The movie The Book Thief was on cable the other day and it transported me back to the time when I would burrow myself in the town library for hours to read books and dog-eared, three-day-old newspapers.

In that gaslight era when TV was eons away, the library door was the portal to the outside world. The books were few but enough to represent the catalogue of civilization and the diaries of humankind.

Once I leafed through a book, I felt that I was being catapulted back to distant times or hurled to faraway lands. And like all pre-teeners, illustrated books, especially glossy atlases or National Geographic magazines, were visual feasts that  left me enthralled.

I may have lived in the boondocks  but to quote a writer, a  “young man has his Rome, his Florence, his whole glowing Italy, within the four walls of his library.” To be a library patron at that time was to be connected.  It provided  free entertainment and  allowed one to indulge in  mental travelogue and  to earn mileage points without leaving home.

Of course, libraries, being book depots, were the best place to do a school assignment.  The librarians I encountered  had book  titles  filed   in their heads. Helpful, they were the original search engines.

In  those days, a  library  was  proof  that there was intelligent life in a community.  And the more books it had,  the more  enlightened  the populace was. It was a   watering hole   in the desert of ignorance where people go daily to drink.

But as ink on paper gave way  to pixels and  bytes,  and high-definition screens begin to trump the fine print,  libraries ceased to be the village’s fountain of knowledge.

As information can be had on demand, and newscasts  stream on phones   thinner  than a  pocket book,   the library  it seems, in this part of the world,  is  no longer  the information central.

The relegation is reflected  on public money spent on libraries. I texted a teacher of Jose Maria College how much government spending was for libraries. He said that in this  age of the P3-trillion budget, the National Library of the Philippines, the mothership of  public libraries gets a pittance. It will get P270 million in 2016, half  of what  a congressional subsidiary—the  Commission on  Appointments—will get next year.

When a 25-man legislative body  that most often mechanically greenlights   some but not all presidential appointments   gets twice as much as the national library system, then there is something wrong with the way we allocate funds.

Of course, budgets for school libraries  are embedded in the DepEd allocation, and those for  college libraries are tucked in the budgets of their  schools. But even if we factor them in, which won’t amount to much, the footprint of libraries in the budget would still be  too minuscule to meter.

To its credit, DepEd once had its library hubs project, where a central  library would serve satellite libraries. But I haven’t heard of this project in recent years.

Hopefully, it has not suffered the fate of the devalued   libraries which litter our landscape. I can’t imagine a  school without a well-stocked library. Without the latter, it forfeits its credentials as a learning institution.

For poor students also, a library is not only the  place where they can  study but  the only place where they can access free books. In short, it is not just a barn full of the printed  word  but  a bastion of  egalitarianism.  It is a great  equalizer.  “No place is so totally democratic as  a library,”  goes one quote. “The only entrance requirement is interest.”

In the coming weeks, presidential  hopefuls would roll out their platforms  but I guess none would care  to include   the improvement of public libraries, not even as small splinter in the tiniest plank.

This is ironic because  these  wannabes, when they were students, probably  spent days hunkered down in libraries to soak up the knowledge which propelled them to where they are now.

They’re in the position to reverse the official amnesia on libraries. They should know that  libraries are our forward detachments in the fight against illiteracy  and in honing  our  human  capital to be  world-class.

But for libraries to do their part, they need a makeover. Not just of the aesthetic kind, but  on what they offer.   Inventories are no longer confined to what  shelves carry within the four walls of the library.

Thus, libraries should  function as Internet stations, as Wi-Fi hot zones where  readers can access what the wide world web of knowledge can offer.

Information technology multiplies a library’s portfolio at the least cost.

To do this, they need champions in government. Better if the next  Palace occupant styles himself or herself as the librarian-in-chief of this nation of readers.

If that happens, libraries will no longer be the small footnote in the fine print of the national budget.

And don’t forget about salaries of librarians, too. If  libraries  offer  brain  food, they are the ones who  serve them. Or as one writer said,  “the librarian  is the   gas station attendant  of the mind.”   

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