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Saving the national treasures
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By SUSAN A. DE GUZMAN

THE piece of yellowing paper is no larger than an average adult’s palm. The handwriting in ink, filling the front and back pages, has grown faint with time. But a close scrutiny of the faded script yields the familiar lines: "Adios, Patria adorada, region del sol querida…"

On the eve of his execution at Bagumbayan, today known as Rizal Park, Jose Rizal had scribbled those words that would constitute his final literary work — the "Mi Ultimo Adios" (My Last Farewell). Now, over a century later, the precious relic is placed in a simple receptacle — to be held only by gloved hands so as to ensure the safety of this fragile item.

Looking at the handwritten poem, one can’t help but marvel at the hero’s clear thoughts even as he faced death. But the evidence is there to see, with the steady lines and words seemingly put forth unerringly. And this by the light of a kerosene lamp! It’s a wonder that this tiny document has survived intact through the ages, with its original folds — which turned it into an even smaller piece for hiding in that lamp — still very much evident.

There are not enough words to describe the poignancy of beholding the "Mi Ultimo Adios" and two other national treasures — the original manuscripts of Rizal’s seminal novels "Noli Me Tangere" and "El Filibusterismo." One would think that these works should be enshrined in a special setting befitting their status. But for now, the "Noli" and the "Fili" — each ensconced in a wooden box, the pages separated by mylar and acid-free paper — along with the "Mi Ultimo Adios", have their home in a doublecombination vault at the National Library for safekeeping.

A NEVER-ENDING QUEST

National Library officials find themselves in a never-ending quest and in a race against time to find the most fitting repository for the three literary masterpieces, along with countless other rare Philippine manuscripts in their custody.

Prudenciana C. Cruz, National Library Director IV, said the weather is the worst enemy of the olden documents, especially during the summer months when the climate is at its most withering. Unfortunately, the cash-strapped institution can ill-afford to keep the rare manuscripts section in a temperature-controlled room 24 hours a day, seven days a week which would be the ideal situation. As it is, airconditioning in the said section can only be switched on during office hours, from Monday to Saturday.

"The original manuscripts have deteriorated, and there is really a need to restore the pages to prolong their life," notes Cruz, who along with colleague, Director III Flora Valmonte, cannot hide the frustration over failed attempts to secure funding and an appropriate site for a long-planned Filipiniana Center.

Apparently, plans for the center had been drawn out as early as eight years ago, and a funding of P125 million had even been secured from the government for it. But when a proper site could not be identified, the money reverted back to the national treasury. Even the choice of a venue has its own sad story. Cruz said that they had previously asked the Rizal Park administration for a space on which to build the center. For indeed, what better site for a facility to house the most important Rizaliana and Filipiniana materials than on the park that bears the hero’s name? The request was turned down, however, purportedly because of limitations on what can be built on park land.

It is thus with disappointment that the National Library officials have seen in succeeding years the rise of other structures on the park, including a hamburger chain, a replica house of the late President and park official Diosdado Macapagal (which has been turned into a police sub-station) and most recently, on a space adjacent to the National Library on Kalaw Avenue, a Seamen’s Center for those seeking employment with shipping lines.

Given these developments, Cruz feels that once they are able to seek the necessary funding anew, they can already lobby to have the Filipiniana Center built on an adequate space fronting the Library.

"The original plan was for a four-floor building, but we’re willing to settle for two which will just be enough to house the collection appropriately," says Valmonte.

The center was to have been equipped with modern amenities, including a café for visitors. But paring it down to the essentials of having 24-hour airconditioning to help preserve the documents would satisfy them, the library officials say.

The trove that they are out to save are comprised of Rizaliana that also counts Rizal’s notebooks and grades from the Ateneo, letters to his parents and his correspondence with friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, and the larger Filipiniana collection that includes Philippine Revolutionary papers from the 1890s.

Cruz says that they had previously applied for a grant under the United States Ambassador’s Cultural Fund, specifically to have the "Noli" and the "Fili" brought to the US Library of Congress for restoration. However, they hit another stonewall when they were told that, unfortunately, Rizal links to the US could not be found (which presumably would justify such a grant). Cruz however quotes National Historical Institute director Ambeth Ocampo as saying that Rizal had actually visited North America.

ROOM FOR HOPE

What the National Library officials can assure for now is the security of the Filipiniana collection, which had been the subject of pilferage in the early 1990s. A criminal case against the perpetrators is still being pursued in court. And though boxes of the stolen documents were returned by antique dealers and other parties — through a "no questions asked" policy — it cannot be conclusively determined how much more had actually been taken. Further, the incident severely dented the National Library’s image.

"It was a rape of our national patrimony, and what’s sad is that some of the people who were tasked to protect it were involved," says an indignant Cruz.

But even with the difficulties and challenges faced by the National Library, she stresses that there is room for hope. Limited budget notwithstanding, they are able to introduce improvements little by little, also with the help of other government agencies and educational institutions.

This year, for instance, a P1-million grant from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts helped them open a children’s library. Funds sourced through senators have covered such expenses as additional security measures and the repair of leaking roofs.

Together with the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Agriculture, the Commission on Higher Education and the University of the Philippines, the National Library has also established the Philippine e-lib (www.elib.gov.ph) through which digitized versions of rare books can be accessed by the public. In this digital age, the traditional card catalogue has given way to a computerized version — although this innovation is reportedly not popular with the Library’s older clientele.

Cruz avers that they are on the constant lookout for support to supplement their tight budget. Letters are continuously written to potential benefactors, whether institutional or individual, as the National Library will always have its own particular needs — whether it’s procuring books for the public libraries under its wing all over the country, the renovation of its auditorium, new vehicles to bring books around, the maintenance of collections and the upgrading of its facilities.

Their numerous attempts to seek such assistance make up another litany of woes, with several pledges remaining undelivered despite numerous follow-ups. Despite trying to be upbeat, Cruz can’t avoid expressing the institution’s perennial worries, particularly over insufficient resources.

"We are taking care of the country’s printed cultural treasures. For the time being, we’re doing what we can to arrest further deterioration so that they will be appreciated by generations to come. But the time will come when it will be beyond what we can do."

For comments, please e-mail susandgpages@yahoo.com.

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