National

Libraries turn the page on COVID-19 as readers are welcomed back

Kyodo

Libraries in Japan that were forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic have once again unlocked their doors, but now the onus is on them to provide a safe environment for their members while ensuring any potential outbreaks are traceable.

Many libraries are taking preventive measures against infection, such as urging visitors to shorten their stays to avoid congestion, but some are still finding that visitors are unsure about the risks.

The municipal library in Kasuga, Fukuoka Prefecture, reopened after nearly three months on May 26. Even so, people are still wary of visiting out of a fear of contracting the virus.

"I was looking forward to the library reopening, but I am concerned about getting the virus," said a 35-year-old mother from the city who made use of an ultraviolet light machine provided by the library to disinfect every book her 7-year-old son selected.

The machine, which resembles a large microwave, was installed in 2018. Although it has not been proven to be effective against the coronavirus, more visitors have been using it recently, according to the library.

Other measures implemented include having visitors wear masks, opening windows for ventilation, forbidding people from sitting on sofas and installing a transparent sneeze guard partition at service desks. From June, the facility also started an electronic library offering to streamline its services.

"This is the time we have to think of services that we can continue if there is a second wave of infections that forces us to close the library again," said librarian Yukiko Yamamoto.

On May 14, the Japan Library Association, based in Tokyo, drew up infection prevention guidelines for libraries around the country.

One suggestion it contained was that libraries create a log to track the names and emergency contact information of all visitors that enter.

The log could be of great use in the case that someone visits the library while infected with the coronavirus, allowing authorities to quickly get in touch with others who may have crossed the sick person's path.

The mandate to create visitors' logs came under criticism for running counter to the association's position regarding library freedom, which states that, other than recording the fact that a book has been read, the privacy of a visitor will not be violated.

Some are worried that, by recording the names and details of all who visit, libraries are potentially creating a situation in which people's privacy could be compromised.

The guideline was revamped May 26, leaving "the collection of contact information to be conducted at the discretion of each library based on necessity."

"The guideline is not a hard and fast rule," said the association's standing director Takashi Suzuki. "The infection situation has to be considered case by case, and the best possible countermeasures must be devised for each one."

Indeed, libraries have handled their situations in various ways.

At the Nagano Prefectural Library, which reopened on May 16, those with library cards voluntarily presented them, while nonmembers were requested to write down their names and contact information on a contact form to be inserted into a sealed box.

"I really worried about (the privacy issue)," said Izumi Mori, the facility's librarian. "These measures are necessary because we have a responsibility to help stop the spread of the virus, so it was a final recourse."

In Nagano, the contact form was not made into a visitors' log, and it was disposed of after two weeks — widely seen by experts as the incubation period of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The library discontinued the measure starting in June when the prefecture alert level was downgraded.

At the Mie Prefectural Library in the city of Tsu, visitors without library cards were requested to cooperate by writing down their names and contact information until June 18, with the promise that the information would only be used to trace possible infections and would be discarded after about one month.

Yasuhiko Tajima, a former professor at Sophia University familiar with privacy issues, says people should be careful about sharing their personal information, even if it is for the greater good.

"This is a difficult problem because privacy and freedom to know shouldn't be threatened while taking a highhanded attitude in the name of prevention of infections. Caution is required here."

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