The following essay is a revised version of the statement I submitted when I applied for the International Travel Award sponsored by ISI Emerging Markets and administered by the Business and Finance Division of the Special Libraries Association (SLA). And yes, I was given the award, so I will be in Toronto, Canada, June 5-8, for the SLA's annual conference, "Putting Knowledge to Work."
“We don’t have money” is what many librarians in the Philippines will say to excuse the state of our libraries. But I do not believe that money is the only problem. Many Filipino librarians do not have the leadership and communication skills necessary to persuade their superiors and possible donors—even subordinates—that they can effectively implement the projects for which they ask assistance.
The biggest challenge facing librarians in the Philippines is to take off the blinders that prevent us from seeing that money is not the problem; the way we look at the problem is the problem. If we believe that money is the only problem, then the only solution is more money. And since the government, private institutions and universities of a developing country like the Philippines will probably never have enough money to allocate to its libraries, should we just accept that our libraries will never improve? Of course not.
The thesis I submitted as a final requirement for my master’s degree in library and information science focused on the factors that influenced the development of public school libraries. In my review of literature, I learned that many studies conducted since 1940 to determine the state of public school libraries in the Philippines examined libraries located in different places and, with minimal differences in methodology, came up with the same results. In fact, while these studies detailed how public school libraries did not meet minimum requirements or fared poorly when compared with private school libraries, the majority had as their most important recommendation—whether first or last—the necessity of having an adequate and regular budget for the library.
Findings from studies on public school libraries are not necessarily applicable to all kinds of libraries in the Philippines. But I believe that results will be very similar—even for those with bigger budgets. In my thesis, I compared the two most developed public school libraries. They had similar budgets and populations, but one was more developed than the other. Why? The more developed library had a librarian who enjoyed the confidence of the school principal, district supervisor, and even the mayor. Whereas the librarian in the less developed library—despite having more assistants than the other librarian—could not even get the different subject departments to entrust the collections in their offices to the library.
What was the difference? One librarian could speak her customers’ language; the other could not.
Speaking Their Language
Many librarians focus on organizing their collections and think that should be enough, they’ve done their job. But the truth is that jobs are never really just about the work—in any profession. The ability to communicate what we do, what we’ve done and what else we can do for our customers is very important. Librarians, especially in developing countries where people are less able to appreciate what they cannot eat, need to sell what they can do for their customers—whether it’s storytelling for children, research methods for students or online resources for busy managers. And the only way this can be done is if we learn to speak the language of our external and internal customers.
New librarians need communication skills. In business, if we can’t get others to listen to us, then our ideas are probably not worth considering. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the way the world works. But it’s not just about making ourselves heard either; it’s also necessary to know when—and how—to shout, whisper or keep our mouths shut. Many Filipino librarians just keep quiet, and so their superiors think they have nothing to contribute. And as years pass, these same superiors will cut budgets for their libraries because those in charge are unable to justify the expenses charged to their cost centers. It’s not just the money; it’s the people.
Librarians in developing countries need leaders—leaders who can communicate a vision in a language that their internal and external customers can understand, leaders who can inspire confidence in their subordinates and superiors, leaders who will not excuse mediocrity with “We don’t have money.” Unfortunately, library and information science students in the Philippines are rarely—if at all—taught communication skills, much less leadership skills.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that money is not important. What I’m saying is that before we can even talk about money, we need leaders who can communicate what an increased budget for the library can contribute to its parent-institution’s mission. As I discovered through my thesis, two individuals given similar amounts of money will not necessarily achieve similar goals. It is not money that will put knowledge to work. People will put knowledge to work.
The biggest challenge facing librarians in the Philippines today is the thought that there is no money to pay for the improvements that we would like to make. With the necessary leadership and communication skills, it is my belief that librarians can and will make a difference—even with the limited amount of money allocated to libraries.