Libraries around the world have mastered the art of making the best out of limited means. Budgets are always tight and libraries are typically low on the list. Books are expensive. Qualified staff are hard to find, especially where salaries are meager. But the show must go on. Librarians know that their institutions are critical, especially to those with the weakest voice in community decision-making. Libraries are forced to find creative ways to keep their institutions alive and poised to serve the public.
Libraries in the Davao region are a remarkable testament to this tendency. Though they struggle with scarce resources, City Librarian Nora Alajar has fought to keep libraries relevant, and to keep providing useful services in the face of challenges that would have forced many to buckle.
During our trip to the Philippines, we visited the rural districts within Davao, along with Ms. Alajar. In Riverside, a fish-farming community about 40 minutes outside the city, Davao librarians were conducting a storytelling session to a group of about 40 kids in the local church. In a region where access to local-language books is minimal, these outreach programs provide a link to reading in an entertaining forum. The librarians were animated in their reading of the stories in local language Vasayan, beckoning the children – from toddlers to early teens – to join in at key moments, and answer questions about the plot. The librarians clearly love what they do, but more importantly, the kids love the visits. Ms. Alajar related that these outreach visits take place daily, meaning each village is reached 2-4 times per month. Sometimes the visits are storytelling sessions, other times they bring around the bookmobile to lend books. Either way, in a village that lacks many extra-curricular opportunities, these visits are a highlight.
We also got a chance to visit the Tugbok district library. In a community that lacked a library, Ms. Alajar pitched a the concept of a library to the local government and won the second floor of the district’s administrative office. She rallied the librarians to help refurbish the building, turning it into a cool and welcoming space. It has no amenities and the building is quite old, but the library itself is a pleasant reprieve from the outside heat and traffic in a busy market town. The floors are polished wood and the library is kept spotless. While there are no computers and most of the books are donated and outdated, Ms. Alajar has been dogged in tracking down donations from people and organizations both locally and internationally.
Her persistence has earned her a wealth of community respect, and as Davao’s economic fortunes are blossoming, the library system is well-positioned to benefit. In a series of discussions with city administrators, they all praised Ms. Alajar’s work and shared her vision for libraries as the community’s hub for information. The leader of Davao’s knowledge management planning project envisioned “the library as the nerve center of the information society”. An advisor to the mayor, he conveyed her support for the new, modern library at the center of town – along with barangay (neighborhood) branches all feeding into a Davao that’s leading the Philippines’ transformation into a country economically charged by high-skill IT services. Davao is turning a corner, and the library is a cornerstone of the future city.