Friday, January 28, 2005

Natural wonders in our forests

Natural wonders in our forests

Posted 01:16am (Mla time) Jan 28, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A13 of the January 28, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

WOOD is something we encounter every day. Wood is so common that we see it but rarely take the time to notice.

After the landslides in Quezon last year and the talk on logging in the Philippines -- legal and otherwise -- you realize that much of our mountains have really been denuded. Look at our mountains and hills, once cool and green with forest cover now just bare, brown soil. There remains a great demand for Philippine hardwood when it is easier, cheaper and better for our forests to use imported wood like oak or cherry. Why deplete our forests when we can exhaust wood from other countries first?

Each time I enter a newly constructed home in one of the posh villages and notice the shiny hardwood floors, I cannot help but realize that the old sensibility, the “bahay na bato” [stone house] syndrome or aesthetic, is still alive and well in the 21st century. The wood of choice is not narra or batikuling but molave, kamagong, balayong and other types now rare as the santos and colonial furniture made from them. As late as four decades ago, old, dry and aged Philippine hardwood was turned into elegant pieces of sculpture by modern masters Napoleon Abueva and Arturo Luz, both National Artists, and younger wood artisans who make wonderful modern furniture: Osmundo Esguerra, Claude Tayag and Benji Reyes.

Different types of Philippine wood are described in Jean Mallat's two-volume work on the Philippines published in Paris in 1846. Reading the catalogue of different types of wood he found in Ilocos made me realize that this work was more than a travel guide for the would-be tourist who was brave enough to go beyond Europe into lesser-known parts of Asia. Mallat provided a guide for businessmen who wanted to invest in the Philippines or Philippine products. He also provided the native names of the wood because many of them did not have scientific names at the time so he mentioned wood I never heard of: ulis, calantas, canaren, arangen, marumpir, maraquitel, saimayen, bio, diran, lanuti, barangoan, lilisen, etc.

Mallat even provided specific uses for specific types of wood: Molave was good for framing and pilings because it was incorruptible. Mangachapuy was made to grow long and high and made into masts for Chinese sampans. Guijo or lauaan was made into beam-ends and even the keels of galleons. So hard was this wood that cannon balls hardly scratched them. Narra then as now was good for furniture. Tindalo was made into magnificent tables (probably those altar tables that now sell for over P1 million each). Lumban and batacang when polished were so beautiful they were made into tables and boats. Banaba was used for flooring both in houses and ships. Taculao and parunapin were made into keels of ships, gatasan into rafters of houses. Bacalao was made into anchors, Dignee and mabolo were heavy woods that resembled ebony: they were black or had black streaks and were made into combs.

Certain types of wood had other uses than being made into chairs, stools and tables. Anteng when burned was like incense. The trunk of ibbey or mountain-fig would miraculously tame the most furious bull or buffalo if you tied it to the tree. The bark of adaan, when pulverized and thrown into a river, killed all the fish and made fishing easier. (One wonders though if the poison did not affect humans.) Amboyan was made for frames, its bark produced bleach for the laundry and when burned its ashes were a substitute for soap. Oplas and asperilla leaves were used to polish wood and the balete, which in Philippine folklore is said to be the home of supernatural creatures, provided good timber. Its leaves and bark could be made into loin clothes or “bahag.”

Baroan and bangsanga could be made into timber, and if you had an enemy, the sap from their trunks when applied on the skin caused it to swell, and I presume, itch or burn. Balanac when burned was said to produce smoke that killed people within a radius of four to five varas. I am curious about the bagao, which was described as: "a majestic tree under which the Indios used to hold their [pre-colonial] religious ceremonies; its fruit, bigger than an apple, has a tender flesh and a pleasant taste; it is eaten fully ripe; when it is ripe, it is as intoxicating as the strongest wine. The fruit also provides an oil used as mordant for making color take on cotton that is being tinted."

Mallat seems to have gone around and done some research because aside from trees he mentioned some medicinal plants on which he provided personal, first-hand information. Leaves of coscosipa chewed and applied was a cure for boils. Bani leaves mixed with vinegar (of course, nothing less than the strong sukang Iloco) prevented diseases like smallpox if one rubbed it on the body. Macabuhay was a vine whose bark had tubers that when taken as a decoction cured fever and stomach trouble. Powdered and dried in an oven, it was used to treat ulcers of the palate. Mallat did not realize that the name of the plant, "makabuha," was perhaps a clue to its properties. He saw the cures made with this plant and recommended it highly.

Old books like Mallat's are often ignored in libraries because they contain obsolete or useless information. Perhaps we should read them again if only to appreciate what natural wonders remain in our midst.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A tour of 19th-century Manila

A tour of 19th-century Manila

Posted 11:34pm (Mla time) Jan 25, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A13 of the January 26, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

PEDRO Ortiz-Armengol, then ambassador of Spain to the Philippines, once invited me to take a tour of Rizal's Manila. It was awkward to be a tourist in my own country, but I spent the better part of a Saturday morning walking around Binondo armed with a copy of "Noli Me Tangere" and guided by a Spaniard holding an 1872 map of Manila. That day Rizal's text found its physical setting.

We started in front of the State Investment House on Juan Luna Street, where the house of Kapitan Tiago (or actually Telesforo Chuidian) once stood. The street was formerly known as Anloague. From there, we crossed a creek to the site of Fonda de Lala Ari where Ibarra spent the night in the beginning of the novel. We walked down Sacristia Street on the side of Binondo church, and the sights, sounds and smells of the area in the 1880s seemed to be there still.

Ortiz-Armengol said that the physical look of a city may change as we demolish old structures to give way to new ones, but the physical outline of a city-its streets, rivers, esteros and other landmarks-changes little.

Since then, I have done a number of explorations of downtown Manila and Intramuros and have gone further afield to the Pasig River using the "Noli" and all the way down to the esteros of Pandacan following the route of "Florante at Laura." So it was quite interesting to be reading Jean Mallat's 1846 work on the Philippines as translated from the original French by Pura Santillan Castrence (National Historical Institute, 1983). Like today's tourist guidebooks that tell us how to get around foreign cities, Mallat left us with a record of Manila in the middle of the 19th century that we seldom get to see in history books.

Mallat described Manila by night when the city was inadequately lit by street lamps. (Today it's still dark in places where street lamps have dead or busted bulbs.) Then, as now, a stroll by Manila Bay was obligatory to watch the famous Manila Bay sunset. Ermita or the Hermitage was said to be "inhabited by the most skillful embroideresses in piña and sinamay, by painters of different kinds and by fishermen in the bay. Malate leads to Salinas which comes after the fort and an infantry barracks. This road is also that of Pasay, a village where betel nut is cultivated, and is also feared for robbers whom it harbors; it is the Cavite route. Near the small San Antonio Abad fort, one finds a warehouse of gunpowder. To the left, one finds marshes, by means of which, during wartime, one could easily inundate all the surroundings of Manila..."

The areas outside the Walled City are quite familiar to us today, but a description of it in the 1840s leaves a lot for comparison and contrast: "Leaving Pasay aside, one goes to Santa Ana, which is three quarters of a league from Manila. It is a pleasant place on the banks of the Pasig River, where one goes to take a breath of fresh air during the beautiful season. San Pedro Makati is half a league farther than Santa Ana. The air of this village is pure and bracing. It is there that the patients convalescing from dysentery go to recover their strength. Drawing nearer to Manila, one arrives in Paco, called also San Fernando de Dilao, a big village inhabited by artist painters, house-painters, masons and tilers; its church enjoys deep veneration because it keeps, in a magnificent reliquary, a recumbent image representing Our Lord after the descent from the cross; it is known under the name of Nuestro Señor de Paco, and the inhabitants attribute numerous miracles to it. "

Then, as now, even petty government officials or non-officials weave through traffic using blinkers and sirens. In those days, only the archbishop of Manila and the governor general were heralded by the ringing of church bells along the route they passed. Paco Cemetery, now a familiar place for weddings and concerts, was then just a cemetery with a pretty chapel and a circular wall. Why some couples choose to start their married life in a mortuary chapel, I cannot comprehend.

Then follows a very fascinating walking tour that has to be read today. Getting off what is now the Sta. Cruz bridge and turning left on Escolta, you walk toward:

"Enluage or the street of the Masons (now Juan Luna), on one side, on the other, Rosario Street, which is quite commercial and dotted with small but rich shops, ranged according to products which lead to the tobacco factory, from which the noise could be heard from afar. Then to San Fernando, at the Alcaiceria, the place where the Chinese sampans unload their merchandise... The main street of Santo Cristo is occupied by Chinese grocers and by merchants of mendicaments of all kinds, by Chinese pharmacies and gambling houses. Misit [actually Meisic which is a contraction of 'may Intsik'], situated to the right, on an island, is the beautiful barracks of the dragoons of Luzon. Tondo ... a village of weavers and fishermen, is the garden of Manila; from the products of its vegetable gardens and of its orchards, it furnishes the markets with mangoes, common oranges, and Mandarin oranges, bananas and other fruits of all kinds. Gagalangin is not less famous than Tondo for its oranges; it also provides cow and carabao milk; one goes there to get milk while still hot..."

Tondo a garden? Bancusay a Chinese cemetery? Mallat wrote a tourist guide that is now, how do we say, history.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Laguna Copper Plate Inscription

The Laguna Copper Plate Inscription

Posted 02:23am (Mla time) Jan 21, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the January 21, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ONE of the rewards of teaching is when a student comes to consult you to clarify something they have heard in a lecture or something they have come across in the assigned readings. When a student is disturbed by the subject matter and moved to seek an explanation, I think the teacher has done his job.

When students ask questions or e-mail me regarding their assignments, I have to remind them that I am not Ernie Baron, and that I cannot hope to know everything. This may be disappointing to some, but I think dealing with one's ignorance is always fertile. Knowing everything or being a so-called "walking encyclopedia" is definitely sterile.

While I have ready answers for FAQs like: "Is Rizal the father of Adolf Hitler?" or "Do you think Andres Bonifacio dreamed in color?" there are times when I don't have answers. When I sit down briefly with a student to explore the different angles of a question, it often ends in desperation (or maybe inspiration) and I throw up my hands and declare that sometimes it is not so important to get an answer. Sometimes, the mere process of problem solving provides the pleasure. Sometimes grappling with a question and thinking are their own reward.

Having large classes can be an obstacle because students don't want to appear clueless in front of their peers. Thus, some ask their questions during the break, others send slips of paper up front, and others send text messages or e-mail. All questions are entertained because the impertinent ones or the really odd questions can be quite stimulating. At the end of each semester, I thank my students first, for enduring my lectures (higher education is supposed to equip the student to deal with boredom); second, because I learned a lot more from them than they did from me.

This week a student came up to inquire about the status of the "Laguna Copper Plate Inscription" or "LCI." This is an artifact that is considered one of our pre-colonial cultural treasures and is now displayed in the National Museum. Contrary to what the student learned in an earlier history class, I explained that while I would very much want to accept this artifact 100 percent, there is a shade of doubt hanging over it because we do not quite know where the artifact actually came from. It is not of an impressive size, measuring a mere 20 x 30 cm, leading most museum visitors to pass by without noticing one of the earliest examples of pre-colonial writing. The problem is that this slim copper artifact was not uncovered as a result of a controlled and official archaeological excavation by the National Museum, but was purchased from an antique dealer in 1990. Before that, it was offered to me and, not knowing its importance, I rejected it. That is one decision I will regret the rest of my life. Hundreds of similar copper plates with similar writing engraved on them can be found in Indonesia, so I wondered what it was doing in Laguna.

To cut a long story short, the text was deciphered by Antoon Postma, in consultation with Johan de Casparis who noted that the language was technically Sanskrit, with some words in Old Javanese, but mainly in Old Malay similar to Old Tagalog. The Postma translation reads:

(1) Hail! In the Saka-year 822; the month of March-April; according to the astronomer: the fourth day of the dark half of the moon; on

(2) Monday. At that time lady Angkatan together with her relative, Bukah by name,

(3) the child of His Honor Manwaran, was given, as a special favor, a document of full acquittal, by the chief and Commander of Tundun

(4) represented by the leader of Pailah, jayadewa. This means that His Honor Namwaran through the Honorable Scribe

(5) is totally cleared of a salary-related debt of one kati and eight suwarna, in the presence of his Honor the leader of Puliran,

(6) Kasumuran: His Honor the Leader of Pailah, represented by Ganasakit; His Honor the leader

(7) of Binwangan, represented by Bisruta. And, with his whole family, on orders of the chief of Dewata

(8) represented by the chief of Mdang, because of his loyalty as a subject of the Chief therefore all the decendants

(9) of His Honor Namwaran are cleared of the whole debt that His Honor owed the Chief of Dewata. This in case

(10) there is someone, whosoever, sometime in the future, who will state that the debt is not yet acquitted of His Honor...

The artifact has resulted in more questions than answers. Is the copper plate Philippine? Or is it imported from Indonesia, Thailand, or Vietnam where similar pieces have been found? If it was made in the Philippines, why isn't the text in the “baybayin” or early Philippine syllabary? Was the LCI made in the Philippines by a Javanese scribe?

The eminent Indologist Dr. Juan Francisco, who has spent a lifetime studying Indian influences in our pre-colonial culture, says that some words in the LCI are truly Philippine and he believes the LCI is Philippine. I guess I will have to take his word for it and imagine that in 9th-century Laguna a debt of gold weighing one “kati” and eight “suwarna” was paid. Unlike other receipts that are oral or written on leaf, tree bark, or paper, this was placed on permanent non-corrosive material and survived to remind us of a pre-colonial past.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Aguinaldo's military tactics

Aguinaldo's military tactics

Updated 10:06pm (Mla time) Jan 18, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A13 of the January 19, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE NATIONAL Library, under Director Prudenciana Cruz, has taken the bold step of establishing e-libraries that will make dissemination of information faster.

I don't quite know how it works, but I guess we are coming closer to the time when I can get on the Internet and browse a book in the Library of Congress in Washington. For starters, we should at least be able to access materials in our own National Library in Manila. All this talk of e-libraries is very exciting, but for a dinosaur like myself, who enjoys physical contact with books, there is no substitute to going to a library and manually checking out a book.

While I have the 55-volume "Blair and Robertson" on CD with a search engine, there is no substitute to holding the individual volumes, flipping its pages, gazing at the old typography, and inhaling the familiar dust that unfortunately triggers an allergic reaction. There is no substitute to library research in the mass of documents covering the Philippine Revolution against Spain and the Filipino-American War, now known as the "Philippine Revolutionary Records" or "PRR." These were returned to the Philippines by the US National Archives almost five decades ago after everything was copied on microfilm. At the time, it was still known as the "P.I.R." or "Philippine Insurgent Records," but since 1998, the US Library of Congress revised history and our struggle, which was once belittled as a "mere insurrection," is now acknowledged, at least in the Library of Congress Classification, as the "Philippine-American War."

A small part of this material was put together at the turn of the 20th century by Capt. J.R.M. Taylor and has since been published in five volumes, with much of the documents translated into English from the original Spanish, Tagalog and other languages. These papers were once filed in brown folders marked "S.D." (for "Selected Documents") and should be available in the National Library for reference when needed.

One of the documents that I hope to read in the original Tagalog one day are instructions to the Sandatahan in Manila, which are said to be in a manuscript completely in Emilio Aguinaldo's handwriting and dated Jan. 9, 1899. There are 12 articles instructing Filipinos on non-conventional warfare, a how-to-attack-the-enemy guide, which is obsolete in our time but, as a historical document, provides a glimpse into Aguinaldo's military tactics. Article 3, for example, is the Pinoy version of the Trojan Horse:

"The chief of those who are to attack the barracks should first send in four men with a good present for the American commander. Immediately thereafter, four others will follow who will make a pretense of looking for the same officer for some reason, and a larger number should be concealed in hidden places and houses in order to aid the other groups at the first signal. This should be done wherever it is possible."

Article 4 states that surprise, decision and courage should complement the force used in the attack. "One or two should go in advance to kill the sentinel by employing some artifice such as dressing like a woman, so that the sentinel may not be able to fire his rifle, thus enabling our Sandatahan to attack other soldiers." Presumably, knives are used in the early part of the attack so that the rest of the barracks are not alerted by unnecessary or ill-timed gunfire.

Article 5 is quite frightening: "At the moment of the attack, the Sandatahan should not attempt to secure rifles from the dead of the enemy, but shall pursue them slashing right and left with bolos, until the Americans surrender and after there remains no enemy who can injure them, they may take the rifles in one hand and the ammunition in the other."

Fighting in the vicinity outside the enemy barracks is also covered by the instructions in Article 6:

"The chiefs shall see that on top of the houses along the streets where the American troops will pass there are placed four to six men who shall be supplied with stones, timbers, red-hot iron, heavy furniture and any other hard and heavy objects which may be thrown on the passing American troops. Great care must be taken not to throw [broken] glass in the streets for the reason that the greater part of our soldiers are barefooted.

"In these houses on each side of the street there will be placed, if possible, groups of soldiers, awaiting the moment of confusion in the enemy's ranks, caused by the throwing of the above-mentioned objects, who will cover a retreat or follow up a rout of the enemy's column, as the case may be. So it is necessary, in order to attain success, that the owners of the houses should prepare and carry out all that has been herein stated."

Women and children are also enjoined to hurl heavy objects from the rooftops at the enemy, or as Article 9 states, to use "boiling water, tallow, molasses and other liquids which shall be thrown on the Americans as they pass in front of the houses by means of hand-pumps, syringes or bamboo tubes."

If you imagine smoke and gunfire during the struggle for independence, think again. How about a torrent of boiling water or aparadors coming down from Filipino homes. Now that is real war and not as easy as outlined in our textbooks.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The first Filipino novel

The first Filipino novel

Updated 03:06am (Mla time) Jan 07, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A13 of the January 7, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

SOMETIME in the early 1990s, as a monk with a lot of time on my hands, I decided to try my hand at translating Pedro Paterno's "Pacto de Biyak-na-Bato" (first published in 1910). At the time, I was inspired by the example of medieval Benedictine monks who spent their time praying and, of course, copying, translating and editing manuscript materials that made monasteries beacons of light in the so-called "Dark Ages." My Latin was bad and my Greek nonexistent, so I dashed my abbot's hopes that I would do erudite commentaries on the homilies of Bernard of Clairvaux or some other obscure monastic writer. My spoken Spanish has always been bad, but I'd like to think I know enough of it to make sense of written text, so Paterno seemed the easiest to translate.

Initially my list even included some 19th-century French travel accounts of the Philippines, but all that has since been abandoned. After completing a translation of "Pact of Biyak-na-Bato," I was informed that the whole book had already been translated by the National Historical Institute (NHI), so I gave up on yet another of the career paths available to me.

While I gave up on translating Paterno, I continually felt the need to have this work see print, if only to provide an insider's look into this controversial event in Philippine history. While one should read the work with caution, it still remains a primary source on the events leading to the truce of Biyak-na-Bato that ended with Emilio Aguinaldo and his men postponing the Revolution and leaving for exile in Hong Kong in December 1897. My appointment to the National Historical Institute in 2001 gave me an opportunity to suggest to Dr. Augusto de Viana of the research and publications division that we re-issue not only Paterno's "Biyak-na-Bato" but also his landmark novel "Ninay" because I had photocopies of the Tagalog and English translations on file.

Finally, the book is now available from the NHI on T.M. Kalaw Street, Manila. It's a double-billing as old moviegoers would say: "Pacto de Biyak-na-Bato" translated by the Institute, and "Ninay" translated by a certain E.F. Du Fresne, encoded from the book published in Manila in 1907 and dedicated to Mrs. William Howard Taft.

Now that is what we would call today “sipsip” [sucking up]. Remember, Paterno was one of the greatest “balimbing” [turncoats] in history (perhaps he was the original balimbing in Philippine political history). He was first on the Spanish side, then when the declaration of independence was made in 1898, he wormed his way to power and became president of the Malolos Congress in 1899, then sensing the change in political winds after the establishment of the American colonial government, he became a member of the First Philippine Assembly.

Pedro Alejandro Paterno was born on Feb. 27, 1858 in Santa Cruz, Manila. If you look at the list of works printed in some of his books, he seems to have published a lot especially on Philippine history that have since been discredited as long-winded flights of fancy.

So why are these works being published by the institute? Well, Jose Rizal's "Noli Me Tangere" (1887) may be the great Philippine novel but contrary to popular belief it certainly was not the first. "Ninay" holds the distinction of being the first Filipino novel. It is also to be noted that Paterno's slim volume "Sampaguitas y poesias varias" (Madrid, 1880) is also supposed to be the first Filipino collection of poems. Since I am not a literary critic and I do not read novels and poetry for work or pleasure, I will not attempt an opinion on the literary merits these works may have or not.

Paterno is often remembered as a man with a moustache, wearing a black coat with tails complete with a sash and medals because he was decorated with the Grand Cross of Isabel by the Spanish government. He was elected president of the Malolos Congress, and after some political intrigue, succeeded Apolinario Mabini in Emilio Aguinaldo's Cabinet. In 1907 he was elected to the Philippine Assembly. He was founder of a handful of newspapers at the turn of the last century. He died on March 11, 1911.

He may not be the most inspiring person in Philippine history but he is worth reading since he claimed descent from pre-colonial Tagalog nobility and claimed to be the "Prince of Luzon." So on the cover of the present book, we have Paterno wearing a strange costume and carrying a scepter with ostrich feathers.

"Pacto de Biyak na Bato" is engaging because he gives short descriptions or makes references to many of the revolutionaries we now revere as heroes: Gregorio del Pilar, Emilio Aguinaldo, Mamerto Natividad, Mariano Llanera, etc. Often overlooked are some side stories like his going to the mountain of Susong Dalaga to consult an oracle. She was a 30-year-old woman who communicated with the spirit of Jose Rizal through a three-legged round table that would rise and fall. Rizal, or whomever it was they were communicating with, knocked on the table top to signify simple answers to their questions. When asked how they could serve the country, she answered, "... the celestial paternal rose of your country shall be the ones to suggest the dawn of liberty."

On that cryptic message, we leave the readers to make their own conclusions. This also explains why I suggested that we label these works "two works of fiction by Pedro Paterno," but again I leave the readers to form their own conclusions.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

History cannot be objective

History cannot be objective

Updated 09:28pm (Mla time) Jan 04, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A13 of the January 5, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

AT THE BEGINNING of each semester, I require my students to go to the library and dig up the newspaper on the day they were born. Fortunately, the Internet is useless for this exercise, which requires physically going through a Philippine newspaper in hard copy or microfilm. They are also instructed to read the newspaper of the next day, if only to get to know what the Philippines was like on the day they came into the world. To validate their research, the students are made to ask their parents what they remember aside from having a baby on that day. Most of the parents do not recall anything significant, while the few who do are often proven wrong by the newspapers. Thus, the lesson to be learned in this research exercise is that sometimes parents are the most unreliable source of information.

When I read the papers submitted, I feel ancient, seeing that my students were born at the tail-end of the Marcos period. I must really be Jurassic since I grew up thinking that the Marcoses came with the tacky, gilded and over-carved furniture in Malacanang. For my students, the only connection with Marcos they have is Borgy the model, and that's a different story, even if both loved to lift their shirts and flaunt their abs.

Most students complain that nothing earthshaking happened on the day they were born. They wanted big news like the World Trade Center crashing down or the tsunami that recently devastated South Asia. Writing this makes them realize that good news is not news and does not normally appear in the papers.

There are no great omens that come with the birth of most great people, or if there were, then people did not notice. If we were to look back on the Christmas story, a giant star shed light on a manger in Bethlehem and nobody paid any attention, except three Magi carrying absolutely useless gifts for a newborn baby. Shepherds nearby had to be frightened by angels to take any notice.

What students find surprising is the peso-dollar exchange rate that is so far from today's P56.12 to $1. I'm probably old enough to be a parent to my students, but like them, I cannot imagine what my father describes as a Philippines where the exchange rate was P2 to $1.

Historical research is a way to see the world in a different time that information can be enjoyed purely for itself or can be used to give perspective to the present and the future. In 1978, Gilda Cordero Fernando put together a landmark book, "Turn of the Century," which gave us the word "coffee-table book." These lavish books under the GCF imprint were literally placed on the tops of coffee tables for guests to browse while waiting for a meal or their host. I enjoyed these books initially for the pictures, because they were so big and heavy one could not read them comfortably in bed. It was only later in life that I actually read the text and was surprised that the authors were a venerable lot: Teodoro Agoncillo, Nick Joaquin, Doreen Fernandez, Nicanor G. Tiongson, Felice Sta. Maria, Lorna Kalaw Tirol et al. Despite this, some academics snorted that GCF books were trivial or fluffy. Now that sounds really familiar: those terms have been used to describe this column and my teaching two decades later.

There was solid research in GCF books, but the format made it accessible. The only thing inaccessible here was their price or the fact that some people bought them for show rather than reading. I'm sure some parents probably told their children not to touch the coffee-table books for fear of soiling them.

One of my traumatic experiences was arguing with a librarian who wouldn't let me photocopy three pages from a GCF book. She gave me a lecture on copyright and intellectual property when whole books were being photocopied under her nose. GCF books were sacred.

Today, libraries are not that strict when you photocopy pages for personal or academic use. With sophisticated phones, you can photograph anything in a museum or library without asking permission.

Technology has changed, but the task of historical research is still the same solitary exercise of going to a library or archive to read. Reading the newspapers on the day they were born gives students a taste of historical research, writing about it makes them analyze and put data together into a coherent essay. If they just copied out the material, or worse photocopied the newspaper and submitted it, they get a low grade. But if they tried to make sense of the news and attempt some sort of interpretation from their perspective, now they are getting somewhere. If they compare and contrast the past and the present, it gives me great satisfaction and it merits a better grade.

History cannot be objective as we would want it to be. When given a mass of data, the historian has to use some and discard the rest, and this alone makes his work subjective.

I always tell my students that if you want to read something objective, all they have to do is read the white pages of the telephone directory from A-Z. Now, that is objective. When your fingers do the walking into the yellow pages, it is the next step, arranging the data in some form other than alphabetical.

As we return to school this week, I do hope my students learn something from my crazy assignments.