“After Access, What?” Reflections Following Salon Discussion in the Philippines

The policies are there. The programs exist. Access is available. But there are still many Filipinos missing out on the benefits of the knowledge society, and for many, access has not yet translated into improved lives. These were some of the conclusions of today’s Beyond Access salon in Manila, where about 30 p

eople from libraries, development institutions, government agencies and the private sector gathered at a forum hosted by the National Library and moderated by PhilCecNet chairman Dr. Angelo Ramos.

The Philippine Digital Strategy – a document based on President Ninoy Aquino’s “social contract” – promotes “online citizen centered services”, and aims to connect the entire population of the Philippines to broadband internet through public access by 2016. But because of changes in the bureaucracy last year – the conversion of the Commission on ICTs into an office under the Department of Science and Technology – there was a sense that these initiatives lack an executive mandate, and there’s some confusion about the plans of the administration as far as ICT access and learning.

Still, there are a wide range of programs targeting the marginalized with ICTs and information, seemingly each in its own silo, and few with awareness of each other or the potential for cooperation. There are ICT centers for farmers, for the health community, for out-of-school youth. Some felt that the problem was that they stopped with access. Usage is underwhelming because many who could benefit from their services don’t know they could, and don’t know what they’re missing by not having access. “After access, what?” one participant asked. “We haven’t convinced people that they need access.”

To date, libraries haven’t been part of the conversation. But there is some momentum for reform among libraries, and the new director of the National Library, Antonio Santos, seems determined to carve out a new role for the public library system. Some libraries, like the Quezon City Public Library, which we visited yesterday, are already doing training and outreach to libraries in disadvantaged areas. Librarians at the salon shared an understanding that public libraries in the country need to adapt lest they become irrelevant. Fortunately, there are opportunities to seize. Laws exist that require all municipalities to have public libraries. The country’s telecenter program and network offers opportunities for training and equipment, which libraries could join. Local government units are looking for projects that support job skills, employment and citizen-government connections. Libraries know that they need to provide information in all forms – including books and the Internet – though there is still some debate about the extent of their role as gatekeeper when it comes to online resources.

As librarians adapt their skills to 21st century needs, one participant raised a warning. Involved with some of the early telecenter initiatives, she related that they initially selected ICT experts to staff the telecenters, but then expected those people to reach out into the community. This was a challenge. “We chose technology because we wanted to work with machines, not with people,” she paraphrased their response. She worried that librarians chose their profession because they wanted to be around books, and that transforming them into modern information guides would require a difficult shift of mindset.

Participants of the Beyond Access Salon in Manila. Photo Courtesy Vida Gabe