100 years of Cebu City Public Library

By: Cris Evert B. Lato-Ruffolo April 13,2019 - 07:00 AM

The country’s only 24/7 public library is 100 years old today, April 13, 2019.

It is a joy to note that 10 decades ago, on the same date, April 13, a Cebu branch of the National Library of the Philippines was opened to the public.

My research tells me that the library’s first location was in the Parian district, in a building that was said to be an old convent. Whenever I think about that time, I always picture how the opening day was.

Present-day readers, to give you an idea of the location, Parian District was the Chinese settlement that was established around 1590. It is now called Barangay Parian, the village near Colon Street that is home to heritage sites such as the Yap-San Diego Ancestral House, Casa Gorordo and Museo Parian sa Sugbo (1730 Jesuit House).

Think about how busy that area was in 1590 and how Chinese traders interacted and mingled with the Cebuanos during those years.

Parian was first introduced to me during my college years at the University of the Philippines Cebu. My then professor Madrileña dela Cerna, told our group of Cebu heritage enthusiasts that the Chinese district of Parian was “founded and evolved into a market and trading center” during the Spanish rule and Cebu’s brief participation in the galleon trade.

Parian evolved from a commercial district to a residential enclave over the next 100 to 200 years brought about by a string of political and ecological reasons. It became the home of many of Cebu’s wealthy families.

Prof. dela Cerna, or Miss Mads as we call her,  in an article published on the website of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), wrote that in 1917, Parian was still referred to as an “aristocratic barrio” where the wealthy families of the city resided.

Notice the year, 1917, or two years before the Cebu library was opened.

During its 1919 launching, the public library was located on the second floor of an old building. The ground floor was occupied by the fire department.

This is one uncanny combination. My children would have been thrilled to have fire trucks and books in one building!

An interesting part of its narrative is that it moved to different buildings until 1938, when the present three-storey structure called the Rizal Memorial Library and Museum was built.

Flavia Suson-Muaña, who served as a public librarian during that period, learned about the plan of a group called Los Tocayos de Rizal to build a monument in honor of the national hero. The group organized fundraisers including carnival expositions and musicals for this purpose.

I can imagine a very convincing and assertive librarian in Muaña because it was shared that the group was convinced by Muaña’s proposal to build a structure to house the Cebu library.

Muaña’s proposal was endorsed by Teodoro M. Kalaw, then director of the National Library of the Philippines.

Imagine the dynamics of the city in the late 1930s as the group raised funds for the purpose of constructing a building.

Juan Arellano was its architect. The library broke ground in 1937. It was inaugurated on Dec. 30, 1938.

You may think that the story ended there and the library had a seamless operation thereafter.

But the story is far from over.

The library closed its doors in the mid 40s during the Second World War. It became the headquarters of the Japanese army.

It was rented out to Perpetual Succour Hospital for only P50 until in 1959 when the hospital moved out.

In the 1960s, the City Health Department was hosted in the building. During this time, the library operation was confined on the third floor.

In the 1970s, for reasons I could not find in my readings, the library was evicted from the building and was moved to the Fortuna Building on Logarta Street.

It came “home” in 1980s but by then, the library was not the sole occupant of the building.

History writer, Gavin Sanson Bagares, was right when he wrote that “Cebu always had to fight to create and preserve its cultural institutions; the city after all, was and is more mercantile than given to the arts.”

In 2008, there was a plan to close the library and replace it with was called then as “satellite libraries.”

But the plan never came to fruition as a united community composed of media, civil society organizations and the Friends of the Cebu City Public Library called on the city government to spare the library or in the words of a good friend, “leave the library alone.”

Instead of closing the library, a renovation project was implemented. More than P13 million was spent for the renovation with funds coming from the Cebu City Government and Cultural and Historical Affairs Foundation Inc.

The building was relaunched in 2011 with the Cebu City Public Library on the ground floor, the Cebu City Museum of Visual Arts on the second floor and the Sinulog Hall on the third floor.

For many years, individuals and groups called for the library to open on weekends.

I personally wrote the City Hall back in 2012 to consider Tuesday to Saturday operation so one weekend is open for those who cannot visit on weekdays. I do not know upon whose hands my letter landed.

The good news is, six years after, in 2018, the library embraced a 24/7 operation schedule and now has more than 20 individuals in their pool of staff led by chief librarian Rosario Chua.

There is a dedicated room for children, a reading area, an audio-visual room, and a Braille room — and more to come as it embraces every member of society.

The Cebu City Public Library has come a long way, literally and figuratively.

On its 100th founding anniversary, we celebrate its role in building a reading culture in the city; in transforming the lives of students; in serving as the breeding ground of modern-day heroes.

Happy Birthday dear CCPL!

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