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Looking Back

Kalaw’s lasting monument

/ 05:24 AM February 09, 2018

Of Teodoro M. Kalaw’s many facets— journalist, politician, legislator, author, historian, devoted father, etc.—what I admire most was his being director of the National Library. He was a nonlibrarian, a term recently made bad by professional librarians. Reacting to my recent column titled “Eminent nonlibrarians,” someone made the snide remark that the times of Kalaw, Epifanio de los Santos, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Serafin Quiason, and Carlos Quirino, all eminent nonlibrarian directors of the National Library, are long gone. That may be true, but it does not justify throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Directors of the National Library, whether librarians or nonlibrarians, should take the position carrying a distinguished record in either librarianship, bibliography, history, culture, scholarship, or administration, one who has all these qualifications being as rare as a unicorn.

Kalaw’s lasting monument is not the busy street in front of the National Library or the hall in the building that are both named after him, not even the crude likeness fashioned by Napoleon Abueva that sits, like a Chinese fu dog guarding the entrance, together with that of Apolinario Mabini. His lasting monument is a series of books, “Documentos de la Biblioteca Nacional de Filipinas”—primary-source documents on Philippine history compiled under his direction during the decade that he served as National Library director. These include six volumes of Rizal’s correspondence, the “Epistolario Rizalino” (1930-1938), two volumes of Mabini’s writings, “La Revolucion Filipina” (1931), a volume of Mariano Ponce’s correspondence, “Cartas sobre la revolucion” (1932), a monograph on Gregorio del Pilar, and much more.


Following the Kalaw tradition the National Library published in the 1950s the writings of Marcelo H. del Pilar: two volumes of his essays, the “Escritos,” and another two of his collected correspondence, the “Epistolario.” Since many of the original documents compiled by Kalaw were dispersed after the war, historians are indebted to him for preserving the sources for continuing research and publication. The only setback is that these volumes are long out of print, and most of the material is in the original Spanish.

In college I read through Volume 2 of the “Epistolario” that contains all of Del Pilar’s letters to his wife, Tsanay, in Tagalog. These made an impression on me because the Del Pilar that emerged from the pages was not the propagandist and hero extolled in textbook history, but an expatriate Filipino homesick and missing the wife and daughters he left behind in Bulacan.


Del Pilar’s letters home are heartrending because he could not return to the Philippines, and snail mail could never approximate his voice or simulate a warm embrace. In one letter he narrated how he was learning to ride a bicycle; in another he described a contraption installed in the La Solidaridad editorial office that could transmit his voice two towns away. How was this taken in Bulacan at a time when a telephone was beyond imagination?

To historians who demand conceptual frameworks, those who pine for the synchronic and diachronic, Del Pilar’s letters to Tsanay are at best trivial, but they make for a compelling narrative that resonates in our time. In my last column I provided excerpts of Del Pilar’s battle with the winter cold and the ailments that come with it. In other letters he complained of the dry summer heat, hot as a furnace but not sweat-inducing, a kind of heat worse than in the Philippines and that causes heat stroke:

“Tsanay: ako’y walang sakuna sa awa’t tulong ng P. Dios: palagi lamang sumasakit ang bagang ko, dahil sa init ng verano. Ang init dito’y mahigit sa init diyan. Walang hangin, hindi ka pawisan, at sa lansangan ay para kang nasa sa hurno. Sa lahat ng ito’y hindi naman makapagsusoot ng manipis at baka biglang lumamig ay panganib sa pulmonia.”

Toward the end of May 1889 Del Pilar woke up with a stiffness in the neck that spread to his nape and the left side of his chest. He believed that by sleeping on his left side a nerve was pinched, and he expected the affliction to heal on its own. A waiter in a café he frequented prescribed a chicken oil wrap for his neck, which provided relief.

Del Pilar had himself checked by a kabayan, Dr. Galicano Apacible, but ignored the medical prescription because he felt chicken oil was enough. He was said to smoke cigarette butts collected from the street. Little wonder he died of TB, far from family and home.

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TAGS: Eminent nonlibrarians, National Library, Teodoro M. Kalaw
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