Public libraries are thriving

That Japanese public libraries are thriving may come as no surprise to anyone, but an education ministry report found that the number of books checked out by elementary school children from the 3,274 public libraries nationwide reached an average of 26 per child in fiscal 2010. That is up from 18.8 in 2007, a significant and commendable upswing to the highest level ever. The total number of books checked out by all people was also at a peak of 663.6 million books nationwide.

Of course, more books are checked out from libraries in part because of the economic downturn and because libraries changed their rules to allow more books to be checked out at one time. Libraries also have increased educational books using manga for young readers.

Clearly, books still exert a formative influence on young people. Every child in a library is reading more instead of playing video games, watching TV or taking practice tests at cram school.

Though those activities have some educational merit, books remain the heart of learning and development. Libraries remain a place where young people can develop their interests, learn at their own pace, become active in their acquisition of knowledge, and find a refuge from the outside world.

That young people are taking home books in greater numbers than ever before is a reaffirmation of the role of public libraries in people’s lives.

After the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, libraries in many areas were decimated. Librarians, volunteers and readers of all kinds worked hard to ensure that children and adults had access to books so their reading life could continue even during the middle of the tragedy.

Walking home from a public library with a new book tucked under one’s arm is just as joyous, exciting and comforting these days as ever.

Though the first public libraries opened in Japan in the 1870s, the Library Law enacted in 1950 under the postwar Constitution of Japan stipulated that public libraries be tax-supported, free of charge and fit the needs of the community.

The number of libraries is now the highest ever, up 3.4 percent from the last survey, with 11.3 percent more library workers.

Yet, libraries deserve even more support and use. Their importance will continue as libraries learn to adapt to new forms of reading, such as e-books, while still providing many other functions. Most importantly, books must be presented to young people in fun and meaningful ways until their natural curiosity and reading habits take over to keep them reading on their own. Libraries help do just that.