G’day! I’m in Gold Coast, Australia temporarily. Beyond the beaches, culture, and wildlife, what has struck me about Gold Coast is its robust and efficient public library system. Over the past months, their local libraries have been one of my most frequented places where I get to enjoy their spaces, services, and collections.
The best thing about public libraries here in Australia is that they are free, accessible, and comfortable. Library members can borrow books sans all the confusing forms and paperwork. Furthermore, people don’t have to go very far since almost every suburb has a local library, and its membership is open not only to locals but also to visitors like myself.
Given that, I can’t help but think about our own public library system back home. While I know that some local libraries in the cities, including the National Library, book institutions, such as the National Book Development Board, and librarians and reading advocates have stepped up their game in terms of programs, facilities, and services, we still have a long way to go to truly cultivate the habit of visiting libraries—and reading—among Filipinos.
Thus, in celebration of Library and Information Services Month, I would like to talk about why Filipinos should read at local and community libraries, and why Filipinos deserve a better and more efficient public library system.
Better access to books and learning resources
In the Philippines, the primary means to get and read books is to buy them. The fact that you have to spend on books is already a deterrent for people to get into reading.
However, as a creator myself, I also understand that writers, fellow creators, and publishers have to make a living for the creative industry to thrive. I don’t have any issue with that. But the sad reality is, apart from the certified bookworms and those who can afford to buy, printed books are still a luxury for many Filipinos.
On the other hand, I have also observed the rise of independent and secondhand bookshops online that has made books more accessible and affordable, especially during the pandemic. While this helps in terms of accessibility, it still incurs an additional shipping cost. Thankfully, there are book clubs and communities that help circulate books by exchanging, gifting, and donating.
But still for many Filipinos, there aren’t that many options when it comes to accessing books and other learning resources. Not only that, we don’t have much space where we can actually read these books or even study. Sometimes, our homes are not the best place to read, study, research, or work; that’s why some of us go to cafes and coworking spaces where we unfortunately also have to spend money.
Filling in the learning gaps
According to a recent World Bank report, “nine out of ten Filipino children still struggle to read simple text by age 10.” This reaffirms another report by the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2019 where the Philippines ranked the lowest in reading comprehension among 79 countries. These assessments summarize the depressing state of our education sector.
While building libraries may not be the silver bullet to end this learning poverty, it’s not a bad idea to improve the existing ones, integrate them into a system, or build more. Providing more opportunities and avenues for children to read and learn can help lessen this learning gap. And I admire the efforts and contributions of our educators, librarians, advocates, volunteers, and reading communities and book clubs (like Bookbed!) across the regions who are doing their part to achieve this—with limited to zero budget, at that!
But more importantly, these endeavors should come along with a more holistic approach in addressing the systemic problems in our education sector such as budget, curriculum development, infrastructure, and teachers’ training among others.
Reading for leisure
Apart from addressing systemic issues and giving more opportunities, I believe another effective way to address this learning poverty and to encourage more young Filipinos to read is to break away from the idea that reading is exclusively school work. We tend to view reading more as a requirement—we have to read because our teachers say so, or we have to read this and that, otherwise we will fail the test, and so on. And this attitude towards reading sucks the true magic out of the habit, and what it can do to us and our well-being.
When we view reading more as a form of recreation and leisure, it stops being a chore. I know it can be a challenge to sell this kind of perception to a larger part of our society but it’s not impossible, especially when we start young and if done in a collective manner. Cultivating the love for reading in our children is not that different from teaching our kids to play sports, enrolling them to music lessons, or introducing them to video games. We just have to give them (ourselves) the opportunity by handing them a book, bringing them to the library, or giving them spaces where they can explore reading options, such as in a buddy or group setting.
Fostering a more vibrant community
Reading is beneficial as it can make us smarter, more creative, imaginative, empathetic, and inspired, depending on what we consume. But what we sometimes forget or take for granted is that the benefits of reading don’t stop at the individual level. Contrary to the common view on reading as a solitary activity, it can play a vital role in our social lives.
This is what I see at the local libraries here in Australia. Since the libraries are situated in community centers where people get to do a lot of other fun activities such as sports and arts, there are also more opportunities to see neighbors, meet new friends, and build connections beyond the usual online setup. This is also the case at public libraries in other countries I’ve visited such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.
Apart from just browsing books, locals can join other library activities and programs such as language classes, storytelling and reading sessions, writing workshops, fun games, and the likes. I can also see many young students making the most out of the library resources for their school work; professionals doing their deskwork; and elderly people reading novels while jotting down notes. It’s such a beauty to see this vibrant community of library-goers across all ages who enjoy a conducive space where they can flourish intellectually, emotionally, socially, and even physically.
Developing our local library systems
As the libraries here have reminded me, reading and learning don’t have to be boring, monotonous, and solitary. Instead, we should view them as inherent parts of our social lives where we can foster relationships with our children and build our communities.
Basketball courts, sport centers, playgrounds, open spaces, and parks are great, and so are libraries. Many of us have already been going the extra mile(s) in developing our reading culture, and it would make a greater impact if our leaders, especially those elected, can invest more in a more vigorous, sustainable, and efficient system that will bring books closer to the people.
It is also my hope that we will be able to improve, integrate, digitize, and streamline the processes to make it easier for people to register, access, and maximize library services. Like every other reader out there, I look forward to more enticing and comfortable spaces; extensive collections, where there is something to discover and explore for everyone; and fun activities that both kids and adults can benefit from for us to help foster a library-going and #readingnation culture among Filipinos. ☁️