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Between books and shelves: The dynamic future of public libraries

Public libraries are cornerstones of culture in the Philippines. While many institutions tend to govern our way of life, public libraries preserve how this way of life came to be in the first place. Tasked with housing primary source materials and other pieces of our country’s history, libraries sate even the most curious of knowledge seekers.

Lately, however, public libraries have become completely empty due to community quarantine guidelines restricting access to such places. As dust begins to gather between the pages of even the most revered books in their collections, librarians scramble to find alternative ways to save public libraries amid our ever-changing circumstances.

Curators of knowledge

Many consider public libraries to be quiet domains rich with knowledge and history, places wherein it is accepted—and even encouraged—to be lost in thought. For these areas to be maintained as such, librarians are entrusted to keep the peace throughout each nook and cranny. Maria Cecilia Ayson, a public librarian of the Filipinas Heritage Library (FHL) in the city of Makati, holds her job in that regard.

Ayson serves as the Manager of Collections in FHL. As the FHL is one of few existing public libraries that has made select resources available online, there is much that goes into her work. “I oversee the library’s collection management and handle library tasks, [as well as] provide support for the library’s programs and special projects, if any,” she explains. A typical day at work [prior to the pandemic] involves interaction with different audiences, both onsite and offsite,” she expounds. 

As an innovative digital library, the FHL uses their online platform to keep up with the times and effectively reach out to people—even those that might not be interested in visiting a public library.  As the FHL is able to host most of their literature and papers online, they are constantly in communication with researchers and creatives alike who look forward to using the library’s features to their advantage. 

Despite the tiresome daily routine, Ayson divulges that her job brings her “serendipity”, expressing, “I think this profession [suits] me because I like being organized and discovering information. [Through this], I am able to preserve valuable and cultural information for the present and future generations.”

Evidently, being passionate about one’s work is shared between those employed in maintaining and managing public libraries. However, with the ongoing state of the country and the world, one cannot help but feel that there is a steady decline in the usage of public libraries—begging the question of how libraries are coping with the added stress of maintaining operations during this time. 

Same interests, broader horizons

Because of the constraints inflicted by the pandemic, public establishments have shifted their priorities toward providing digital media services, and public libraries are no exception. Ayson states that with the continued support of their management, the library has been able to maintain operations and provide library services online. She, along with the other library staff, “[tries] to be resourceful and creative in coming up with programs that [do not] involve huge cost.” Indeed, they have since come up with different online programs, such as their podcast about Filipino music, Muni-Muni Stories. 

Even before the quarantine, the library already had plans of shifting toward digital media. With plans to reopen soon, they hope to implement the appropriate safety measures in order to prevent their staff and visitors from contracting COVID-19. For the time being, the library staff work from home, minimizing trips to the library proper unless necessary. Their roles have also been altered to oversee the library’s social media activity and curate its large online database, which is rife with resources about Philippine history, art, and literature.

Of course, the changes to the library’s operations have forced librarians like Ayson to compromise, for better or for worse. Because she is a parent, she has to balance her work and home life within the confines of a single space. “Despite this,” she explains, “I’m still thankful because we have this option and it makes me and my family feel safer.”

For the next generations

Regardless of all the issues and problems pressing into the field of library work, Ayson believes that libraries can do more to interact with their patrons. “I think libraries can curate collections in more creative and interesting ways and provide more interactive programs that will resonate with the current generation,” she suggests, to encourage public library use in the country. 

The passion that comes with the territory of the library industry deserves recognition. Much innovation, hard work, and time is dedicated into a field that is ever-changing to satisfy the public’s needs. As Ayson aptly puts it, “It [is] great to help people discover information, [especially] about our own culture and heritage.” Indeed, it is high time for libraries to be recognized for what they truly are: safe spaces for knowledge and creative thought.

By Romeo Escareal

By Angel Peña

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