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Looking Back

A past librarian and the need for a new one

/ 12:09 AM November 09, 2016

Nobody seems to find it funny that the early evening “rush hour,” when people leave work for home, can be the opposite—especially when Edsa’s southbound lane turns into one, long parking lot with cars idling, wasting gas and polluting the air.

Nobody seems to know how the man after whom the longest street in Metro Manila is named was once upon a time considered “one of the five greatest living Filipinos.” I doubt this very much since the person who said it did not identify the other four. As far as I know, because of my occupational bias, , Epifanio de los Santos (1871-1928), was a historian and served as director of the National Library of the Philippines after the eminent Dr. Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera.

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He may not really have been one of the greatest living Filipinos before 1928, but he is on my list of people from history I would very much want to meet for dinner. If we are to believe Wikipedia (I discourage my students from citing this source in their papers), De los Santos was almost comparable to Rizal because he was: “a noted Filipino historian, literary critic, art critic, jurist, prosecutor, antiquarian, archivist, scholar, painter, poet, musician, musicologist, philosopher, philologist, bibliographer, journalist, editor, publisher, paleographer, ethnographer, biographer, researcher, civil servant, patriot and hero.” So how come nobody seems to have heard of him?

I read somewhere that some of the best guitar players in the Philippines from the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries were Antonio Luna, Epifanio de los Santos, and Guillermo Tolentino. As a matter of fact, Tolentino made a sculpture depicting De los Santos playing the guitar.

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Rafael Palma, historian and former president of the University of the Philippines, described De los Santos thus: “An artist by temperament, he was a scholar in the true sense, interested and well-versed in all branches of human learning, not in the manner of present-day specialists who confine themselves in the limited boundaries of their chosen fields.”

As director of the National Library and Museum from May 16, 1925 to his death on April 18, 1928, De los Santos immersed himself in his work and, according to the bibliographer Gabriel Bernardo, gave up “all his other avocations except music and bibliophily.” While we often see government service coming at a great sacrifice in terms of family and social life and remuneration. On the part of De los Santos, he had to give up collecting books and antiquities for himself so that he could focus on enriching the collection of the National Library and Museum. He was custodian of many primary sources on Philippine history, yet he laid down his pen and did not write history while in office because he believed that no librarian “could be a public servant and at the same time be the Library’s competitor in the acquisition and use of its resources.”

If you do a Google search, you will come up with an image of a lean, young man in old-fashioned glasses, to get an idea of what De los Santos looked like in later years. But you have to go to the National Museum hall that houses the work of Guillermo Tolentino, National Artist for Sculpture, and there come face-to-face with a plaster bust that is as close as one can be to seeing De los Santos alive. He was described by a contemporary thus:  “Physically, Director de los Santos is slender, standing about five feet high, with slightly drooping shoulders… his eyes… behind his glasses, betray the prolific poet… a voice as soft as velvet.”

The National Library of the Philippines has been without a director since the death of Antonio M. Santos in October 2015; it is hoped that President Duterte will fill in the position in this important cultural agency. Since 1986 the library was headed by a professional librarian, which is not bad. But maybe we should return to the long tradition, both here and abroad, to have at the head of our National Library a scholar who can provide direction for an agency once headed by the likes of James Alexander Robertson, Teodoro M. Kalaw, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Carlos Quirino, and Serafin D. Quiason. Our National Library and our country deserves an eminent “National Librarian.”

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: EDSA, epifanio de los santos, librarian, library, National Library of the Philippines
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