Thursday, February 26, 2009

Chillin' In The Neighborhood Library

AN IMPORTANT ITEM ON OUR Friday to-do list after we pick up Sara from school and get our groceries (I don't work Fridays, and so doesn't Mom, most of the time) is to stop by our neighborhood library to borrow our Saturday night movie. A title rented from Blockbuster or bought through the remote from Direct TV would cost at least $5, so we get to save a few bucks as long as we remember to return it by Monday afternoon. We park on CVS Pharmacy's rear lot next to the library staff's, enter the drugstore through its back door and buy a few sundries, then slip out the front door to our intended destination.

The Maspeth branch of Queens Library is well-lighted and roomy; it has a lounge, ten workstations with an automated sign-up terminal (just scan your library card), free Wi-Fi access, and a genuinely friendly staff. It also has automated circulation machines for self-serve check outs and renewals, and a slot where materials to be returned, including CDs and DVDs, can be dropped even if the library is closed. While I check out the DVDs (which usually takes a lot of time), Sara and Mom browse the children's section for weekend homework or project resources, choose her movie, or simply take a break from schoolwork by feasting on materials that feature her favorite stars the Jonas Brothers or Selena Gomez (she outgrew Miley Cyrus).

Indeed, a public library is a great place to go if you want self-enrichment or entertainment without spending money; it is safe, quiet, fully air-conditioned in the summer, and offers many free events and programs like ESL and computer classes, literary readings, job search workshops and even cultural presentations with free food. When we were still living in an apartment in Elmhurst and I was studying and working evenings in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College, I used to spend most of the day in the Elmhurst branch while babysitting Sara. We never had to hire a nanny all those years before my in-laws arrived. A little after Mom had left for work, I would load her stroller with grapes, diced apples and Ritz crackers packed in Ziploc bags, milk and juice, then head out and hit the local library.

Now threatened to be demolished to make way for a larger library, the Elmhurst branch is one of 1,700 edifices originally built and financed by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie when he founded public libraries all across America from 1900 to 1917. Here, I got to see the everyday routine, probably representative of other branch libraries in the city. Before it opened at 9 am, there would already be a long line of people waiting to use the computers, as the library had only about ten of them. Once a staffer unlocked the doors, the stampede generally headed for the computer sign-up desk or the section with daily newspapers. The patrons were mostly recent Chinese immigrants, who read Sing Tao or World Journal newspapers in Chinese. Around ten o'clock, strollers filled the children's section as parents brought their toddlers to storybook hour, doing coloring books as they waited for the children's librarian to get ready (sometimes she had to put on make-up and a hat or some costume). Here, Sara had a great time as a toddler listening to children's stories being read aloud, and doing Ring Around The Rosie and The Hokey Pokey Song with other kids, a social interaction that was impossible to get if we spent the day cooped up inside our apartment watching PBS TV. Around three o'clock, when school was dismissed, the library was invaded by rowdy teenagers who checked their email and MySpace accounts. Occasionally, a person who had not taken a bath for ages and was chased by flies wandered in, spoiling everybody's pleasant library experience. (Incidentally, the first public libraries, though not lending libraries, were collections of Greek and Latin scrolls which were available to bathers in the dry sections of the huge Roman empire baths. Maybe people who need a bath and libraries go together?) Seriously, library staff cannot turn away people like this, at least during business hours, because a public library should be open to everyone by law. When this happens, it a sign for us to hit the playground instead.

Speaking of laws, in his fifth law of library science, Indian librarian S. R. Ranganathan said that a library is dependent on life and change and must be dynamic, like an organism that evolves according to its environment. Without the human and organizational changes that occur, the library would not be able to function properly or meet its purpose. This is the reason why, in answer to the recent sharp rise of immigrants in the borough of Queens' population, Queens Library has revised its collection development policies to add more print and non-print materials in the native language of the people residing in the communities its branches serve. For example, the Maspeth branch collection now contains materials in Polish, Greek, Italian and Spanish, while the one in Elmhurst (a more diverse community) has materials in Chinese, Bengali, Urdu, Gujarati and even Tagalog (a Carlos Bulosan Heritage Center was launched here by Philippine Forum). Initially, this decision struck me as a disservice to the immigrants in the community, who should instead put effort to learn the language of their adopted country for quicker integration, but I understood the principle behind it eventually.

In the Philippines, public libraries are a rare sight. When I was a school grader in the 60's, our town of Pinamalayan, Oriental Mindoro was lucky to have a single-room library (called municipal library) in a squat building on Leuterio Drive where I lived, next to the municipal hall. It was open three afternoons a week and was staffed by a clean-cut civil servant named Mr. Baldoza who performed other duties in the municipal office on other days. I would stop by this library after school and be awed by the sheer amount of books shelved from floor to ceiling, while the librarian thumbed through boxes of skewered index cards, the good old card catalog long before OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) was invented. From this library, I borrowed books like Dr. Seuss' The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (books with numbers in titles fascinated me), and a curious Filipiniana book entitled The Aswang Syncrasy in Philippine Folklore by Maximo Ramos, which my cousins and I read with much gusto at bedtime.

According to Prudenciana C. Cruz, director of the National Library of the Philippines, the total number of public libraries in the country was 949 seven years ago (I don't think the number has increased since then), distributed into the following categories: 1 regional library, 1 congressional library, 49 provincial libraries, 79 city libraries, 507 municipal libraries, and 312 barangay libraries. These figures show that the case of municipal libraries is dismal. At present, there are about 1,509 municipalities all over the country, but only 507 have their own libraries, or a little less than 33%. Maybe the internet provides the information gap in these areas, but considering the technological divide between the Filipino haves and have-nots, I think only a very small percentage of rural Filipinos are able to afford to visit an internet cafe in the nearest town to get to the information highway, much less afford his own computer with internet service. Quezon City Public Library, the Philippines' largest public library, serves nearly 22 percent or 2.173 million residents of Metro Manila’s total population of 9.932 million, according to a 2000 census. Although they have 19 branches, that's a lot of people to serve for a city library.

If you want to donate books to libraries in the Philippines, here is one website. For an interesting read, get a hold of Advice on Establishing a Library by Gabriel Naude, a seventeenth century Frenchman who wrote this influential book on library science.

Pictures: Maspeth Public Library (above), Quezon City Public Library, Philippines (middle) and two year-old Sara (the pink-sleeved girl clapping on a chair) during a storybook hour in the Elmhurst Branch, and our public library certificates (bottom)

Maspeth Public Library, 69-70 Grand Avenue, Maspeth, Queens, New York, phone (718) 639-5228

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