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Sisyphus’ Lament

A library in every child’s pocket

/ 05:22 AM December 24, 2018

I witnessed an incomparable modern miracle this 2018.

A semiretired friend filled his suddenly leisurely afternoons with books from Singapore’s National Library. Or rather, its app.

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He entered his library card number into his phone.

A vast selection of 2018 bestsellers appeared: 300 copies of Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” 200 copies of Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House.” Technical books on corporate mergers, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. Jonathan Miller’s “Duterte Harry.”

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My parents taught me to love reading. My father frowns on fancy things, but growing up, I could always ask for books.

Entering his alma mater, the UP College of Law, I was frustrated by the lack of books. Of the 50 most cited US law books, our library might have had one.

I was a freshman when it first subscribed to a US law journal database. I spent hours downloading summaries and excerpts of the missing books from journal articles, with circa 2001 dial-up internet.

I was not alone.

I mentored a University of the Philippines student from an extremely poor family on scholarship from Singapore-based alumni.

He dreamed of entering UP Law then Harvard Law School. The only thing he wanted from Singapore was a copy of the biography of Lee Kuan Yew, one of Asia’s revered lawyers.

When I gifted him with a hardbound box set, he was holding a yellowing book. He was interested in public international law and borrowed UP’s latest book on this.

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I flipped it open and discovered it was published in 1930 — before the United Nations was even formed.

So I could have wept when I entered Harvard’s Langdell Hall, the world’s largest law library. The books I knew only as mysterious footnotes were suddenly within reach. The librarians promised to borrow, buy or steal books from anywhere in the world.

My father was just as awestruck when I took him through Langdell, all the way to the Parthenon-like reading room at the top floor whose grandeur seemed to shame one into studying.

I scoured eBay and the university bookstore’s $8 discount shelf and shipped dozens of precious books back to Manila, some autographed by my new professors.

But I met an unstoppable force even more serious than Harvard Law School about education: the Singapore government.

Their National Library home page advertised a million digital licenses for “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Imagine a government that lends “Crazy Rich Asians” to everyone within its borders in a magnificent ploy to promote reading.

The library licensed the Overdrive app that lets users download up to 16 e-books for 21 days at a time. Imagine a government that literally puts a library in every child’s pocket.

The app has been available for several years now to thousands of library users in the developed world (for a price, of course).

The great challenge of overseas Filipino workers is convincing countrymen and editors to envision modern miracles the rest of the world now takes for granted.

We proudly cheer our Miss Universe victories, yet remain oblivious to President Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” and the world’s fast-evolving plans for robots, flying cars and gene editing.

If I could play Santa Claus — or raise $100 million in venture capital investments to build my dream company — I would put a library in every Filipino child’s pocket, transmitting e-books to distant villages separated by mountains and rivers from libraries.

What heights could my mentee aspire for if he had a library in his pocket instead of trying to study law books a hundred years out of date?

Filipinos have become numb to corruption, pollution and traffic, but surely it must disturb us to realize that any child in Singapore has more educational resources inside his phone than a student in the University of the Philippines, where even the poorest teenager who enters is seen as a future president.

It must disturb us to realize just how far behind an entire generation is in the global race to the future.

React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan. This column does not represent the opinion of organizations with which the author is affiliated.

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TAGS: library app, Oscar Franklin Tan, Reading, Singapore's National Library, Sisyphus’ Lament
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