compared, let’s say, to going to other libraries out there?
ADRIANO: Well, it’s this—we only have one National Library. This is it. That, in and of itself, makes the experience of coming here special. There are a lot of public libraries, yes, but we have only one National Library that houses rare collections not available in other libraries. I think we also have more resources compared to other public libraries.
For you, Asst. Dir. Quiros, in your 10 years of being with the National Library, what changes have you seen?
QUIROS: 10 years? Yes, I started when the Philippine library was being developed, mostly the digitization and the system itself. And since it was established in 2005, of all the 11 ICT projects approved by the government in 2004, this is the only one running.
This digital library has been fully functional.
For example, today the National Library is very active in the establishment of the ASEAN digital library. From this experience, we started the first, the biggest, Philippine e-library that other institutions are now copying.
We also realized that many of our provinces, at least the municipalities, have more problems than internet access. So we also created an alternative: an offline version that is accessible, via a standalone computer, for those who do not have good internet access.
What’s your vision for the National Library?
ADRIANO: My vision, which is the priority under President Duterte’s term, is the establishment of public libraries all over the Philippines. As far as improving our collection here is concerned, I think we’re doing well. It’s a regular part of the library’s job. But the establishment of public libraries is a must. I myself joined the Public Libraries division of the NLP to monitor public libraries in Visayas and Mindanao. There are still a lot of provinces that don’t have one. So again, I am asking the help of the Office of the President in requiring all LGUs to establish public libraries. It’s a good legacy for the President to leave.