There was a nice symmetry to the first task set at the Japan Specialist Workshop, which is currently being hosted by the National Diet Library (NDL) and the International House of Japan. “I want you to find the first Japanese translation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ ” lecturer Ayano Hattori told the nine assembled researchers — budding Sherlock Holmeses of academia, if you like.

The workshop, which is being held in its current form for the first time this year, sees librarians and researchers who specialize in Japan invited to this country for a week to learn about the kinds of resources available at the NDL and in other databases, conduct their own research and also forge networks with other academics.

“The information environment has changed so rapidly over the last four or five years,” explained Naoko Harai, an NDL staffer who specializes in interlibrary cooperation and who helped organize the event. “The idea is to show the researchers what kind of resources are available both at the NDL and in databases run by other organizations such as the National Institute of Informatics.”

The last two years has seen a small revolution occur at the NDL, with the impetus coming from an unlikely source. In 2009, the Japanese government, like many governments elsewhere, sought to pump money into the local economy as a stimulus measure. One recipient of that money was the NDL, which received a staggering ¥12.7 billion for the digitization of its holdings.

Since then, the NDL has scanned roughly 170,000 titles from the Meiji and Taisho periods and made their full texts available online. A further 332,000 titles dating from 1926 to 1944 will eventually be added. Such old titles are of course no longer protected by copyright law, which in Japan lasts for 50 years after an author’s death. The second big change that has happened recently at the NDL concerns its holdings of books for which copyright has not expired.

In January last year, the copyright law was amended to allow the NDL to digitize all of its holdings, regardless of their copyright status, on the condition that they don’t make those scans available online. That amendment, combined with the stimulus windfall, is allowing the NDL to scan an additional 313,000 titles that were published between 1945 and 1968. Those will eventually be made available at its two branches (in Kasumigaseki, Tokyo, and Kyoto).

Back at the Japan Specialist Workshop, the researchers navigated through the NDL website to the library’s online database and typed in “Hoshina Daitantei,” the name that was originally given to Holmes in Japanese. A few minutes later, scanned images of the book, which was published in 1927, in the Taisho Period, started appearing on their screens.

“I think people in the States were aware that the NDL was digitizing its holdings,” said workshop participant Paul Kreitman, a Ph.D. student from Princeton University. “But I don’t think people quite understand just how useful some of these tools can be.”

Kreitman, who is researching the environmental history of East Asia, and in particular the history of soybean production, said he would be able to share the skills he will learn over his one week stay — which will include use of specialist databases related to legal studies, social sciences and much more — with his colleagues back home.

He probably had too many things on his mind to notice the irony of the lecturer’s choice of a “Sherlock Holmes” book for their research task. If he had noticed, then he surely would have answered my question about the ease of using the NDL databases with Holmes’ line: “Elementary, my dear Watson. Elementary.”

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