Tokyo library reaching out to foreign community

by Mariko Kato

Whether to read a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in English, flick through global editions of Vogue magazine or delve into foreign encyclopedias, the Tokyo Metropolitan Library wants more foreigners to visit and take advantage of its free multilingual resources.

The library, whose central branch is in Minato Ward, is running a campaign to make non-Japanese residents aware of its wide range of resources in foreign languages, both online and in print.

“We have a lot of foreign-language materials, but not many foreigners know that,” said Akiko Yoshida, who oversees the library’s foreign-language resources.

Even though the library doesn’t keep a record of who enters its building, staff at the central branch have observed that given the large foreign community in the surrounding area of Hiroo, not many foreigners drop by, she said.

The library has around 230,000 foreign-language books, probably the largest stock among Japan’s public libraries. New materials arriving on the shelves this fiscal year include 4,000 Western books and 2,300 books in Chinese and Korean, the library said. Its Chinese and Korean collection, located in a special section, is among Japan’s biggest, Yoshida said.

The branch in Tachikawa, called the Tokyo Metropolitan Tama Library, has 250 magazines from overseas and more than 20,000 children’s books in foreign languages.

According to Yoshida, the role of libraries for people searching for foreign-language materials has been sidelined over the years.

“It used to be that people had to phone up to locate something, and we used to get a lot of calls. But now they can search online for materials themselves, and they just buy books from places like Amazon,” she said.

The library does not lend out materials, but its card catalog is searchable in English, Chinese and Korean on its official Web site. The library’s digital resources can be viewed for free on computer terminals located in the two branches, according to Yumi Sakamoto, head of the resources management division.

“You can look at many types of resources at the same time, and while resources found through Internet searches aren’t guaranteed to be of good quality, you can get proper materials in the library,” she said.

Among the online resources available at the library are Nature and Science magazines, Biography Resource Center and the Encyclopedia Britannica in French and Spanish as well as English, Chinese and Korean.

Sakamoto is particularly proud of the library’s subscription to Nature magazine, which, due to the high cost, even the National Diet Library does not have, she said.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Library also has online the EIU Country Report and EIU City Data, which collect political and economic data from 40 countries and 140 cities worldwide. Those interested in the arts can access Oxford Art Online and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

One area of service toward foreign visitors not so well-established is the number of staff who speak foreign languages.

“Unfortunately, we only have a few people who speak foreign languages, or at least own up to it. We have a handful who speak English, but not many who speak Chinese or Korean,” Sakamoto said.

But if a foreigner asks for assistance over the phone or in person, a staff member who can speak the language will be assigned to help, she added.

According to the metro government, more than 419,000 foreigners were living in Tokyo as of last month.