Bid to shift libraries to social spaces turns page on stale bookworm image

by Asako Takaguchi

Kyodo

A new library that opened in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, in April is not an ivory tower of books, but an innovative attempt to boost liquor sales and interest in libraries themselves.

Sake.come Maehara Library was built in a liquor store. The microlibrary consists of one bookcase stocked with 500 or so works of literature amidst shelves stocked with expensive brands of alcohol.

The presence of the library has apparently lubricated the wheels of the alcohol business.

“As some people buy alcoholic drinks and snacks when borrowing books, we have more customers than before,” said an official of Yatsuya Co., the wholesaler that operates the Sake.come chain of liquor stores.

Sake.come Maehara Library is one of 15 small libraries run by the nonprofit organization Joho Station. Some are situated in unusual locations, including a nursing home, bakery, car dealership and condominium building.

Joho Station, based in Funabashi and surrounding areas, is attempting to strengthen community ties by turning libraries into a place where residents mingle.

“I hope this will help people connect with others in their neighborhood as well as at school and in the workplace,” said Naoki Oka, who heads Joho Station.

Around 450 volunteers ranging from elementary school children to people in their 70s help to keep the libraries going by sorting books and doing other tasks. Most of the books are donated by the public.

The libraries allow people to borrow two books for two weeks for free. Sometimes, they are used as spaces for community activities, such as computer seminars.

According to the education ministry, there were nearly 3,300 public libraries in Japan as of April 2012, up more than 30 percent compared with 15 years ago. But many were struggling with dwindling usage.

Against this backdrop, Joho Station’s initiative has become part of a growing trend among NPOs and companies that are attempting to make libraries more enjoyable to use.

Since January, cafe chain Pronto Corp. has been running a restaurant and cafe in the Hibiya Library & Museum in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, a public facility that has recently been renovated.

“We have different customers during the course of the day. Women with children come at teatime, while in the evening we see working women reading books over dinner,” said Chikako Hirose, a public relations official with Pronto.

In Kagawa Prefecture, meanwhile, the town of Manno opened a public library in June that rents out e-book readers containing recommended titles.

The library is operated by a joint venture between Libnet, a company that manages libraries on behalf of local governments and schools, and Miyawaki Shoten Inc., a nationwide bookstore chain.

Since April, the city of Takeo in Saga Prefecture has commissioned Culture Convenience Club Co., operator of the Tsutaya rental video chain, to run its renovated public library.

The library, which boasts a chic interior design complete with a Starbucks cafe, rents out more than 70,000 CD and DVD titles in addition to lending books.

In just four months, it attracted around 344,000 people, almost quadruple the number it drew in the same period a year earlier and higher than the previous annual record of around 294,000 in 2002.