Four years ago, Beyond Access began working with the Philippine public library system. Like in many countries, libraries had been largely neglected by policy-makers, and in some municipalities, libraries were already closing due to lack of use. When the Philippine Digital Strategy was published in 2011, libraries were completely absent. Under the Beyond Access program, IREX and its Philippine partner, the Molave Development Foundation Inc. (MDFI), trained over 430 librarians, helped the National Library of the Philippines develop a new strategic plan, and worked to forge partnerships between the library system and development-focused agencies to better serve emerging community needs.
2017 brings an entirely different picture. A group of libraries from all corners of the country has proven that public libraries are not only still relevant in the 21st century Philippines, but a vital part of rapidly digitizing communities.
In 2015, Butuan’s public library was at risk of closing. Its usage had dwindled to a few visitors per day, and the mayor was ready to shut down the library. But after city librarian Jessica Clarito joined Beyond Access, she began seeking new ways for the library to engage its community. The library started by providing access to online government registration for those seeking to work overseas. For many, it is complicated to work through the numerous forms necessary to receive clearance for jobs abroad. But now in Butuan, librarians help guide those less familiar with online services and the library’s computers — free to all — serve as an easy access point. Since 2015, the Butuan Public Library has helped more than 8,000 people apply for and receive their Overseas Employment Certificate.
This increase in library visitation drove more attention from the city and new ideas for services. City departments began sending staff for digital literacy courses. In 2016, the library trained 95 nutrition scholars from barangays around the city. A new Rural Impact Sourcing project launched at the library aiming to link rural residents with digital freelancing opportunities. Now the library is applying for authorization to change its hours to become a more convenient co-working space. Overall visitation of the library has increased by more than 70% between 2014 and 2016, reaching over 23,000 last year. Armed with this evidence of its new value to the city and its development efforts, the library’s budget was increased by more than 700% over the last two years, now reaching 5m pesos.
Quezon City is the most populous of Manila’s regions, and its library has stepped up to meet the challenge of serving its 3 million residents. Already in 2014, QCPL was one of the country’s leading libraries, well-known for its team of puppeteers, who performed stories at local schools and festivals. After joining Beyond Access, the librarians recognized that there were opportunities to meet community needs in new ways. Just outside their doorstep, librarians saw a daily line of hundreds of people seeking police clearance certificates — a form that’s a prerequisite for many types of jobs in the Philippines. The nearby National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) office was understaffed and had only one computer available to the public, which because of intensive use, was often out of service. ‘Fixers’ picked off those standing in line, charging illegal fees to complete the online form. So the library sought out a partnership with the NBI, which now directs customers to the library to use their free computers and get librarian assistance in filling out the forms correctly. Now many visitors come to register for the national health service or apply for passports. The library serves nearly 1,000 people a day — half of which are there to get help with government services.
Recently, the library moved to an international-standard new facility better equipped to meet its increased demand. Next up, the mayor’s office has announced it will renovate the 20 branch libraries in Quezon City so that all of the city’s residents have access to the same level of service and comfort offered by the central library.
While libraries might be known for books, Philippine libraries have often lacked the kinds of books that would make them most relevant in their communities. In 2013, the Philippines Department of Education introduced mother-tongue based education for grades 1-3. But in most of the 19 languages used for instruction, there are few materials beyond classroom textbooks and workbooks for children to practice reading at home and with their families. Public libraries are an obvious choice for hosting local language children’s books for sharing, yet most in the Philippines have no such books in their collections. Last year, IREX and Molave began conducting training in an easy-to-use software designed for self-publishing attractive children’s books in underserved languages. Since June 2016, libraries and their partners in schools, day care centers, and local Department of Education offices have created over 1,200 books. One library, in Villasis, started a ‘Reading Challenge’ to complement the local schools’ literacy program. Nearly 300 children now visit the library a month to read Ilocano language books unavailable anywhere else in their community. Children were followed by their parents, and the library has now installed computers as part of the Department of ICT’s Tech4ED program. Visitation of Villasis library in 2016 jumped by more than five times the 2015 rate.
A national transformation
Evidence from these libraries and numerous others throughout the country has driven interest and engagement at the national level. Whereas libraries had been excluded from information society programs until 2014, now they are an integral part. The Department of ICT’s Tech4ED program has opened 1,100 centers meant to provide access to government services and training over the past two years, and more than 100 are in public libraries. A new DICT thin client programs is putting computers in 80 more libraries around the country this year. And the Senate just passed an expansion of the free public wifi program that allocates funding for free wifi in all the country’s libraries. The National Library of the Philippines’ new strategic plan puts digital services at the center of library activities for the first time, and its TeknoAklatan program is starting to equip more libraries with computers around the country.
The transformation of the Philippines public libraries did not happen overnight — it was the result of a group of librarians’ hard work and their willingness to push outside the traditional limits within which libraries worked. There was no single donation or investment that all benefited from — each had to pursue funding, new equipment, and policies with their own municipality. With the leadership of the National Library, now this model of the public library — one that provides modern, information services to the public rather than only books — is guiding the development of the Philippine library system in the 21st century.