Mar 6, 2019

As one of the primary public spaces in the country’s capital, one expects the Manila City Library to showcase the finest books, catalogues and other reading materials for the residents to enjoy.

Book lovers might anticipate getting their hands on the latest bestsellers, or at least enjoy a good wi-fi signal while browsing the ‘Net for research.

Instead, students from nearby schools have to sift through years-old hard copies while searching for materials for home work, while adults are surprised to find the library does not even have the day’s newspapers.

The current address along Taft Avenue, a tome’s throw from City Hall, is a 410 square-meter termite-infested structure sitting beside a stinky Estero de Balite.

Most of the books are old and worn. The two-story building’s iron details are rusty because of the humidity rising from the estero. The staff cannot put heavy shelves on the second floor for fear that the termites can cause the second floor to collapse anytime. There is free wi-fi but the signal is weak.

Last year, around 80,000 guests showed up, mostly students whose teachers gave specific instructions to do research using print material instead of Wikipedia. There are also professionals, researchers and senior citizens who linger until the place closes at 5 p.m.

Oftentimes, the 15-or-so staff members smile and shrug when asked about this book or that.

Hanapin n’yo na lang d’yan,” is their usual answer.

There was a time when guests can still read newspapers in the city library until distributors grew tired of having to chase City Hall officials whose signatures are required before petty cash can be released for a week’s subscription.

Library staff now ask fast food chains if they can bring out the free copies of newspapers to bring to work.

The library clearly aches for new material but the annual budget given by City Hall is only good for staff salaries and payment for utilities like electricity.

Manila councilor Letlet Zarcal noted that 2015 was the last year when the city government gave an allocation called capital outlay that would have allowed the library to purchase new books. New computers and updated software, while also needed, are out of the question.

The Manila City Council, tasked to scrutinize and approve the annual budget of all departments and offices under the control of the local government, admits the purchase of books for the city library and its ten branches around Manila is not a priority.

(The staff recall that when Alfredo Lim was still the mayor, Rep. Sandy Ocampo of the city’s sixth district would set aside at least P1 million from her pork barrel fund for the city library and its satellites.)

Since Joseph Estrada took over as mayor in 2013, the Manila City Library was provided an allocation “between P100,000 to P200,000” only once.

Manila Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna traced the lack of funds to poor tax collection.  Every year, income-generating departments of the local government set collection targets that are in turn, factored in by the city’s budget officers when the local government formulates the appropriations for the following year.

This year’s budget is P14.8 billion.  Last year’s tax collection however, only hovers above P10 billion. This means the city government must find solutions to augment the dismal collection by the city’s tax collecting agencies if it intends to pay the salaries of the city’s 9,000 plus regular employees, thousands more casual employees, water and electric bills AND buy books for the city library.

Before the library gets the city government’s attention, funds must first be given to more urgent areas like the public hospitals that asked for a total of P100 million for 2019.

“We cannot give the hospitals the full amount so we ask for help from the (Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office) through a memorandum of understanding,” Lacuna explained.

As it is, the city government is also operating on a reenacted budget like the national government. Councilors hope to approve the 2019 budget by the end of February.

Lacuna and other council insiders said the local executive branch submitted its 2019 budget proposal toward the end of November, instead of mid-October as previously observed, giving the approving body little time to scrutinize and approve this year’s annual allocations.

“The best solution to this situation really is better collection,” the vice mayor stressed.

The city library’s history

City library staff would rather hope than despair. Despite the bleak financial picture, they insist the library must uphold the legacy as the “showcase of Manila’s rich culture and history.”

The city library came to life in 1964 after Mayor Antonio Villegas signed an order for the construction of a three-story building that relocated to the Mehan Gardens near the LRT Central Station in 1988.

Lack of coordination with other city departments led to its evacuation five years later, when it was learned that the Mehan Gardens location was also being eyed as the site for the Manila Regional Trial Court’s Hall of Justice.

The city library transferred to the Sining ng Kayumanggi building in Intramuros after that, until May 29, 2013 when Mayor Estrada authorized its transfer to its new cramped quarters beside the estero to accommodate the expansion of the Universidad de Manila, a pet project of his predecessor Mayor Lim.

Most of the city library’s materials are donations from private individuals. There are councilors who approach friends for print materials. A partnership with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas allows researchers who use the library’s computers access to its website that offers information on banking, finance and investments.

The National Economic Development Authority and Department of Science and Technology have similar arrangements with the library.

Frustration is evident among staff members who have been at work long enough to witness the library’s deterioration. Making things worse is that the Manila City Library, being the nerve center of the city’s network of local public libraries, is also expected to provide books for its ten branches throughout the city. “Demand always exceeds supply,” an insider said.

There is sentiment among the staff that the local library network is not considered a priority by city officials “because we are not earning, not even from photocopy services.  We cannot charge for anything. At some point, maa-apektuhan ka talaga,” the insider noted.

The staff can only cast a wistful eye on its counterparts in Quezon City and Cebu City.

The three-story, fully airconditioned Quezon City Public Library was cited as 2018 Outstanding Public Library for special offerings like outreach services and providing assistance to residents like the procurement of an NBI clearance and passport application.

In Cebu City, the public library made headlines recently for hosting the Architecture License top examinee Justine Ramos’ 14-hour study periods. She took advantage of Mayor Tomas Osmeña’s decision to open the library 24/7 last year.

“Better tax collection is the solution”

Told of the Quezon City experience, Manila Vice Mayor Lacuna credits the neighboring city library’s success to efficient tax collection efforts.

“Other cities have higher tax collection. Better collection is the only answer,” she said.

Lacuna pointed out that Mayor Estrada attempted to raise taxes at one point to increase collections but was forced to heed complaints from residents.

“We weren’t able to implement the second tranche of tax increases. Maraming nagalit kay Mayor so hindi na-implement. Political will lang, eh,” she said.

The city council’s appropriations committee chair Councilor Grace Chua said there is still hope for the Manila City Library once the 2019 budget is approved later this month.

While the city library failed to get capital outlay for books under the regular budget, the city’s budgetary laws set aside a 20% Community Development Fund that can also be used for “infrastructure.”

While this classification commonly refers to expenses like “upgrading, concreting and drainage improvement,” it can also include the “repair and improvement” of several library branches already named in the 2019 budget proposal.

Chua showed a portion of the proposed budget that reflects multi-million allocations for the city library’s branches including the Tondo Public Library (P4.5 million); Bacood Public Library (P7 million); PH Lacson Public Library (P3.5 million); Sacramento Public Library (P4.75 million); Dapitan Public Library (P1.5 million), San Nicolas Public Library (P4 million); San Francisco Friendship Library (P5.3 milion) and Fugoso Library (P3 milion).

Even the Manila City Library now languishing beside an estero is expected to get P12 million, enough for new books and equipment under the new budget, Chua said.

This would come as good news to the staff whose dream is to install an archival system for all the “speeches, advocacies and ordinances enacted by the city’s past and current officials.”

There is also a plan to modernize the library’s information technology materials “that ideally need to be updated twice a year.”

The city library also wants to expand its current space and extend the floor area to include the adjacent 393 square meters of idle office space belonging to the Inner Wheel Club of Manila next door.

“Mayor Estrada once praised the city, calling it ‘The Pearl of the Orient.’  We really hope he would express concern for the city library,” the insider said.

The new infusion of funds would definitely be a start.

 

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