When the first batch of baby boomers born between 1947 and 1949 start retiring at the end of March, the three public libraries run by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will also see many qualified librarians go.
But unlike the expected gradual decline in the labor force in other industries, the number of librarians at the Hibiya, Chuo and Tama libraries will be nearly halved in five years.
As part of cost-cutting measures, the metropolitan government stopped hiring licensed librarians in 2002, and there is no sign this will change. The baby boomer generation represents a large chunk of Tokyo librarians because the Chuo Library in Minato Ward, established in 1973, hired many young librarians at that time.
Faced with a massive outflow of human resources, librarians fear services will wane because their skills based on long experience cannot be handed down so easily.
Librarian Mayumi Takeuchi, 58, was hired in 1972.
She noted the work of a librarian is not just about sitting at the counter and lending out books, or providing reference services.
In her 35-year career, she has handled many different tasks behind the scenes, including selecting and ordering books, newspapers and magazines. For the past three years, she has been working in the social science section at Chuo Library’s reference counter, where she currently is in charge of law books.
“It’s not like we are experts in the areas we cover, but we do prepare ourselves to provide good information and resources that users need,” Takeuchi said.
She tries to read many books related to her section to increase her knowledge. Updating one’s computer and Internet skills is also crucial, she said.
Even simple tasks like putting books back on the shelves is important, Takeuchi said, because that way one encounters new materials and gains an understanding of what’s written and how it can best be used.
In many ways, “a librarian is like an artisan,” she said, pointing out that it takes many years to become highly skilled.
Currently, 136 librarians, including Takeuchi, work at the three metropolitan libraries.
They have faced tight budgets since the 1990s recessions. In fiscal 2006, the three libraries’ combined budgets for purchasing books, magazines and newspapers was 200 million yen, less than half the 452 million yen in fiscal 1997.
In addition, cashier services, database creation and labeling were outsourced to private companies after a new regulation allowing local governments to appoint the private sector to run its public facilities took effect in 2003.
The metropolitan government is also planning to hand over Hibiya Library to Chiyoda Ward and centralize the library functions of the two remaining libraries.
A metropolitan board of education official said the tight budget limits the options.
He said downsizing the three libraries has to be taken in context, noting the number of municipal-run libraries has increased over the years. In the 1970s, there were only about 130 libraries run by municipalities in Tokyo, but the number has tripled to 390 today, he said.
However, many at the metropolitan government-run facilities believe skilled librarians are still needed to maintain and improve their services because many city-run libraries do not have licensed librarians and will need their support.
But unless new ones are hired, metropolitan libraries will not be able to accumulate and utilize the expertise of the ones soon to retire, they said.
A remark by Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara in October illustrates how the role of librarians is often undervalued. “In this age, we don’t necessarily have to locate people there. Users can borrow books automatically,” the governor, who is a novelist, was quoted as saying at a press conference.
Libraries and librarians in many other prefectures (the equivalent of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government) face similar situations, said Kaname Matsuoka of the Japan Library Association. Despite the overall increase in municipal-run libraries, many suffer from budget cuts affecting the purchase of materials, and are also targets of outsourcing.
Behind this move is the trend in most local governments to develop generalists instead of specialists among their full-time employees, especially amid the public servant workforce reductions, according to Matsuoka.
Thus, where specialists are needed, the jobs are outsourced.
But unlike sports or welfare facilities, where many competitors exist in the private sector, Matsuoka said alternatives in the private sector barely exist for public libraries. And because librarians require experience and skills, cutting their jobs and outsourcing their activities won’t benefit libraries, he said.
“Many municipalities establish libraries because they realize the important role they play in their communities. But without good materials and services, it will be hard to attract users,” he said.
Metropolitan librarian Takeuchi said she used to love her job as a navigator through information.
Facing retirement in two years, however, she worries about libraries’ fate.
“A library is supposed to be a place where everybody can come and obtain information freely, and it’s a place where you create your own ideas and thoughts,” she said. “But the way things look now, I don’t think we’re going in the right direction.”