Looking Back

Journey into research

While some people have life-threatening allergies to nuts, shellfish or anything that turns red when cooked, I am averse to book dust. It is one of the universe’s perverse jokes to make a historian hypersensitive to sources of his livelihood. My condition was diagnosed too late to turn back from a life in libraries and archives.

While my area of specialization is the late 19th-century Philippines, and the heroes and villains who figure in the emergence of the Filipino nation, that does not stop me from the occasional dip into prehistory. Not so much to classify dinosaurs or understand cavemen and the life-changing effects of fire and the polished stone tool, but merely to revel in the prehistoric, or the time before written records. “Where history ends,” E. Arsenio Manuel declared in his graduate prehistory class in Diliman, “anthropology begins.”


Unfortunately, the infatuation with archaeology ended when I encountered the physical exertions of fieldwork and its heavy natural science component, so I turned in my spade and left the field for the air-conditioned comforts of the research library.

Other times, I opt to read up on the depressing 20th century, exploring the early American period (from 1898) that was brought to an abrupt end by the terror of the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), a time many old-timers remember with nostalgia as “Pistaym” (Peace Time). Recently, I have been deep into the Marcos period (1965-1986), amazed by the continuing revisionism and economy of truth that seeks to paint this dark period as a renaissance formed in the delusional minds of the so-called conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.


To make sense of the period, one needs to go through The Manila Times, The Chronicle, the Graphic and the Philippines Free Press, all closed in 1972, and compare these with their post-1986 reincarnations. One has to appreciate the tightly controlled Bulletin, Daily Express and Times Journal, together with what was belittled as the “mosquito press”—We Forum, Malaya, Veritas, and Mr. and Ms. Special Edition—that documented developments following the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983, and gave birth to the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Philippine Star.

In college, I began my lifelong association with the Lopez Museum and Library, going through physical copies of the pre-1972 Chronicle and Manila Times, and prewar periodicals like: Telembang, Pakakak, Miau, the Independent, the Philippines Free Press, The Philippine Review, the Tribune, La Vanguardia, Taliba (that’s “balita” spelled backward), El Renacimiento, El Renacimiento Filipino (the Philippine Renaissance), Lipang Kalabaw, and Bagong Lipang Kalabaw.

Then there were 19th-century periodicals: La Ilustracion Filipina, El Comercio, La Independencia—the radical newspaper edited by Antonio Luna as foil to the spineless La Republica Filipina founded by Pedro A. Paterno, the patron saint of turncoats or “balimbing” in our recent political life. The Lopez Museum and Library has scanned most of their holdings, making research dustless and fast. In time, all these digital files will be made searchable by optical character recognition and eventually uploaded online, a valuable resource to counter fake news today.

One can only hope that other resources in the National Library and the UP, the Ateneo and the UST libraries, as well as the Ortigas Library and the Filipinas Heritage Library, collaborate to make all their holdings available free online.

Millennials who came of age in the age of smartphones, laptops and the internet will find my notebooks quaint. Scribbling hurriedly on a series of notebooks meant finding a stray citation or reference was as much a challenge as deciphering what I had written longhand. In retrospect, I should have developed the habit of taking notes legibly and accurately on 3×5-inch cards, something I learned and abandoned, together with Turabian’s “Manual of Style,” after I had submitted my first college term paper under Doreen Fernandez.

Cards are easier to organize than notebooks and laptop notes, and writing things longhand makes one remember better than taking a picture of a reference with a smartphone. Memories of a life in research tumble back each semester as I try to give my students a sense of how I do my work, in the hopes that they may find their method and voice in their journey into research.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]


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TAGS: 19th century Philippine history, 20th century Philippine history, Ambeth R. Ocampo, book dust, Looking Back, Philippine history, prehistory
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