Today I travelled closer to home, to a paradise of forgotten letters. The National Library of the Philippines along T. M. Kalaw street has entranced me since I first walked into its high-ceilinged halls. At the time, I tried to appear official by carrying my work ID and donning an impossible pair of black high heels to match my business attire. The mistake became apparent en route to the Director’s office–located on the third floor mezzanine. You get off the elevator on the third floor and you are accosted by the reality of stairs. There’s no escaping them. In a building like this, with huge glass windows and an astounding view of the city–why take the elevator? No sooner had I thought this than I became surrounded by a group of ladies whom I unnecessarily towered over. It was embarrassing to say the least. Their warmth and friendship however immediately set me at ease. This would prove reason to visit often and were it not for the need to actually work in the office, I would have convinced my boss to place me here–working on documents, cataloging, being left alone with many years worth of stories waiting to be told.
My favorite section in the library is the Rare Books and Serials room. This section is usually kept under lock and key for understandable reasons. It plays host to a set of important Filipiniana materials notably, Jose Rizal‘s handwritten manuscripts of Noli Me Tangere (with an illustrated cover) and El Filibusterismo. H. Otley Beyer‘s Ethnographic Collection is also housed in here and though the room is about a fourth of a classroom, a sense of infinite wonder rewards explorers of ideas with much ground to tread.
The first time I visited the library, the remaining descendants of the Rizal family had just left and I had been transferred excitedly into this small space where atop a desk, facing a huge steel vault, I was shown Rizal’s masterpieces. Surprised by the gesture and moved beyond all telling by the hero’s courage and dedication, I took off my gloves, moved a few paces back and cried. There have been few experiences that parallel this and I think that it will take quite some time before another one as potent comes along.
What I haven’t told you is that the primary reason I love this room has to do with this little old lady: Maam Ellen. She is currently retired but like any true lover of knowledge and curiosities, she can’t keep away from what she loves to do. She still makes it to work everyday. She has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the Rare Book collection and while small in stature, she radiates warmth as if she had an infinite supply.
She is photographed above in what is obviously a candid moment. I wasn’t sure if this was allowed but I couldn’t resist the chance to photograph her at work, the way I had met her at first and seen her countless times. Some of you might also recognize this print from the Boxer Codex hanging on the wall.
Above, the card catalogs of yore are bathed in sunlight. Memory, having been stirred, produces the recollection of how the wise tutelage of card catalogs introduced me to organized chaos: drawers upon drawers had been pulled open, sometimes left vulnerable in the pursuit of follow-up questions (much to the dismay of our librarians at school). It fascinated me how you came to it curious about a subject or an author then left having learned more than you could have possibly imagined had you just limited yourself to that one simple question. To pick at random a tiny box full of ideas, flip through them and ask anew–that’s true freedom.
Yet another relic is the globe (seen looking down from the Rare Books section) that sits beside the door leading to the Theses. It is one of the first things that greets visitors on the third Floor, Filipiniana Division. We don’t use these any more. There is an excitement and a preference for real-time data in this age we live in–What is Google Earth and Google itself when used as a search engine, right?
While I love what the Internet makes possible, I can’t help but feel nostalgia for older tools that taught me to search far and wide and gave me everything I could possibly need to be the explorer I am today. Hopefully, people still listen to Ray’s (Bradbury) voice when he says, “without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.”