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Libraries under attack

by Janet Ashby

Are public libraries stealing the livelihoods of Japanese authors? So say writers and publishers as the number of books borrowed climbs while sales of books and magazines steadily decline.

The first salvo in this battle was fired by Bungei Shunju in December 2000, with an article that branded libraries as free rental shops. In June the next year, the Japan Pen Club issued a statement critical of libraries, and last year an authors’ association petitioned the Japanese government to establish a European-style public-lending-right system, under which authors would be paid from a national fund for lost royalties from library lending.

The issue has received much attention in the press, which has generally accepted the assertions of authors and publishers at face value. NHK addressed the issue in November on “Close Up Gendai.” However, the first occasion at which both sides talked to each other — or, more accurately, past each other — about the issue was a public symposium sponsored by the Japan Pen Club in September and reported in the monthly Tsukuru (11/02).

Here the authors repeated their claims: that public libraries are harming them by straying from their “proper” role of stocking books not readily available in bookstores, such as those on art or specialized nonfiction. Underlying the authors’ grievances is a sense of crisis about the future of publishing in Japan. Takashi Ishii of Shinchosha foresees several major publishers encountering serious trouble in the next few years. Novelist Masahiro Mita expressed understandable anger at seeing TV’s afternoon “wide shows” advising housewives to never waste money buying books and to get them from the library instead.

The library representatives, though, emphasized that public libraries in Japan lag behind those in the West. They argued that one cannot arbitrarily label a certain number of copies as too large: In Yokohama, for example, with a population of 3.5 million and 18 branch libraries, 200 copies of a single title might not be excessive.

Generally speaking, the library world seems startled by its unanticipated role as destroyer of Japanese print culture, and ill-prepared to defend itself in a world of media sound bites.

In an apologetic letter in Toshokan Zasshi (1/03), the Japan Library Association explains how it innocently cooperated with the producers of “Close Up Gendai,” while the Machida Public Library, stung by being labeled by implication in the program as a “bad library,” felt compelled to issue a rebuttal, which was reprinted in Shuppan News (first issue, 2/03).

The rebuttal notes that the great majority of the books that the Machida library buys and lends are not best sellers. But what is so terrible about best sellers anyway? It is sheer prejudice to dismiss them as ephemeral junk: books like the Harry Potter series encourage children (the next generation of readers and buyers) to read more.

Writing in Shuppan News (first issue, 1/03), Toshiaki Banba points out that consumption in all categories in Japan — not just books — has been falling since it peaked in 1996. He calls for the creation of “humanistic” libraries based on civil society rather than bureaucratic and “efficient” ways of thinking.

And what about the public, whose voice has been largely missing from this debate? According to a reader survey conducted by the Mainichi Shimbun (Mainichi, 10/27/02), 29 percent of Japanese used public libraries during the previous year, 7 full points higher than in 1998. On the question of libraries buying best sellers, 51 percent favored the idea, 8 percent were against, and 35 percent undecided.

In fact, it was only three years ago that over half of all localities in Japan were without libraries. Fewer than 25 percent of library directors are trained librarians — the post is often a sinecure for school principals and the like two or three years before retirement — and staff are often civil-service employees transferred in and out with little regard to interest or training.

In addition, book-buying budgets are being slashed due to the financial difficulties of local governments.

Many clues to present attitudes toward public libraries in Japan can be found in the historical background of their establishment.

Theodore Welch, in his books “Toshokan” (1977) and “Libraries and Librarianship in Japan” (1997) points out that libraries in Japan did not evolve over a long period as in the West, but were in the main built by politicians in the postwar period as “a token of cultural attainment.” And rather than self-rule based on free access to knowledge, Japanese citizens were long expected to silently obey the dictates of a centralized authority.

Despite all the problems with Japanese public libraries, there does seem to be, consciously or not, an authoritarian element in the call to effectively reverse the campaign in recent decades for shimin no toshokan (citizens’ libraries) and return to a premodern model of a repository of knowledge for a select group of authorized users.

It would indeed be a shame to kill off public libraries by denying them adequate funding and professional staffing at a time when they are just starting to find a real role.