Reacting to an article published in the Feb. 21, 2010 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Dioso Library’s founder & Executive Director wrote the Inquirer the following letter, entitled “Recipe to make our kids regular readers: More reading programs plus more public libraries”:
We should have more of the Inquirer’s Read-Along sessions and other reading programs, including storytelling, whose primary objective is to open up the world of books to children and to show them – in a highly entertaining, and therefore more effective, way – that reading is both a fun and beneficial thing to do.
The only problem: Reading programs are not enough, by themselves alone, to achieve the overall and longer-term objective of making children fall in love with reading and become regular readers for life.
Read-alongs are great in sparking a child’s initial interest in books and reading. But something more is needed to convert that initial interest into a real love of books and a lifetime reading habit.
According to experts, children need at least two other things to actually adopt such a habit: (1) As much guidance, encouragement and example as they can get from their usual role models – their parents, teachers, and older siblings — and (2) regular access to books and other reading materials.
This letter is primarily concerned with factor No. 2, which I believe is a more difficult hurdle to overcome in the Philippines. The main problem: There is a severe lack of public libraries in the country.
Public libraries are the only institutions in the world whose primary function is to provide the public with free access to books and other services. Many of them offer a wide range of both fiction and nonfiction books, in addition to encyclopedias and other basic reference materials, for both children and adults. A growing number (at least in the U.S. and other developed countries) now also offer free use of computers as well as free internet access. In addition, some of them organize regular storytelling and other programs that promote reading, appreciation of the arts and culture, etc.
Like parks or many other government-run facilities, entry to public libraries and use of their materials and services are free to the general public, regardless of residence or nationality. Properly equipped and operated, a public library can be the most economical and effective source of materials and services that anyone – child or adult –needs to start and nurture a reading habit.
However, as stated earlier, the Philippines doesn’t have enough public libraries to meet the need of our big and ever-growing population. This problem is compounded by the fact that, of the public libraries that we do have, a significant number is under-funded, understaffed, poorly equipped, or in bad physical condition. Many of these “operationally-challenged” libraries have reportedly stopped functioning already and continue to exist in name only.
According to the latest available data from the National Library of the Philippines, there are currently 688 public libraries in the country, of all types: 4 congressional, 52 provincial, 97 city, and 535 municipal. There should be many more: the relevant Philippine law (Republic Act 7743, enacted June 17, 1994) mandates the creation and operation of a public library in every congressional district, city and municipality throughout the country. On this basis there should be a total of 1,851 libraries in all, one for each of the country’s 220 congressional districts, 136 cities, and 1,495 municipalities.
The fact that the country has 1,163 public libraries less than what the law requires is a big problem that needs prompt resolution. Their absence alone affects some 40% of our entire population, nearly 40 million people. Their continued absence – coupled with the existence of the “operationally-challenged” libraries cited earlier — unfairly and unacceptably deprives our children of a resource that could spell the difference between a life doomed to failure or one that promises a brighter future.
To children of means, the lack of public libraries may not present as big a problem as to others: they can afford to buy books, newspapers and other reading materials of their own, and can therefore sustain a reading habit by themselves. But what about the other children, the countless millions who are poor or, worse, the “poorest of the poor”, whose families struggle daily merely to get some food on the table. These children obviously cannot afford to buy their own reading materials. For them, regular access to such materials can only come from the public libraries.
The obvious solution: let’s build public libraries where they don’t exist. And, at the same time, let’s repair and improve the ones we already have. If necessary, let’s do all this with the active involvement of the private sector. In my hometown of Pandan, Antique, the public library — which has been operating continuously and successfully since April 2004 — receives annual financial grants from the municipal and provincial governments, but is otherwise privately-owned and operated. (It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Antique has been blessed with caring and forward-looking leaders.) ###