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  • A book in every child’s hand

    By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
    Saturday, January 10th, 2015
    Philippine Daily Inquirer

    If you think the issue of book donations is simple and uncomplicated, think again. It is not just a matter of a ceremonial turnover.

    I myself have gone through several changes of heart and mind about it. The day I felt like a fool promoting the love of reading and rhapsodizing about its many delights through teacher training workshops was the day I realized: What is there to learn to love in classrooms without books? I thought I would save the world by organizing a library in a neighborhood public school with the help of friends who were just as concerned. There was an air-conditioned room given us, and we built and painted colorful bookshelves livened up even more by brand-new books. A manual for the librarian was developed, the books were catalogued, and library cards were purchased. This designated room was an improvement over my earlier portable library. I went on weekly visits to classrooms to have special reading time with the children who could get books from the suitcase that I was lugging around.

    When I checked on the library the next school year, it was no longer there. It had to give way to a classroom that was badly needed, and who could complain about that? A library of sorts was designated in a smaller space by the school clinic, and there was no librarian to speak of. I could not bear to ask where the hundreds of books had gone, content enough with the thought that whoever took them were making good use of them and enjoying them.

    The next wave of book donations, it was thought, had to be accompanied by a storytelling session, in the hope that this would enhance and maximize the use of the books. But the books that found their way to schools were considered such rarities that they were kept under lock and key—so that they would always look new and be well-preserved. The concern was that the books would not last forever, and with no assurance that they would be replaced when necessary, they were not always made accessible to students—the very reason, now forgotten, for their being there in the first place. Complicating the matter was the prevailing and not totally unfounded fear of teachers that if any book were damaged or lost, they would be held liable.

    Education Secretary Armin Luistro has long seen the need for a reading corner or center in every public school—an area where students can hang out and read whenever they have the time or the inclination. Logistical details have stood in the way of this plan: Where will the books be stored? Is there physical space to be found for such a dream reading corner? And the ever-critical question: Just who will be held accountable for these resources?

    There were deliberate efforts to seek only brand-new books and certainly not the insulting, half-used workbooks that often find their way to donation piles. (One major reason public donation boxes are to be avoided is that they tend to become receptacles for old books no one cares for anymore.) And then came the strong desire to send books beyond Metro Manila. Because delivery costs are lower, public schools in Metro Manila have always enjoyed the unfair advantage of being frequent beneficiaries of many institutions.

    With the devastation wrought in the province of Leyte by Typhoon “Yolanda/Haiyan” in 2013, it has been a favored and deserving beneficiary. Yet, the questions linger: Are the books being used? Do the students enjoy easy and open access to the collection? How does one strike a balance between a well-kept and a well-used collection? Is the best attitude to be less harsh on an inventory count but strive for increased efforts on getting more and more students to discover and to love reading? And to allow the young readers to so love the books, and never mind that these traces of love become evident on the books?

    Perhaps the philosophy of the neighborhood library of Nanie Guanlao on Balagtas Street in Makati City makes the best sense, after all. Open 24/7 with little need for a vigilant watch, Nanie dispenses with a librarian whose job of processing and record-keeping will, he feels, needlessly “delay” the magical encounter between the reader and the book. It is enough to know that the books are being used by individuals for whom they matter.

    And so what if some people just take books home to become their own? That means the books truly matter to them and will always be loved and passed on in turn. It is a comforting and reassuring thought that Nanie’s literally open bookshelves are never empty, for many who chance upon books they want often take them but replace them with another set of titles they are now ready to part with and share with a larger reading public.

    Such a no-fuss, no-frills model of a library tells me to donate wholeheartedly—and banish all fears. A book in a child’s hand is all that should matter.

    Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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