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QUINTIN PASTRANA DELIVERS HIS 1000TH LIBRARY

Through the Library Renewal Partnership, the man brought literacy and the joy of reading across borders despite hardships and setbacks.

WORDS BY KARL R. DE MESA | IMAGES BY ADEN MICHAEL MANALO

T here is no street leading to the library in the slums of Barangay 105 in Tondo, Manila. To get to it, one must pass an avenue of garbage flattened by the many feet that traverse it daily. When it rains, even for just a few minutes, this route is quickly filled up with murky, ankle-deep water.

A stone’s throw away from it is Smokey Mountain, the primary source of income for the community’s approximately 7,000 families. There, they scavenge the hills of rubbish in Manila’s biggest landfill for junk and spare parts to resell. At end of day, they go home to the slums where the norm is no electricity, no running water, and the usual meal is called pagpag in street cant—a reheated gumbo of leftovers found from the rubbish heaps, like fast food discards or whatever the restaurants have thrown out.

This is a place of abject poverty—one where books and the knowledge they hold take a back seat in favor of survival.  Still, children find their way to the library also known as the Child Dreamers Day Care Center and Remy Cabello, one of its two daycare workers and teachers, shared one of the reasons why.

“What I’ve found is that our library has become a space for the children where they feel so comfortable that they don’t want to go home,” Cabello said. “Teacher, can we stay and read? Can we stay and play?’ is what they ask me.”

The Child Dreamers Day Care Center in Barangay 105 is a project of Quintin Pastrana’s Library Renewal Partnership (LRP,) a social enterprise and a public-private coalition based in Manila. It also serves as a hub for literacy efforts and nutrition programs in the community. Before it was developed back in 2015, Cabello and her fellow teachers had to go through the slumlords for ownership of the vacant 70-plus square meter structure where it would eventually be situated. Such a space is precious real estate where families are normally packed like sardines in shanties. Cabello and the teachers, however, managed to acquire it by telling the neighborhood gangs that their children would be taught to read and write there. And now, years after it’s been completed, its effects can be seen by those who can read the local situation.

Cabello, for one, recalled a teen, Angelo Banlota, who came to her as a shy and sensitive teen of 15 from a family of seven. He had never gone to school; he could barely read and write, and he has spent most of his days scavenging at the dumps. After a year with Cabello, Banlota could already read the children’s books on the shelves—albeit haltingly—on his own. He’d even made enough progress to write his own name. The value of a good library, coupled with a literacy program, extends to more than just kid scavengers being able to read a pop-up children’s books in Cabello’s opinion. “I have also observed that criminality in our community has been reduced,” she said in an online press interview in June 2016. All things considered, the library is a testament to the vision of LRP, one that Pastrana continues to pursue years after he started the project.

Pastrana at the Manila Boat Club where some of the LRP’s books are stored.
T he LPR library in Tondo was number 75 on the build list of the group since it was created in 2010. Now, almost a decade later, they’re almost on their 1000th library.   

Last May 18, Pastrana was on his way to further this goal at Barangay Reserva in Baler, Aurora. Reserva is a coastal tourist town on the northeast side of Luzon Island in the Philippines, seven hours from the sprawling capital, and a world away from the slums of Tondo.  

This new library is a bookmobile made from a disused, orange Volkswagen Kombi. It was previously used as a surf van to ferry tourists and weekend warriors from the resort grounds to the beach. The resort itself has been closed for months now, the owners relocated abroad, and they had hurriedly sold off the dune buggies, surfing equipment, and other paraphernalia of their resort before the elements run them down to rust.

Along with parcels of the land, the orange Kombi was one of the last holdouts. And it’s now been made into a donation to the LRP, provided that Pastrana would make it shipshape for the arduous land trip back to the capital. Pastrana would then deliver the mobile bookstore to the Museo Pambata (Children’s Museum) in Manila. In lieu of its eventual owner, Pastrana has dubbed the 1000th library “The Basyang Mobile” after Lola Basyang, the fictional grandma who told folk tales.

“We try not to reinvent the wheel and build our own library,” said Pastrana, pointing out that it would take at least a million pesos to build a library structure from scratch. “We make the community and the local government unit (LGU) locate and build the space and the shelves and everything else. Since the law says it’s in their budget.”

The law that he’s referencing is the 1994 Philippine Republic Act 7743. This mandates the government to build libraries, especially at the barangay or village level. It’s something that’s rarely implemented since, at times, the funds for it are conveniently and routinely redirected by corrupt officials. So, when Pastrana goes to pitch libraries to LGUs and other agencies, he usually emphasizes that the presence of a thriving library means more than literacy for the locals.    

Usually, the number one excuse of the LGU is that they have no money to buy the books—which is where LRP comes in. They help design the literacy program and acquire all the books to fill their shelves.

“Anything that a community needs to kickstart a library, it pretty much gets done by us,” Pastrana said. “Libraries have been proven indicators of economic growth. They’re a sign that the community is stable and the property values will go up.”

Indeed there is quantifiable evidence backing this. For example, a 2015 Pew survey stated that almost two-thirds of adult Americans claiming that closing their local library would have a major negative impact on their community. Various other studies as far back as 2007 in the US, UK and Bangladesh also pile on the data stating that libraries are hands down a good value, that economic benefits communities receive from them are significantly greater than their costs to operate.

LRP’s Tondo library, for one, has now evolved into a maker-space where the locals manufacture and store products from their community livelihood programs, like homemade soap and fabric conditioner, while their children read.

“If the next mayor wants to close [the library],” Pastrana said, “the town has already gotten used to it and they will protest.”

That’s what happened to the LRP library in Kalibo, Aklan, where the mayor wanted the library moved elsewhere. The people refused. “They fought for it,” said Pastrana.

This value to the community, at once distinct and abstract, is the same across borders—from Tondo to a conflict-heavy area like the LRP’s library in Patikul, the province of Sulu in the southern island of Mindanao. Patikul is an area rife with Muslim militants and kidnap-for-ransom bandits. The library, located at the Shalom Peace Institute, a Muslim-Christian School, got caught in one of the crossfires between government forces and the Abu Sayaff Group, a Jihadist militant group claiming allegiance with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

“Within two weeks, they had fixed it!” Pastrana said. They showed an affinity for such spaces and this is something Pastrana has been familiar with since his younger days.

The LRP acquires books and plans literacy programs for the libraries they develop.

P astrana is constantly congenial and upbeat, with a personality that flickers between phlegmatic and sanguine.

In his 40s, he’s got a deceptively robust build that disguises just how many martial arts hobbies he practices—from grappling to Japanese sword fighting. He considers these moving meditation that nevertheless contrasts with his fondness for talking a mile a minute. He has used the latter with his choir boy good looks to great effect as a career news anchor, a familiar face to the local financial industry who watches cable TV programs.  

These days, he is the head of WEnergy Power Philippines which works on clear energy grids and renewables but his work on LRP continues. He even developed such spaces in each of the said WEnergy’s sites.

The streamlined framework for the LRP coalesced during his graduate school years at the University of Oxford, around 2011, after he’d claimed a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Cambridge. It was also around the same time he found out he had a legit case of attention deficit disorder.     

“I was supposed to take a number of units but changed it up and did a thesis on libraries as safe spaces,” said Pastrana. “I was fascinated with the idea that [Filipinos] don’t have third spaces as a country with plenty of inequality, but that we really need these accessible, democratic spaces. It’s where you can seek out your own pace; it’s welcoming, there’s a sense of community.”

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s idea of the “third space” as a place where people can spend time between home (first place) and work or school (second place) isn’t new. And, Pastrana had a gut feeling that it might just work in a developing country like the Philippines, bringing with it the proven positive effects where people could learn, exchange ideas, and build relationships.

Informal third spaces are usually churches, beauty salons, parks, or bars—mainstays in a neighborhood where interpersonal relationships can be made. For Pastrana, the library and the act of flowing into a book and spending time in the reading zone was a perfect fit.

It was also something close to his heart. He could trace the motivation to share this meditative space back to quiet summers at his grandmother’s house in the province where he’d be banned from watching TV, or on family vacations where there was an abundance of reading material.  

Since 2012, the LRP has been staffed by Pastrana’s friends and colleagues who are wholly on a volunteer status. They have helped build libraries as safe spaces in various sizes (from just modest venues to upscale ones with floor-to-ceiling shelves, ebook readers and computers.) Some are easily accessible, but quite a few are in restricted areas like the one at New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa or the Iwahig Penal Colony on Palawan. A few are in remote locales like Sagada in the Mountain Province and in the hills of Libona, Bukidnon.

Another hard-to-reach library is the one at the Zonta Village for displaced Muslim and Christian families on the outskirts of Davao City in Mindanao. The library includes a football pitch because it’s currently being built in cooperation with the UK-based Football for Humanity.

“The village is underdeveloped and marginalized, with very few paved roads, almost zero services for the community,” said Chris Thomas, President of Football for Humanity. “The village elders, the parents, and the children themselves await the library’s opening with blissful expectation. They watch the masons and carpenters doing construction as if monitoring the finishing touches brick by brick.”

LRP’s presence has also been felt abroad. Through the development of his paper at Oxford and the eventuality which saw him presenting it at a regional academic conference, LRP now has partner libraries in India, Cambodia, and Laos. It also currently working on developing partnerships with Myanmar. Bhutan is also a place for LRP’s 72 libraries and it was partly because of a snafu at Philippine Customs, where a shipping container full of books from LRP’s donation partner in North Carolina, through 7 Degrees of Change, was halted because officials were asking for bribes to let it through. Eventually, through a redirect of logistics and support, those 30,000 books for the K-12 program were flown to the libraries under the Paro College of Education and the Bhutan Royal Education Council.

“For a small developing country like ours, the only source of information for our school children, especially in the remote parts of the country, are libraries,” said Professor Karma Jurme of the Paro College of Education.  “Quintin’s gift of books will speak of his quality as the children of Bhutan grow as learned persons.”

The problem concerning customs officials was a challenge turned into an opportunity. But it is far from being the only one faced by LRP in its journey to 1000 libraries.

The LRP continues its journey to improving literacy in the Philippines and beyond years after it was established.

B ack at the resort in Baler, the Kombi refused to cooperate. The engine started and then stopped for no apparent reason. Eventually, the mechanic pronounced the carburetor dead.  The current carburetor would not hold up to the seven-hour trip back to the city.

Pastrana said he had to think it over and took a quick walk around the empty resort. The distant sound of a chainsaw could be heard above the din of seagulls and baby goats as noon approached. He walked around the designated paths marked by the lined growth of plants and shrubs, no matter how far it took him around his destination. Eventually, he retraced the paths back to the parking area.    

In 2017, statistics from a survey done by the Philippine National Book Development Board (NBDB) showed that while 93 percent of respondents aged six to 17 spent an average of 13.7 hours reading “non-school books” per month, only about one out of 10, from children to adults, knew if there was a community library near their home.

Pastrana has struggled to change that by providing both a safe space and access to the kind of books a beginning reader might require. They’d only targeted 200 libraries by 2020, but are now five times advanced beyond that mission with more and more partners being brought in weekly, and donations from well-to-do individuals.

That an increase in literacy will come is a given, so LRP decided to elevate their mission. Within a few years, the librarians in each of their partner libraries should be able to draw data from a study of the statistics in their respective communities with regards to economic and social stability.

“Is there a correlation where the proximity of a library has decreased crime?” Pastrana asked. “We want to be able to measure things like livelihood, stability, peace, and order.”   

Before the end of 2019, around 20 more libraries are on the LRP’s to-build list and Pastrana wants to smash through those goals with a book in hand and through the Filipino spirit of bayanihan.

As Pastrana reached the end of his walk on one path, he turned to another trail. He circled back to the parking area, following the winding way through it. He took a longer route, eschewing cutting through the paths by simply hopping over the shrubs and plants. When he got back, he patted the side of the orange Kombi. “Be back soon, buddy,” he said.

On August 25, a beta version of Basyang finally made its way to Museo Pambata. It isn’t exactly what he intended but Pastrana commented on his Instagram account that it will be improved. It will be “a proper solar, wifi-enabled mobile library and pop-up football clinic.” He intends to complete this in the fourth quarter of the current year. Nevertheless, the journey of improving literacy continues for Pastrana and the LRP—regardless of the difficult paths they occasionally face.     

To donate books or inquire about setting up a library in your area contact the Library Renewal Partnership here.

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