Commentary

The little library that could

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IT MUST be the refreshing novelty and the utter simplicity of the Reading Club library on Balagtas Street, La Paz, in  the unpretentious side of Makati that have earned for it such attention, especially in the social networking world. You almost wonder: Why didn’t anyone think of this bright idea before?

As Hernando (Nanie) Guanlao, the man behind this community library that spills out to the sidewalk fronting his home, narrates, it was an anonymous passerby’s photo of the library posted on Facebook that “launched” its public debut.

It all began when Guanlao, fully aware of Republic Act 7743 of 1994 vintage and disappointed that its provision “providing for the establishment of congressional, city and municipal libraries and barangay reading centers throughout the Philippines, and appropriating the necessary funds…” does not appear to have been completely implemented, decided to take matters into his hands.

He was not going to merely whine about the absence of such centers, although that is a legitimate issue to go to town with. As a concerned citizen whose government has fallen short of expectations, Guanlao knows whereof he speaks. In his younger days, he was an active member of

Kasapi, a social-democrat group of students and young professionals. Guanlao is neither a librarian nor an academician, but impassioned enough about literacy to know that books need to be made accessible to everyone.

He started his library in 2000 with stuff he found at home: textbooks that he and his brothers had used and outgrown, and old bookshelves. He was surprised at how the collection suddenly grew and continues to grow with donations from others, many of these just left at his doorstep. A similar reading center is also open and managed by Guanlao’s daughter Lyell at their family home in Greenheights, Muntinlupa. He advertises his reading center much like the ice cream man, on a sidecar loaded with books, announcing its presence in the neighborhood.

These donations became more frequent when Reading Club 2000 was publicized, so that Guanlao found himself in a position to donate to fledgling community libraries. He was only too happy to accommodate recent requests from

Emma Balatbat from Rizal Elementary School in Gubat, Sorsogon, and Rory Verayo from Kaybagal, Tagaytay.

When children’s book writer Genaro Gojo Cruz received his award as one of the winners of the 2012 Gig Writing Contest, he said that this time, he wrote for the money. The candid remark startled his audience; he explained that the cash prize would complete his savings for a sidecar he was planning to buy—for a mobile library he wanted to start for his community in Bulacan to introduce the young to books. In the Parañaque community where I live, former environment secretary and human rights lawyer Jun Factoran—himself a wide and avid reader—envisions a reading center setup for the underserved large community of Sampaloc Site. (Our books are ready, but we are still in search of a venue.)

These only prove Guanlao’s point that his reading-center idea is catching on, as he had meant it to inspire others, encouraging all that it is neither expensive nor difficult to start one.

That books give meaning to life is a mantra Guanlao strives to popularize to emphasize the obvious: that there is power in books and reading. He has developed an orientation training program for interested communities and is formalizing a nonprofit organization to ensure continuity.

On the three afternoons we visited, there was a handful of students preoccupied with browsing who so politely asked me to please move my chair as I was blocking the bookshelf they wanted to reach. A professional who drove precisely to check out—no, to literally take out—the books of his choice felt no qualms about driving away with his choices for the day, for he proudly says he replaces those with other books, anyway.

Guanlao describes the library as a “free choice” one. It is open 24/7 without needing the watchful eye of a librarian. Bookshelves are protected with clear plastic sheets, not for security reasons but from rainfall. Readers are free to come anytime and take home any book they fancy. That book, he is sure, will be better off in a reader’s hands rather than lying idle on a bookshelf. Since he maintains neither inventory nor check-out procedure, both of which, he feels, only delays the book-reader interaction, he detects the “losses” only through the gaps on the shelves.

And so, the library on the aptly named Balagtas Street has come to be known as “the little library that could,” reminiscent of the 1930 American children’s book classic, “The Little Engine That Could,” which speaks of what optimism and sheer hard work can achieve.

Perhaps especially during the coming election campaign period, community reading centers will turn fashionable, included in a candidate’s post-election promises. What an unexpected and happy trend that would be. (E-mail readingclub2000@yahoo.com for more info.)

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of the Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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