It turns out that the Isis video showing the destruction of “ancient” statues and artifacts in the Mosul museum that went viral online was not what it seemed. The artifacts shown being pushed off pedestals, crushed with sledgehammers, or disfigured with drills and chainsaws were reproductions. All the valuable and irreplaceable museum items had been hidden offsite by cultural workers.
While the gruesome execution videos posted by Isis will make your stomach turn, the one showing the burning of books and destruction of museum objects hits another chord in people and is equally distressing to watch. One of the comments seemed to hit the nail on the head: “Sana ipinagbili nyo na lang iyan imbes na sinira, napakinabangan pa (You should have sold, not destroyed, those artifacts; they would have been of more use).” Well, Isis is not as dumb and barbaric as people would paint it to be. What is not well-known is that Isis has been looting museums and private collections of priceless artifacts and selling these in the underworld of art and antiquities to earn money for weapons.
The Isis videos reminded me of “Fahrenheit 451,” the temperature required to burn paper and the title of a disturbing film I saw in grade school about a world that was suspicious of books and what these contained. In that world, books were banned and libraries burned by “firemen” whose equipment spewed fire instead of water. One scene that was seared into my memory showed a woman, doused in gasoline, standing in the center of a beautiful book-lined study. She defiantly met the firemen and burned herself with her books rather than witness the destruction of her collection.
I recalled “Fahrenheit 451” when I met the historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo and the anthropologist E. Arsenio Manuel, who recounted many happy hours spent in the prewar University of the Philippines library reading the books that formed the furniture in their minds. When World War II broke out, both men hurriedly carted off their books to the UP Library for safekeeping, thinking that the invading Japanese would respect an academic institution. They were dead wrong: The Japanese made a bonfire of the UP Library collection, and whatever remained was finished off by the Battle for Manila in 1945.
The two men rebuilt their collections after the war, with Agoncillo the more fortunate because his library grew and remained intact until his death in 1985. Manuel suffered a second tragedy when his home on the UP campus burned down. He is said to have spent a night literally on the ashes of his library. Undaunted, Manuel rebuilt an important collection that was unfortunately pilfered in his old age, and eventually dispersed after his death in 2003.
I started collecting Filipiniana in the 1980s, inspired by E. Aguilar Cruz, Doreen G. Fernandez, Agoncillo and Manuel. In the days before the Internet, historians needed to form their own reference collection to avoid dependence on a university or public library which would be closed in the middle of the night when one needed to check a citation. Today, many of the rare books on the Philippines are now available online. Some are copied out by Project Gutenberg, while others have been scanned and are downloadable free from the Biblioteca Nacional de España and other websites. The National Library of the Philippines has many important Philippine materials available online for free, while the Filipinas Heritage Library has its digitized books available online for a minimal fee, the Lopez Museum and Library has its major holdings scanned and can be consulted in-house. It is now possible to have a reference library in your laptop or on portable external drive.
While in Tokyo I took advantage of the high Internet speed to download a lot of Philippine materials, such that I am now tempted to get rid of the physical books at home. When I express this aloud, friends and colleagues ask if I will not miss the feel and smell of physical books. In the 1980s I collected rare Filipiniana because there was a steady supply and the prices were affordable. Unfortunately, collecting comes with a responsibility to care for the books against humidity, anay, and the most dangerous of all—irresponsible humans who borrow and never return books, or who simply mishandle the delicate ones. In the apartment where I now live the thing I fear most is, not fire, which is a remote possibility, but the water damage that will be caused by automatic sprinklers or firemen. My greatest fear with regard to my digital library is this: Technology moves so fast that my present PDF files may not be computer-readable in the future.
Libraries have come a long way from what they used to be: structures housing books and manuscripts—the Word in print and handwriting—which explains why old libraries were built on a grand scale, with architecture suggesting that libraries were temples to learning and knowledge. While there are some who think that the printed word is obsolete or old-fashioned, we are experiencing a lot of reading these days. We read more than we used to, but in a different format and context. Texts are readily available more than ever before, such that people are overwhelmed and do not know where to start. That is when one needs the peace and order of an old-fashioned library.
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