Library assessment visit to the Philippines

On May 13-18 I spent a week with Ari Katz of IREX in the Philippines conducting a library assessment visit as part of the Beyond Access campaign, a global initiative to advance the role of libraries in development.

The Philippines brims with potential. It has a large number of libraries (around 1,200 though for complicated reasons a number of these may not exist), and there are no shortage of examples of librarians doing exceptional work in their communities. The country has a strong commitment to literacy, education, and ICTs. At the same time, libraries have much room for improvement. Most of the facilities and collections are outdated. There aren’t enough trained librarians. Their budgets swing in accordance with the priorities of local elected officials. Very few libraries have computers or Internet.

What is needed to modernize the Philippines library system? A few thoughts based on our visits.

Better coordination of government programs. The Philippines has made providing public access to ICTs a priority for many years…it’s just that libraries have not been included in these programs. The major one is the Philippine Community eCenter Network (PhilCecNet), an effort that dates back to 1999, and there are a plethora of others—e-Barangays, e-government CECs, Farmer Information and Technology Centers (FITS), eSkewala centers (for out-of-school youth), among others. There is clearly opportunity for libraries to become involved in these initiatives. In fact, PhilCecNet chairman Dr. Angelo Ramos, welcomed Ari’s very practical suggestion to make libraries aware they are eligible for CeC support. Apparently, there are some libraries among the over 800 CeCs nationwide, but this seems to be more by accident than design. The government can and should do more to realize they have this tremendous potential resource.

A changed mindset. At the same time, library’s need to take greater initiative to take advantage of the opportunities before them. The CeC program is heavily promoted and enterprising libraries could have joined in greater numbers. The government invited the national library to be part of the just completed Digital Philippines national strategy, but it declined. On a personal level, I found it curious that few, if any, of the people we had pre-arranged appointments with had bothered to look at the Beyond Access campaign website. If they had, they would have seen there are opportunities for travel and project funding, not to mention it is backed by the Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries program. That said, all of the librarians we met, from the director of the national library to the remote public library, expressed genuine enthusiasm in the campaign’s aims and, as mentioned, we met some terrific library leaders. It’s just that there activities seem confined to within their familiar library world, with little outward reach to other programs in the Philippines, much less an to an initiative on the other side of the world. I’d like to see some smart programs designed to raise the awareness about external opportunities and how libraries can tap into them. In part this means libraries learning ‘development speak’ and how other institutions approach community development.

Libraries as part of a region plan. The one place that best exemplified the possibilities for libraries to be more tightly involved in community development efforts was Davao, the major city on the southern island of Mindanao. We met with the city librarian, the mayor’s officer-in-charge (the mayor was out of town), and the president of ICT Davao, the industry association. Clearly these people work together closely, and they have big plans for Davao, including a new 3-story library with an entire floor for public access computers. The library computers fit into a regional strategy to grow the number of people with ICT skills to feed the burgeoning BPO sector. While this sector is more heavily tilted towards call centers at the moment, they foresee opportunities for more value-added jobs. It was inspiring to witness the enthusiasm and take-charge attitude (which they attribute to being far away from Manila and, as such, more self-reliant). When I described the innovation center concept (e.g. iHub) as a way to attract and nurture entrepreneurial talent, we started talking about dedicating a part of the library’s ICT floor to this. Ari too writes about how Davao’s libraries can contribute to the region’s IT aspirations.

For more about the trip, read Ari’s posts about libraries and incentives, the salon discussion, and rural libraries.