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Looking Back

The American Historical Collection

Summer is still upon us, temperatures still sizzle, and while most students should be enjoying their “long” vacation, some are busy with all sorts of workshops that their parents decided to spoil the break with. Some students are taking up foreign languages or art lessons, or attending sports clinics. Why can’t some parents leave vacation alone?

There are many museums to visit this summer: the National Museum, Ayala Museum, Lopez Museum, even Museo Pambata. Intramuros has the San Agustin Museum, Kaisa Museum, Casa Manila Museum, and Rizal Shrine. Looking at the list, I realized that visiting a library isn’t normally high on our bucket list. But there are a handful of libraries worth visiting in the city: the Lopez Library, Ortigas Library, Filipinas Heritage Library (run by the Ayala Foundation), and National Historical Commission of the Philippines Library. I did not include the National Library as well as academic libraries on my summer list because these are the usual places students go to for their research papers.


Libraries today are not just places for books. In a multimedia age, libraries also stock up on music and videos and provide access for Internet surfing. Some libraries also have manuscripts and artifacts, thus crossing the line that differentiates a library from an archive or a museum.

One library that often stays under the radar is the American Historical Collection (AHC). It is housed in the old Rizal Library of the Ateneo de Manila University, where it shares space with: the Ateneo Art Gallery whose core collection was donated by the late Fernando Zobel, Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera Collection, Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings (aka ALIWW), and the University Library’s extensive Filipiniana collection.


The AHC is a place where I should really be spending more time in. It was established in 1950 on the initiative of then US Ambassador Myron Cowen, whose tour of duty in the postwar Philippines gave him a first-hand look at the destruction and reconstruction of the once “distinguished and ever loyal city of Manila.” Aside from human casualties, historic sites and structures were also victims of the war; the University of the Philippines Library, National Library, and National Museum were also destroyed, making Filipinos lose part of their past, of their tangible cultural heritage.

Ambassador Cowen encouraged old-time residents to donate books, pamphlets, and artifacts toward the establishment of a place of memory, a place where the past could be preserved. Thus, the original American Historical Collection was housed in the US Embassy building on Roxas Boulevard. From old photos one can see the collection inside sturdy cases of glass and Philippine hardwood in a stately wood-paneled room.

He was wise enough to know that future ambassadors would come and go, that some would be interested in the collection, and others not so. Thus the American Association of the Philippines became the owner in trust of the collection, and has remained its guardian from the beginning. An American Historical Collection Foundation has since been established to take care of and raise funds for the collection.

In the 1980s the AHC was moved from the embassy to a room in a space rented by the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center on Buendia street in Makati. In my younger anti-American days I refused to set foot in the embassy even for research, but I made an exception when the AHC moved to Makati and I made the acquaintance of curator, Lewis Gleeck, a prolific historian whose warmth and friendship made me take a second look at primary sources on the American presence in the Philippines. This helped me to understand the period better and see beyond the often blind anti-American propaganda I picked up in UP Diliman. I still smart over the way the United States conducted itself during the Philippine-American War, during the so-called “colonial period” from 1898 to 1946, and during World War II. But then, knowing history means liberating ourselves from the past.

In the 1990s the AHC needed another home, the Jefferson Center having ceased to be and a timely grant from the US Library of Congress running out. The Ayala Foundation agreed to take the AHC into its Filipinas Heritage Library and even refurbished the old Nielsen Tower to house the collection. But the AHC could not wait for construction work to finish, and took the offer of the Ateneo de Manila University Rizal Library, where it has been since 1995.

The AHC has over 13,000 books and close to 19,000 photographs on its shelves. It has prewar periodicals like the Philippine Magazine (1925-1941) and the Philippine Review (1916-1953). It also has: Reports of the Philippine Commission (1900-1915), Annual Reports of the Governors-General of the Philippines (1916-1935), Reports of the US High Commissioner to the Philippine Islands (1936-1946), and Reports and Records of the Philippine Assembly (1907-1934). It also has ephemera: postcards, Philippine Carnival medals, and even a passport issued by William Cameron Forbes to himself that provides a physical description of a man better remembered today through the premier gated community, Forbes Park in Makati.

There is a lot of Philippine history left to be written and rewritten by the members of a new generation, and we can only hope they don’t overlook the treasure that is the American Historical Collection.


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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, American historical collection, column
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