Books, curiosity and catalogs | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Books, curiosity and catalogs

/ 04:32 AM October 02, 2019

Any Filipino who has historical data in his head can tell you that the now Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas on España street, in downtown Manila, was founded in 1611 in Intramuros. It is the oldest existing university in the Philippines, and happens to be older than Harvard, the oldest university in the US, established in 1636.

But if we are to go by current World University Rankings, Harvard is No. 1, while UST’s website does not provide the actual rank number, stating only that UST “maintained its spot on the 801-1000 bracket and remained the only Philippine university in the rankings that had the coveted QS 4 Stars rating…” Rankings aside, historians should be breaking doors to get at the UST Library and Archives for its untapped materials, known only to its librarians and archivists and the few hardy souls who battle traffic, pollution and time to research there.

UnionBank has fortunately funded the conservation of UST rare materials and made its catalogs available in a series of impressively bound and printed volumes. Our condo concierge got a hernia just lifting the box, sent my way over the weekend by UnionBank chair Justo Ortiz, containing a six-volume catalog of rare books in the UST Library, two volumes of books, booklets, pamphlets and becerros [copy books of the privileges and belongings of churches and religious congregations] in the UST Archives, plus two lavishly printed exhibition catalogs of Lumina Pandit I and II, on the treasures of the UST Library.

One can only hope that funding support continues, and that UST will reciprocate by allowing universal online access to its holdings to facilitate research without being in the library.


My delight in library catalogs, and the hours and hours of fun I spend poring over bibliographies, is seen to be weird, a perversion formed growing up in the age without the internet or the online public access catalog or OPAC. Once upon a time, we had the card catalog, which trained the mind to find books by author, title or subject. If you were in a small library, you had DDC or the Dewey Decimal Classification system, where the number before the period gave you a general subject and shelf location, and the numbers after the period referred to a more specific subject and precise location.

R52 was relevant to me because that’s where the works on or by Rizal were classified. Many years ago, while going over the DDC handbook for Philippine materials generated by the National Library, I asked how a small piece of paper on the spine of the book could contain all of 17 numbers after the period! Bigger libraries follow the LCC or Library of Congress Classification system, which expanded from its beginnings in the late 19th century and uses letters rather than numbers to classify books and find a proper shelf space for them.

Younger scholars who have utilized the British Library in St. Pancras, London, find it quaint when I say that I used the Great Reading Room when the Library still formed part of the British Museum — the same building where Rizal and Marx read. There was no OPAC then, and catalogue cards were pasted on heavy oversized scrapbooks, which provided my daily resistance exercise. Both the British Library and the New York Public Library then had book requests placed in a glass vial and sent in a pneumatic tube to what I imagined was a secret place inhabited by dwarves, who collected the books for the readers.

The state of libraries and archives in my youth formed my research instincts and taught me that patience is indeed bitter, but its fruit is sweet. In every new library, my method was the same: Pull out the card catalog drawer that contained cards on the Philippines, put them on a table and go through every card, stopping only to note items I would return to later.


When I search Google today, I’m not content with the result at the top of the list; that could have been sponsored, so I scroll through all results to the end before I decide, based on my instinct and previous knowledge, what is the best source.

The tools of research have changed, but the critical faculty remains: One must continually ask, doubt and weigh evidence before assuming you are right. The UST catalogs will provide sleepless nights, but the outcome will be knowledge of a new terrain for research.


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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, libraries, Looking Back, research, UnionBank, UST

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