Our glimpse into Oscar Lopez’s library: A celebration of one man’s passion

In 1960, he wrote: ‘Herein lies the value of a good Filipiniana library…. it provides our intellectuals with the means not only to discover but to create a new image of the Filipino people’

Oscar Lopez’s library
Oscar Lopez in 2018: A life of purpose (Photo by Wig Tysmans for Benpres 50th anniversary book)

It was to be my first time to meet the man, but I had not really thought much about it—or him, for that matter. Truth was, I had known very little about Oscar, and I had not been particularly enthusiastic. Business personalities were not my usual subject matter, but I had been asked by my friend and mentor, Vergel O. Santos, to help write a biography of the Lopez clan patriarch, and I had accepted. So Vergel and I found ourselves in Oscar’s home in Wack Wack Village in Mandaluyong City sometime in February of 2017.

Whatever expectations I had I can no longer recall. But there was something that had piqued my interest. Vergel had mentioned a personal library; he had himself visited it some time in the late ’90s when Geny Lopez—Oscar’s older brother and who Vergel had developed a close friendship with—decided to show off his brother’s newly built library. Erudition being one of Vergel’s virtues, Geny must have known that he had found a suitable admirer for Oscar’s collection. To be sure, Vergel is not a man easily impressed, yet I suppose the library made enough of an impression on Vergel for him to tell me about it years later.

Oscar Lopez’s library

Oscar Lopez’s personal library, with its old world charm, is his space of learning and knowledge. (Photo from Lopez archives)

I could not help but wonder what sort of library a millionaire would have and if we would ever get the chance to see it

And so we met Oscar. Throughout the pleasantries, however, my mind constantly wandered off to the library and its possible contents. I have very few indulgences—books being one—and I could not help but wonder what sort of library a millionaire would have and if we would ever get the chance to see it. As it happened, we did not, at least for that day. The closest we got was outside of it, in the garden, where we all stood admiring an enormous red-blossomed bombax tree, although my eyes were turned sideways towards the library’s large 3 m-wide, tinted sliding door, hoping to get a glimpse of the wonders within.

From the outside, it was an impressive enough structure: a two-storey stand-alone affair (three, if you count the basement extension, although I could not see it at that time), situated beside the bedroom wing of the property. It was built on the rear and quiet side of the garden and was designed so that no views of the garden were blocked. Aside from the sliding glass doors, floor-to-ceiling windows dotted the façade. I would later find out from its architect that the main library’s footprint measures approximately 63 sqm, with an interior height of 6 m, essentially creating a double height library. It was more than enough to house a small family.

I had desperately wanted to go inside, but I had always felt that personal libraries were exactly that: personal. Proper decorum called for an invitation, and when it became obvious that none was forthcoming, I hid my disappointment and convinced myself that other opportunities would come. I was, of course, correct. As Vergel and I began to piece together Oscar’s story for the commissioned biography, I would find that Oscar’s life would dominate mine for the better part of two years.

It was a generation characterized by a strong work ethic and the steady pursuit of the promises of nationhood

Oscar Moreno Lopez was born on April 19, 1930, the second son of Eugenio and Pacita Moreno Lopez. He belonged to what the Western media would call the Silent Generation, those born between 1925 and 1945. The American writer John Updike, himself a member, once described his cohorts as “too young to be warriors, too old to be rebels.” For Filipinos like Oscar, this was particularly true, for the crucial years of their lives fell in between the Japanese occupation and native dictatorship by Martial Law. What this meant was a childhood spent under the clouds of war and a coming of age spent under a relative period of peace and reconstruction—a period marked by the transition from colony to sovereign republic. It was a generation characterized by a strong work ethic and the steady pursuit of the promises of nationhood.

Oscar and Connie Lopez

For Oscar, all this went well beyond rhetoric. As a scion of the influential Lopez family, he found himself in a unique position to witness and participate in key moments of Philippine history. Even if he had wanted to isolate himself from the world of power and politics, he would not have been allowed to. His father, Don Eñing, was considered by many as the Sugar Baron: excessively wealthy, politically savvy, and splendidly urbane. His imprint on post-war Philippine business and politics was undeniable, and he made as many enemies as friends. But Don Eñing was also the quintessential Filipino patriarch. His word was law, and he demanded unconditional loyalty from everyone, Oscar included.

Oscar was also his own man. While he loved and idolized his father, the two differed vastly in temperament  

But Oscar was also his own man. And while he loved and idolized his father, the two differed vastly in temperament. Don Eñing was both cariñoso and assertive, while Oscar was quiet and studious. Both, however, shared a cerebral bent, and a bond developed between father and son over their common passion for reading and collecting books.

As a child, Oscar was sickly, oftentimes confined inside the house to mitigate the effects of an acute skin allergy which left Oscar unable to walk. Books became a constant companion, and his father, who kept a sizeable library at home, encouraged Oscar to pick up reading as a habit. And so began Oscar’s lifelong affair with knowledge and learning.

It would be months after our first meeting with Oscar that Vergel and I finally got the chance to visit his library. The family scheduled an interview with the Lopez Museum and Library head librarian, Mercy Servida, who happened to be at Oscar’s home supervising an inventory of Oscar’s personal collection, and she gamely gave us a tour.

The first thing to hit was the library’s old world charm: dark wood paneling, French style wood parquet flooring (in a large geometric pattern), 45 floor-to-ceiling open-shelving bookcases, crafted from the finest hardwood. A central chandelier served as a focal point, under which was a large desk—antique looking yet obviously functional, cluttered as it was with books and other paraphernalia. At least six lampshades (from what I can remember) were tastefully placed and spread out on smaller desks and side tables on the ground floor, which provided soft, warm light in all corners. Directional recessed lights were also used to highlight the contents of the bookcases. Comfortable seating abounded: a fabric-covered sofa here, a deep leather armchair and desk chair there. A plush, red-trimmed oriental style rug under the central desk warmly rounded up the décor.

What drew my attention the most, however, was the elegant vintage cast iron spiral staircase, which provided access to a cantilevered wrought-iron catwalk—the “second floor” where the upper tier of the bookcases was accessible. Both staircase and catwalk were brought in from the United Kingdom, with intricate designs on the spindles, treads, and handrails. It was apparent that no detail was spared in building Oscar’s library.

Its designer, architect Pinky de los Reyes, said as much. As it happened, Oscar was a deliberate and detail-oriented client, who had a direct hand in the library’s planning and design. Oscar had wanted a refuge where he could enjoy his cherished books, as well as a space to think and to celebrate knowledge. His book collection was certainly that.

Oscar Lopez’s library

Oscar Lopez in his library in his younger days: A space to think and celebrate knowledge (Photo from Lopez archives)

In 2019, Mercy counted a total of 8,284 volumes, although a safer estimate now would be to round it to 10,000

In 2019, Mercy counted a total of 8,284 volumes, although a safer estimate now would be to round it to 10,000, taking into account new acquisitions from 2020 to 2022, as well as the comings and goings of books between Oscar’s personal library at home and his other smaller libraries at various Lopez headquarters. Oscar was, self-admittedly, not a literary man. His main interest lay in biographies, memoirs, history and world affairs, business and economics, as well as travel books and works on the environment, nutrition, and the arts. In fact, his interests were so varied that whenever he would travel abroad, he would invariably bring home at least one suitcase filled with books.

Oscar Lopez’s library

Oscar Lopez’s personal library has about 10,000 volumes. (Photo from Lopez archives)

One particular genre, however, was obviously favored. For students of Philippine history, like myself, the main attraction was the Filipiniana and Rizaliana section on the second floor. Rows of collectibles, some of which well over a century old, were placed to be read, and not displayed. A copy of James H. Blount’s The American Occupation of the Philippines, 1898-1912, (published in 1913 and considered by many Filipino historians to be the best and most accurate American account of the Philippine American War) immediately caught my eye. I would have gladly exchanged my professional writing fee for a handful of Oscar’s books, although I doubt my wife would have approved.

In time, Vergel and I would discover that Oscar purchased the majority of his impressive Filipiniana collection while he was a student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (He first graduated from Harvard cum laude with an AB in government in 1951, followed by an MA in public administration in 1953; in 1957, he went back to Cambridge, newly married to Connie Rufino Lopez, for his Ph.D, although he was unable to complete it as he was called back to Manila in 1960 to begin working for his father.)

Oscar would describe his book hunting forays to nationalist book author and historian Renato Constantino in a letter dated August 27, 1959: “In the many years that I’ve stayed here in the States, I have built up a modest collection of Filipiniana books. But most of these books I came by the hard way. I usually found them, and bargained for them, in those small dingy out-of-the-way bookshops here in Cambridge, Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. where the price of Philippine books are less than those in bookshops specializing in them.”

His father was a frequent companion, although Don Eñing had a slightly different approach and budget when it came to his purchases. In that same letter to Renato, Oscar noted: “In Tatay’s case, however, he wanted the books right away and price—up to a certain extent—was no object. The only limiting factor was the availability of the books. And the bookshops, especially Cellar Bookshop, were quite cooperative, to say the least.”

Oscar had provided the Museum’s ‘raison d’être’: to be a place not just to showcase artifacts, but rather, where scholars can go for research

It was an experience seemingly exclusive to Oscar and his father; in fact, not even the family knew the extent of Oscar’s contribution and participation to the founding of the Lopez Memorial Museum and Library. He would never admit it himself, quick as he was to give credit to his Tatay, but it seems Oscar had provided the Museum’s raison d’être: to be a place not just to showcase artifacts and invaluable other historical works, but rather, where scholars can go for research.

In a letter to his parents on February 13, 1960, Oscar further outlined these sentiments: “[The museum] has in the minds of many become the symbol of the new nationalistic spirit and intellectual ferment in the Philippines today. It is interesting to note the changes in the technique and symbols of Philippine nationalism through the years. Our people fought for this ideal with guns and bolos in 1896; our lawyer-politician continued the fight in the halls of Congress and on the campaign platforms; today, however, the revolutionaries and the orator-politician have been replaced by the intellectual-scholar as the moving spirit behind Filipino nationalism. Herein lies the value of a good Filipiniana library today, for it provides our intellectuals with the means not only to discover but to create a new image of the Filipino people.”

Oscar Moreno Lopez left us on April 22, 2023, three days after his 93rd birthday. Weeks before his passing, I had contacted his eldest daughter, Cedie Lopez Vargas, to ask if I could write a feature article on their father’s personal library. It was then that she told me of Oscar’s precarious health. Still, she warmly welcomed the idea, and I began to piece a story together. I had wanted for it to come out as a birthday gift for Oscar, but incomplete details and my own urgent family obligations made me miss the mark.

I had not set out to write a eulogy, but rather, a celebration of one man’s passion. Yet, somehow, it feels like one and the same. To be sure, I never developed a close relationship with Oscar; it was, in fact, a one-sided affair: I was his biographer and he was my subject. I met him at the twilight of his years, and while he was never forthcoming to begin with, he had by then become even more guarded. Perhaps he never felt comfortable with the thought that a stranger would be writing his life story—it was his family’s idea, after all. Once, during the course of our interviews, I realized he had more questions than answers, especially towards Vergel, who had been his contemporary at the Manila Chronicle, he as publisher and Vergel as copy editor. On numerous occasions, I would come out of the interviews knowing more about Vergel’s life and less of Oscar’s.

 Oscar was a hard man to read, and since he rarely talked about himself

Oscar was a hard man to read, and since he rarely talked about himself, Vergel and I were forced to talk to others about him—his family, friends, co-workers—and gleaned from them invaluable tidbits of the man’s character. But there was one particular source which we found useful: his library. Besides his collection of speeches and letters (which were housed in the basement annex), his selection of reading materials provided us a glimpse into his mind. As the writer Geraldine Brooks remarked, “For to know a man’s library is, in some measure, to know his mind.”

Oscar’s library was his refuge: a place he constantly retired to for rejuvenation and relaxation. All throughout his life, he had kept a study in their house in Wack Wack, but it was only in 1997 when he decided to build a full library. I never confirmed this, but I suspect that at that time, when he was supposed to be nearing retirement at 70, he had looked forward to a quiet life of reading and gardening (perhaps, some writing as well). He never got the chance. The untimely death of his brother Geny pushed Oscar to take on the mantle of clan patriarch and corporate head of the entire Lopez Group of Companies—a role he never thought to take on himself. But he did, and he did it with aplomb.

He pursued knowledge to better understand the roles he would take up in life

Surrounded by volumes upon volumes of history books, biographies—of statesmen, captains of industry, anyone who made a mark, really—and numerous other publications of various persuasions and disciplines, I saw Oscar as a man who constantly pursued a life of purpose. His various scholastic interests were by no means merely academic; he pursued knowledge to better understand the roles he would take up in life—as a scholar and historian, as publisher, as a captain of industry, as a conservationist and mountaineer, and above all, as a family man.

He came from privilege and he knew it, and accepted it. But he never rested on his privilege and was quick to show an example to his sons and daughters that a full life was not possible without a strong work ethic and a curious mind. When I learned of his quiet passing, I did not mourn. Oscar lived a full life. Perhaps, one of these days, I will pass by Oscar’s library and ask to be let in. He left behind a wonderful collection—the intellectual footprint of an “intellectual-scholar.” It’d be shame for all those books to go untouched. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.

About author


Carlo L. Santiago is a fulltime house husband. When he can, he farms a little plot in Laguna. On occasion he writes, mostly on history, politics and culture, and speaks on these to whomever will listen as an audience or with a more intimate group over beer, bourbon or coffee, his preferred beverages. He's a member of the Anastasio Institute and co-host of Proyekto Pilipino, a weekly public affairs program on history, politics and civics. He is the co-author, with Vergel O. Santos, of Oscar, a biography of Oscar M. Lopez.

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