How librarians celebrate reading in the digital age

CNN Philippines Life features six librarians who are changing the landscape of reading in their own ways.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The age of digital information has rendered many things invisible. Somewhere in the algorithm, what is lost is not necessarily information, but rather appreciation for what this information means. In the Philippines, the latest report on the functional literacy rate for 2013 may be at 90.3 percent, but the numbers belie that many young students cannot read, or that many do not have access to a book or a library. Former education undersecretary Juan Miguel Luz called us ‘a nation of nonreaders’: many Filipinos can read and write, but we haven’t developed a reading habit among ourselves.

In celebration of National Reading Month, CNN Philippines Life features dynamic librarians who are changing the landscape of reading in their own ways. At a time when the value of the written word is often discounted and open discourse is under threat, these librarians — as storytellers, historians, managers, community workers, and advocates — are evolving to revitalize libraries, bringing them where they are needed most.

Culiat Elementary School Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Sabrina Ongkiko, Culiat Public Elementary School Library

Sabrina Ongkiko, or Teacher Sabs as the members of her library club call her, is not a licensed librarian. But she loves books — children’s books, exactly, which she collected as a kid. And what she started in the small elementary school in Culiat, Tandang Sora, Quezon City, entitles her to be called a librarian, at least informally. A former teacher for Jesuit Volunteers of the Philippines, Ongkiko put together two classrooms in the school’s fifth floor and asked teachers and students: “Anong magandang library para sa inyo?

Natutunan ko na if you are building something, you have to build it with the community,” the erstwhile science teacher says. “Para may sense of ownership, dapat ano muna ‘yung gusto nila? Ano muna ‘yung input nila?

Culiat Public Elementary School has a low reading score and Ongkiko believes that the library is a way to engage its students, especially for those struggling to read. “Ang nakakalungkot, nung tinanong namin ‘yung students anong magandang library para sa inyo, ‘di nila masagot,” she says. “Wala silang comparison. Sabi lang nila, ‘Ma'am, may upuan?’”

Nevertheless, with a little help from an interior designer, Ongkiko helped put together a colorful library. The walls and ceiling are painted sky blue, its shelves (albeit needing reinforcement) filled with picture books and textbooks. There are horror books displayed out front in celebration of Halloween, organized by a gangly group of fifth grade students who comprise Ongkiko’s small library club.

The library club members are as much the librarians as Ongkiko is. The kids help other kids learn how to read. “‘Yung iba po dito ‘pag pumupunta dito, ‘di marunong magbasa, kaya po gumawa kami ng tutorial kung paano magbasa,” shares fifth grader Jerick, a member of the club. “Kukuha kami ng English and Tagalog na libro. Una namin na ipapabasa ‘yung Tagalog. Tapos pagkatapos nila, ituturo po namin kung ano ‘yung babasahin, tapos po noon, siya muna mag-isa if kaya niya mag-basa.

It is this reading culture that Ongkiko hopes to institutionalize through the library. “Reading kasi benefits you a lot. You learn empathy from reading. You learn to imagine, to dream bigger, because of stories. And you learn to write better because you read better,” she says. “Once you start reading, a lot of things start to become better for you.”

Von Totanes Rizal Library Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Vernon Totanes, Rizal Library

Vernon Totanes, in his own words, spent years “wandering the desert” before ending up as the Rizal Library’s director. As the library celebrates 50 years of existence in the Ateneo de Manila University, Totanes emphasizes how the elite institution — with the national hero as its namesake — can do more to ‘go down the hill’ and make itself even more accessible to the community.

“When I got here, I realized they didn’t need me as a librarian, they needed me as a manager,” he says. “I'm not cataloguing anything, I'm not lending out books, I'm not even answering reference questions.” What he does is market the library, build networks, and think of creative ways to make more people come to the building.

One of them is constructing a definite library identity through ‘Pepe’ — the young and cheerful personification of Jose Rizal that greets visitors by the entrance. Another is by becoming more active in social media. On Twitter, @Rizal_Library is known to be helpful and witty, even conversing with @ayalamuseum at one point. Recently, the library acquired a large collection of Filipino comic books published by Atlas, which is being prepared for public access.

“The Rizal Library is reaching out to everybody. If you want to partner with us, come on, let’s go,” Totanes says. “’Yun ang problema ng maraming librarian. Feeling nila, ‘Eto lang ‘yung trabaho ko, 'di ko na magawa ‘yung trabaho ko, papupuntahin mo pa ako sa labas?’ But that’s part of the job,” he says. For Totanes, the library is not only a tambayan, a place to read, rest, or sleep; it is also a learning center and a laboratory for various experiments that students may want to try out, with librarians taking a more active role in facilitating learning.

Totanes blends right in with college students, and when he asks them questions about the Rizal Library — how they find the steps, the books, the elevators — they provide candid answers. It’s his favorite part about the job, something he hopes to inculcate in the personnel. “I get to push librarians to go out there. I get to show the larger community that ‘Hey, the library can work with you,’” he says. “’Yun ang kulang eh. We need librarians who can talk to people.”

Melanie Ramirez National Library Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Melanie Ramirez, National Library

The petite and short-haired children’s librarian in the National Library loves to tell stories. Melanie Ramirez tells them animatedly, using puppets and facial expressions to interact with the children.

Akala nila pagdating sa pagbabasa o pagkukuwento, Lola Basyang type,” she says. “Ngayon interactive storytelling. 'Yung pagtatanong sa mga bata, sinasama mo siya sa pagkukuwento. At nandun ‘yung making face, na hindi ka gumagamit ng props. And nandun ‘yung boses mo na hindi ka gumagamit ng mga background music, kundi mga boses na pwede mong iba-ibahin na angkop sa kwento mo.

Ramirez’s love for children’s literature, which started in college, blossomed into a full-fledged commitment to make stories alive for children, now realized as section head of the children’s section in the National Library. There is a mix of local and foreign books in the library — open for children up to 13 years old — but her favorite one to tell is “Araw sa Palengke,” written by May Tobias Papa and illustrated by Isabel Roxas.

Storytelling, says Ramirez, builds important bonds and imparts valuable information that children need to learn while they’re young. The act may encourage children to develop good reading habits on their own. “Through pagbabasa, nakaiisip ako ng ideya o technique para maagaw ‘yung attention [nila], at matuto silang magbasa na pwede rin nilang gayahin ‘yung storyteller na malakas din magbasa, may aksyon ‘yung mukha,” she says.

When it comes to books, children will be children, she says, no matter the advances of technology. “’Di naman lahat ng bata nakakatikim ng gadgets na ganyan. Marami pa ring batang Filipino ngayon na hindi natin naaabot ng mga ganitong pagbabasa, ganitong pagkukuwento, o paggamit ng libro,” she says. “Marami pa ring mga batang ganun, na sabik na sabik magbasa o makinig.” All one needs to do is to capture their attention with a story, says Ramirez. The rest will follow.

John Silva Ortigas Library-13.jpg Photo by JL JAVIER

John Silva, Ortigas Foundation Library

John Silva sports a curious bowtie. “It feels more scholarly,” he tells me, as we sit in the lobby of the Ortigas Foundation Library, where he is executive director. Like Ongkiko, Silva is also not a certified librarian, but his background — and love for reading — makes it an injustice not to call him so.

Silva previously worked for nonprofit organizations, such as Greenpeace and Oxfam, and consulted for the National Museum before finding his way to the library. “I got this job because the board knew I had a great interest in books,” he says. “I collect rare books. I'm a writer and a historian, and this is primarily a history book library.”

In the Ortigas Foundation Library, wi-fi and use of services are free, and there is a wealth of rare historical books that may be examined with the assistance of the staff. The library also has a restoration laboratory, where culturally important works — such as a drawing by Jose Rizal, a compendium of Purita Kalaw-Ledesma’s newspaper cuttings, and a Roberto Chabet painting — are conserved and restored.

The library’s unassuming presence, it seems, belies the treasures contained within. It’s a trove that Silva fears will be for nothing in an age of ‘fake news’ and historical revisionism. “I situate this library in the whole notion of the continuing relevance of books in our society, of history in our society, of books about history in our society,” he says. “For example, we have a significant collection of books on the martial law period … [but] we have the president saying we're going to bury [former president Marcos in the heroes’ cemetery], we're going to unite the country.”

“That goes against everything written on those books,” he says. “That amnesia has a lot to do with non-appreciation of history. I don't think a president could have been able to push for the burial of Marcos had there been stronger civil reaction to the whole idea, to the repugnance of the dictatorship of those years.”

As it attempts to preserve history, the library has also been trying to keep up with technology by increasing access to its resources. “One of the things we just finished is uploading 9,000 images. Anybody can now access visual images of our library. The next thing is 500 [an approximate number] enormous Filipiniana imported books that will be scanned and uploaded,” says Silva. These books include a second edition of “El Filibusterismo,” 19 century books, as well as Spanish journals.

Silva hopes the Ortigas Foundation Library can fill the gaps made by the lack of quiet spaces where students can read and learn (for free) in the city. “I'm always feeling like committing ourselves to public service,” he says. “There's a tendency in private institutions, the people who come always feel like they have to endear themselves to us. And I feel that ... we should be learning how to engage and be endearing to them, and helping them out the best we can.”

QC Library Photo by KITKAT PAJARO

Mariza Chico and Fe Gomez, Quezon City Public Library

Mariza Chico and Fe Gomez call themselves ‘embedded’ librarians. Librarians should be part of the community, they say, and both are active in cascading what free resources the Quezon City Public Library has to offer — and there are many.

Recognized as one the best public libraries in the Philippines, the library boasts of various online academic resources, a collection that includes children’s books, as well as Filipiniana, periodicals, and law materials, several meeting rooms, and a cozy café for when studying takes its toll. It’s not hard to imagine why Chico and Gomez are proud of the work they do, but their devotion goes a long way — they have been librarians when facilities were scarce and upgrades were a long time coming.

Nung nasa old building, sa isang araw, like a Saturday, ‘di lang 500 [‘yung visitors]. Ang style namin, pila sa labas. Nung wala pang computers, punung-puno dito, may nagbabasa na sa floor,” Gomez recalls. “Ang ginagawa ng OIC namin noon, ‘pag may lumabas na 10 o 5, magpapapasok ulit,” Chico adds. “That time, hindi pa ganoon [ka] conducive, dahil usually ceiling fan supported may ilang aircons lang.

Sa hapon mag-she-shelve ka pa ng books na balibaligtad,” adds Gomez. “Parang na-ransack ‘yung shelves!” laughs Chico. “Isa-isahin mo ‘yan. That was the 90s to late 2004. Bago nag-boost ng technology.”

Today, the two veteran librarians (Chico, who is also a licensed teacher, has been with the library for 17 years, while Gomez celebrates 25) give back, capitalizing on their professions to coax Filipinos back to reading. “Lalabas ka sa community, magtuturo ka sa kanila. Meron kaming volunteerism, dinadala namin itong Book Mobile [a mobile library] sa remote areas na kung tawagin ay ‘Library Without Walls,’” says Gomez. All the while they are aware of the evolved role of librarians in a community still making sense of a deluge of information.

Even, and especially with, their teaching backgrounds, they continue to learn and mimic best practices that they share to less-privileged communities around the Philippines. “’Di lang kami nandito lang sa isang area, sa isang room,” says Chico. “We go out. 'Di lang kami librarians, teachers, all in one na kami eh. Dapat multitasker ka na, marami ka nang alam.

The librarians keep a busy schedule, even as they attend to the painstaking work of maintaining a repository of knowledge. But the biggest perk is seeing the world even as they stay in one place. “We come across people from all walks of life — children, senior citizens, professionals, housewives, out of school youth,” says Chico. “That's our only difference with the school libraries. Everyone comes here.”