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Public Library

The Man Who Made His Home a Public Library


To honor his parents and the best gift he received from them, the love for reading, Hernando Guanlao turned his house into a public library.

There are few acts as human as lending a book to someone. Usually, a lent book transmits a message that is far greater than the book itself, one which an attentive and sensitive reader is capable of deciphering, or at the very least, intuiting throughout his reading.

In modern times, this expression of generosity became condensed in what we now know as the public library. These spaces began to take shape in the mid-19th century and would become one of the greatest forces for society’s cultural development.

However, for many reasons —the solemnity in our behavior or their architectural coldness—, more than curiosity, libraries often inspire a sense of reverence, and potential readers prefer to admire them from a safe distance instead of daring to try their luck by stepping inside.

Trying to right these wrongs, Hernando Guanlao, a man in his sixties who lives in Manila, Philippines, has, for the past ten years, opened the doors of a truly public library: he set it up on the street, on the sidewalk just outside his home.

It all started when Guanlao directed a small book club that was nurtured with small individual donations. When his father died in 2000, he decided that the best way to pay tribute to his memory was by sharing with others the best thing his father had left him: a love for reading. The next step was to take his books —less than a hundred—, organize them outside of his house and wait for someone to ask to check one out. Gradually, more and more pedestrians would borrow books and, after reading them, would return them along with some other book that became part of the shared collection.

In time, this tiny library grew by the thousands, so many that Guanlao eventually lost track. Currently the collection seems to be greater than three thousand books, which have now spilled off the house’s perimeters and into the garage and inner staircase. Unlike other libraries, this spontaneous literary paradise has no order. The only thing that guides the passionate readers through its maze is precisely the passion with which they search for a stimulating title.

But Guanlao’s generosity does not end with the transformation of his home into a public library. He has implemented a delivery service called the “book-cycle,” a tricycle fashioned with a basket full of books. He has also established sister businesses, the first of which is in Bicol, a province that is a ten hour drive from Manila, while the second is currently being set up in the south of the country. In the Philippines, by the way, a book is often seen as a luxury item which only few have access to.

Guanlao gently embodies the role of the micro-hero, a captivating character that, unselfishly and regardless of the scale, is devoted to the transformation of collective reality.

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