Dig Into the American Period in the Philippines at Ateneo

Private meeting room and study in American Historical Collection office. (Photo by Jonathan Best)

Private meeting room and study in American Historical Collection office. (Photo by Jonathan Best)

For Filipino Americans in search of their roots or any serious historians studying the last 120 years of Philippine history, the American Historical Collection at Ateneo's Rizal Library is a treasure trove of fascinating information. Only the Library of Congress in Washington, DC has a larger archive of books documents and photographs relating to the long and tumultuous relationship between the United States and the Philippines.

As time passes special interest groups from the political left to the political right try to rewrite history; Filipino nationalists have embellished and distorted the facts as much as American and Japanese apologists have tried to sweep the ugly side of their imperialism under the rug. At the AHC Library one can study the documents and see the images taken at the time and acquire a first-hand understanding of the extremely complex series of events that created the modern Philippines we know and love today.

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, much of Manila lay in ruins, the victim of systematic arson and demolition perpetrated by the retreating Japanese and intense and at times indiscriminate shelling by American and Filipino forces pursuing them. The devastation was particularly hard on both public and private libraries and government archives, many of which went up in flames. Hundreds of thousands of antiquarian and modern books, official documents and historical photographs and albums relating to Philippine history were lost.

The archival book stacks and cabinets. (Photo by Jonathan Best)

The archival book stacks and cabinets. (Photo by Jonathan Best)

American Ambassador Myron Cowen, who was assigned to the Philippines from 1949 – 1951, and a group of dedicated Manila Americans, longtime residents, businessmen and military personnel, decided to establish a new library, which was inaugurated in 1952. Their aim was to collect and to preserve as many books and documents relating to Philippine-American relations as they could find, from collections that survived the war and from collections in the United States.

The American colonial occupation of the Philippines had officially come to an end with Philippine independence on July 4, 1946, so it was an opportune time to gather material relating to America’s 48-year colonial “experiment.” The intent was to create a library, which would document this colonial history and be useful for Americans who continued to live and work in the Philippines and for Filipinos who wished to study the period. Since the library’s inception new material has continually been added relating to all aspects of Philippine- American relations. The collection now includes contemporary publications covering the more recent decades of the Cold War, martial law and the Marcos dictatorship, the achievements of the American Peace Corps and the ongoing debate regarding the American military presences in the country.

In the early days the library was housed at the American Embassy on Roxas Boulevard, but it grew too large and had to be transferred several times to various administration buildings operated under the auspices of the embassy. Thus, for many years it was at the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center in Makati before finally moving in 1995 to the Ateneo de Manila’s Rizal Library in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Because the collection is private, not owned or directly funded by the United States government, it is held in perpetual public trust by the American Association of the Philippines (AAP). It is now housed and administered by the Ateneo de Manila for the AAP, with the assistance of American Historical Collection Foundation (AHCF), under a memorandum of agreement--a loan. From time to time the American Library of Congress has helped financially, paying for the microfilming of many of the books and scanning of the entire photo collection. Fifty compact disks of photographs were recently handed over to the American Library of Congress, which is eager to expand its Philippine material.

Only the Library of Congress in Washington, DC has a larger archive of books documents and photographs relating to the long and tumultuous relationship between the United States and the Philippines.

The Collection’s over 13,000 books, periodicals, loose documents, microfilm files and over 18,000 photographs are being professionally classified, cataloged, archived and conserved by the dedicated staff of the Rizal Library’s Special Collections division. All of this is watched over by the American Historical Collection Foundation, which was set up in 1995 by the AAP to raise funds to help administer the library.

The AHCF has also taken over publishing The Bulletin of the American Historical Collection, which has been in print for more than forty years. This publication reprints interesting articles and photographs from the Collection’s archives and also publishes new material along with current book reviews of out-of-print, as well as contemporary books, on Philippine American history found at the library.

Over the years donations have come in from many sources in the form of books, artifacts and occasionally small grants for acquisitions or for support of the Bulletin. The most important early donation to the library’s holdings was from former Philippine police commissioner and governor general of the Philippines (1908 – 1912) William Cameron Forbes. His collection includes many Philippine Commission reports, War Department reports, official gazettes and other government documents, along with numerous books relating to the history of the Philippines and even personal memorabilia of Forbes himself. Forbes was a key player in the first decade of the American administration of the Philippines and was the major promoter of the development of the Baguio as the “Summer Capital” of the Philippines.

In the past the library has exhibited American-era textbooks complete with Fernando Amorsolo illustrations and other rarely seen material from the American times.

Another significant donation came from Leonard G. Dawson, an early colonial administrator who was a provincial treasurer in northern Luzon and in Albay and Iloilo in the south. His widow, who had been a public school teacher in the Philippines for many years, donated his books on 19th century Philippine history and several remarkable albums of photographs from the late Spanish Era. One album contains dozens of eight by ten albumin prints of Manila in the 1880s by the renowned Belgian photographer Francisco van Camp. A second album in the Dawson collection has numerous unique photographs from the late 19th century showing “native types” from provincial tribal groups to sophisticated Filipino residents of Manila.

The collection is strong in material relating to the Philippine-American War and on the Second World War in the Pacific 40 years later. In the intervening years the Americans were busy developing the Philippines according to their own concept of civil society and good government, which was radically different from the three centuries of Spanish/Catholic friar administration. The library has the records of the first Philippine National Assembly, 1907 – 1934, which governed in tandem and was occasionally strongly at odds with the American governor general up until the establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth Government.

The Americans believed strongly in secular, democratic government with open and accessible public institutions. This was reflected in their city planning and massive public building projects, for government buildings, schools, hospitals, model prisons and many other public institutions. Many of the records of these projects can be found in the AHC Library along with the personal accounts of many of the hundreds of American teachers who were brought to the Philippines to teach English, the modern sciences and the basics of representative government throughout the islands. The building of Kennon Road and the early years of Baguio are also well documented.

Special Jose Rizal edition of the AHC Bulletin 2011 (Photo by Jonathan Best)

Special Jose Rizal edition of the AHC Bulletin 2011 (Photo by Jonathan Best)

In the 1980s, oral histories from the remaining American “Old Timers” were collected by the AHC Library along with accounts of the hundreds of Americans and other nationalities who were interned in Santo Tomas during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines between 1942 and 1945. The Foundation’s current president Leslie Ann Murray, a long time familiar face and leader of the American community in the Philippines, is a childhood survivor of the Santo Tomas internment. The AHC Bulletin continues to publish fascinating new material on the internees and the brutal liberation of Manila in February 1945.

Although no books or other items are allowed out of the AHC library the librarians, under senior librarian Dhea Santos, do put on regular exhibitions of material from the Collection in display cases in the large reading room. One of the most interesting exhibits in recent years was from the Austin Craig collection of ephemeral material on Jose Rizal. Several rare albums of photographs of Rizal were publically displayed for the first time. In the past the library has exhibited American-era textbooks complete with Fernando Amorsolo illustrations and other rarely seen material from the American times.

The library is open to the public and all scholars and researchers are welcome to visit. Being situated at the heart of the Ateneo’s Loyola Heights campus, the majority of visitors tend to be Ateneo students, but over the years there has been a distinguished list of international writers and researchers who have made valuable use the Library. Two of the early directors of the Collection were A.V.H. Hartendorp and Lewis Gleek, both of whom were prolific journalists and writers focusing on the American period in the Philippines. The Collection is used by visiting foreign researchers as well as by local and foreign researchers online and through email contact with the AHC staff. Filipino historians and teachers as well as many students from Ateneo and other colleges and universities around Manila and nationwide, also make good use of the Collection's rich holdings and informative exhibitions.

This article was first published in BusinessWorld, February 6, 2015.

Jonathan Best

Jonathan Best

Jonathan Best is Vice President of the American Historical Collection Foundation.

More from Jonathan Best