Friday, December 30, 2005

In Search of the Lost Catalogue

by Germelina Lacorte

"Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues; now that my eyes can hardly decipher what I write, I am preparing to die just a few leagues from the hexagon in which I was born."--Jorges Luis Borges "The Library of Babel"

THE DAVAO CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY--- In stark contrast to Jorge Luis Borges’ universe (which others call the Library), composed of indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries; the Davao City Library sits on a clearly definable space---an L-shaped floor area of more than a thousand square meters on the third floor of the SP building, clearly bounded by solid walls that one can grasp from end to end.There are no spiraling staircases here, no room leading on to another identical one, no illusory mirrors to multiply and create semblance of infinity.You just climb six flights of stairs up the building (in front of San Pedro Cathedral) and find your way on the third floor to the library entrance---which also serves as exit. Inside, one can immediately grasps the expanse of space, divided into rectangles and squares, to delineate the reading room from the bookshelves; the office spaces from the carpeted children’s corner, the periodicals from the cubicles beside the windows overlooking Rizal Park three floors below; the glass-walled conference room with its long table and ergonomic chairs; and another enclosed space housing rows of computers used to be connected with the internet, but are now being used only for the Library’s CD-ROM collections.And yet, going through one of the Library’s 17,000-title collections can sometimes give you the same effect of that Borgesian labyrinth---you’d get lost in a maze, trying to find your way through the printed page that leads you to some strange, unfamiliar world which entrances and exits duplicate and multiply a thousand times over.ONE morning, I have wandered inside the lonely, dimly lit circulation section of the library; and in between the small rows of shelves---I found among the maze of titles there---Toni Morrison’s "Beloved" lying side by side with Robert Ludlum’s "Icarus Agenda;" and Stephen King’s "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s "The Brothers Karamazov."Trying to understand what quirks of fate had brought two different authors together, I had struggled, for a few seconds against this seeming sensual assault. But in the end, the odd combination seemed to produce a strange effect---a sensation you feel when you find a discarded treasure in a books on bargain downtown. So, like all the rest who peopled the Library, I stayed on to read.If I had entered here in search of a book, I would have been tempted to find the catalogue, to consult Book A to find the exact location of Book B, as Borges would say---but I have entered the Library with the stubborn belief that such catalogue does not exist, or even if it does, leafing through it wouldn’t help me at all---and so, I lingered among the shelves, picking my way through the titles I didn’t expect to find.And yet, some surprises lurked in some remote, forgotten corners of the library.On the long shelves of the Reference Section, where old copies of encyclopedia and Bibles were on display, I found "The Encyclopedia on Witchcraft and Demonology," written by Rossell Hope Robbins, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, published by Crown Publishers Inc. in New York.Probably, you’d say, I have strayed too far. But the book illumines that part of history unknown to most people---the witchcraft trials that began in the 15th century Europe, reached its peak in the 16th century Salem and finally ended in the 18th century; precursor of the anti-Communist hysteria in the United States’ McCarthy era and later, our own Martial Law era,---and now, the vigilante killings?!Thumbing through the book pages, I saw the bluish logo of the Rotary Club of Nepean-Kanata in Ottawa, Canada. It had slightly faded, unlike the bright purple ink with which the Library left its mark on the next pages; as if to assert its ownership over the book, probably one of its latest acquisition.For the Library is not buying books, says Librarian Nora Fe Alajar, "The library lives on donation." Of the 17,000 titles in its collection, only 3,000 are Filipiniana issues from the National Library. The rest---over 14,000 titles--come from institutions and individual friends worldwide.Friends of the library---which included such institutions like the Asia Foundation and the Ateneo deDavao University (ADDU) and civic clubs like the Rotary and individuals---are posted on a bulletin space in the library entrance outside.It is late in the morning. Thick venetian blinds diffuse the harsh light that enters through the glass windows to the west. I am keenly aware of the humming sounds of the air conditioning, interspersed with the rustles of papers and the muffled sound of distant traffic as I pick up another book.It is the crumbly paperback copy of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a Penguin Classics in the 1950s, the only copy I find in this library. In one of its stained pages, stamped on red ink, I read, "adult education section, public library, N. Y. C." It is the novel’s second volume, translated from Russian by David Magarshack. The first volume is nowhere to be found.A professor of long ago---had often said no library can exist without a copy of this book. But what about a library with only half a copy?Who is to say, what makes up a good library? Whether constructed by a series of hexagons that extends indefinitely into space or a room of ones own, libraries are driven to answer the same thirst, or quest, that once had drove Virginia Woolf---to knock on its door only to be turned away because the libraries in those days "were not opened to ladies" unless escorted by a "Fellow of a College" or "furnished with a letter of introduction." But that was three quarters of a century ago, when Woolf had written "A Room of Ones Own."Now, I am inside the public library, vigorously writing on a desk, knowing fully well how some libraries are still kept shut from me.‘That in order to read a book---any book---I have to transcend invisible boundaries marked by sex, class and race,’ I think, as my eyes fall on the note on the wall, which says, "Photocopying is punishable under the intellectual property rights law."A wide gulf still exists between those who can read a book and those who can’t; those who can pay the cost of intellectual property and those who can’t bring food to the table.I decided to go over the Filipiniana section, where the Library keeps complete stacks of the Palanca winning stories dating back to the 1950s. In the past years, the Library has been winning citations, making it the favored little cousin of the National Library, which regularly send new published titles by the country’s poets and fiction writers here.Now, the latest titles from the country’s few publishing firms still keep arriving, says Alajar, "Over 300 of them arrived late last year." Some of the very old books---they could not tell how old---have been discarded, kept in storage, or put away to the three satellite libraries in the districts of Tugbok, Calinan, Tibungco and Toril; or in the newly-opened ones in barangays of Marahan and Buda.THE hissing of air conditioning is now getting louder. I sit in a chair facing the periodical section of the Library; in between college students, deep into their books. Immediately before me are potted Chinese bamboo plants that seem to grow taller the longer I read the printed page. The girl to my right, is stretching her arms upon the desk; the guy to my left is forcefully punching periods on his notebooks, shaking our desk.Many people go to the library for quite different reasons; some in search of the lost catalog, the book of books that tells people how to live. Others, come here just to read the newspapers. Still others---who believe no such catalog exists, merely come here just to drift-because once they open the pages, they could never tell what world they’ll find.

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