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Books Saved Him, So Now He's Building His 500th Library
Quintin Pastrana's Library Renewal Partnership bets on libraries as a way to save Filipino communities.
IMAGE Jilson Tiu
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For Barangay 105, Tondo, it started with a small space. Around 30 square meters, which—by the standards of a Metro Manila slum that’s so densely populated that it could not be relocated to Bulacan or Laguna—is not very small at all. In 2014, neighboring slumlords began encroaching on this precious empty parcel, and were just about to claim it for themselves before Remy Cabello, a local volunteer teacher, reached out to Quintin Pastrana for help. She told him that if she could not convince the slumlords that she could build a classroom with a library there, they would take it away.

“We had two weeks before they decided to close that place down,” says Pastrana, the founder of the Library Renewal Partnership, a coalition that builds libraries for literacy and community empowerment. “So we had a text brigade going on, emails, Facebook shoutouts—it was Christmas, anyway.”

Within those two weeks, Pastrana managed to pull books and resources together to make good on Teacher Remy’s promise. “The place was saved. There were a lot of people coming in. She was able to show the barangay captain and the slumlords, ‘Don’t take over this place, your kids are going to be educated here.’”

It became a library—one which has proven to be a factor of sustainable growth in Barangay 105, and a better use of public space than whatever it was previously destined for. “To this day, not only is it intact—it’s grown. It’s well painted, and now they even have nutrition seminars [there] because they used to eat pagpag,” says Pastrana. “It’s a catalyst.”

“I think every social movement starts with a personal experience. As for me, I had a learning disability. I had ADD."

This is one of Pastrana’s favorite examples of the positive effects of a "third space"—a public place where people can exist away from home or work/school. It’s a concept that he has placed at the heart of his library-building initiative. “The goal, really, is to build inclusive community development through third spaces,” he says, “where it doesn’t matter what family background you have, what economic standing you have, gender, race, religion—doesn’t matter. These third spaces have to exist for the community to thrive.”

In the Philippines, the most familiar third spaces are malls, but because they are private entities that impose on people to spend money, it isn’t exactly a democratic option. “Even a Starbucks is not free,” Pastrana says with escalating fervor. “You cannot grow as a person [if] you have very limited access to space, [because] you cannot reach out and form, organically, a community. Libraries have that social function now in areas around the world. Libraries have repositioned themselves as these community centers.”

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At a library, people can be exposed to knowledge and information. People can learn, socialize, and relax—all for free. A public library can also be used for events, seminars, and celebrations. It can even be converted into evacuation center, if and when the need arises. As Pastrana has found, libraries can become spaces for positive community growth in as many ways as you can imagine, which is why, after he started the Library Renewal Partnership in 2010, he set out to build 200 new libraries all around the country by 2020—school libraries, village libraries, barangay libraries, municipal city libraries, church libraries. It’s a goal that he has since shattered, because this November, the LRP is about to build its 500th library, in Marawi.

Quintin took the law into his hands: specifically, RA 7743, which mandates the government to build libraries.

Reading was only the beginning. “I think every social movement starts with a personal experience," says Pastrana. “As for me, I had a learning disability. I had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). I had a hard time comprehending things, I was terrible at math, I had to learn the hard way.” He didn’t realize it until later in life, when he was diagnosed in grad school. Until then, he had to cope with his disability on his own, without even knowing about it.

“The only thing that really helped me was when my folks sent me over the summers to Biñan, Laguna, my grandmother’s home. I was forbidden to watch TV, and my other grandfather from my father’s side—who was a diplomat and a writer—left me books. That isolation, that quiet, actually helped me enhance my way of thinking to overcome those deficiencies. And at the end of the day, I realized, that’s a personal experience that I think other people should have.”

Later, with dreams of getting into Georgetown, Pastrana hit up libraries to study and get his grades up. He eventually succeeded, and while at university, wrote a study about libraries as third spaces in developing countries. “What it was, really, was a personal experience of knowing that these third spaces—whether it’s this small room in my lola’s house in the province, or a proper library where we went over summers in the U.S.—that experience needs to be replicated [in the Philippines].”


Then Pastrana set out to test the findings of his study, starting with his hometown: Kalibo, Aklan. The goal was simply to build a library. But it wasn’t easy, at first. “That process took us two years to get it right, because we were importing books initially,” he recalls. “We had no local suppliers and partners. The mayor of the town did not understand.”

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But eventually, Pastrana found a way to do it better and more expeditiously: by essentially taking the law into his own hands. “There is a law. The Philippines is blessed with many laws, but poor implementation. And one of those laws is Republic Act 7743, that mandates the government, from the national to the local level, down to the barangay, to build libraries.” For the LRP, It was just a question of enforcing that law.

So with the help of a few other organizations, Pastrana galvanized existing legislation into implementation. Partnering with schools, book publishers, private CSR programs, and other civic institutions, the LRP grew faster and more able to build libraries in far-flung areas, where they were needed most.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. At the end of the day, there’s a mandate. All we’re trying to do is implement the law based on that,” he says. Through the LRP, building libraries becomes a public-private partnership, between the government and anyone who would help. “I like to think it’s the bayanihan spirit, resurrected for the 21th century.”

“When you combine all these things together, it becomes a rising tide of good governance.”


Lubuangan, Kalinga


Adams, Ilocos Norte


Sagada Mountain Province

Some of the libraries are small—just rooms above or adjacent to classrooms with a few full bookshelves. Some are bigger, stocked with hundreds of books and with computers for research. One of the libraries that the LRP has built is in Quezon City. Another is in New Bilibid Prison, and another still is in Sagada Mountain Province. The LRP has also built libraries in Bhutan and in India, and is slated to build ones in Indonesia and Malaysia. None of the libraries that they have built have closed, and some of them have even grown. All of them are accessible third spaces that benefit everyone in their communities, from leaders and teachers who need a venue, to students who need to a safe place to stay after school while waiting for their parents.

“Every two weeks, there’s a new library that gets launched,” Pastrana says with pride. “We’re three years ahead of schedule and two and a half times over the initial target. And we’re not going to stop.” Which is just as well, because despite the incredible pace at which the LRP has done its work, there’s more yet to accomplish.

“In the Philippines, there are around 1,491—close to 1,500 municipalities,” Pastrana estimates. “When we started, there were around 550 libraries.” And on their 500th, it’s safe to say that Filipinos now have over two-thirds of the 1,500 libraries we should have already had—all thanks to Quintin Pastrana.

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“When you combine all these things together, it becomes a rising tide of good governance,” he says, considering the long-term effects of his efforts. By simply following up on an existing law and finding others who could help him do it, Pastrana has established a sustainable initiative that positively influences our literacy, education, employment, livelihood, security, and health.

“I would imagine people who have less of a learning impairment than I had, they’ll do much better,” says Pastrana. “They’ll elect better politicians. They’ll become better leaders themselves.” And it will have all been because these people were given a third space to grow in. “We think that the end goal is still what we started out with: hoping that the community will develop organically, on their own steam, on their own terms. We just serve as catalysts.”

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About The Author
Miguel Escobar
Editorial Assistant for Esquire Philippines
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