Libraries for Ordinary Citizens and Users
Learning from the Citizens' Library Movement
The concept of a public library as a place where ordinary citizens are free
to read whatever books they want whenever they want, and where they can have
ready access to information essential for their daily lives, was introduced
to Japan after the Second World War by the American Occupation Forces under
General MacArthur. It is rather ironic that the liberal concept of the public
library was actually forced upon Japan by superior military might.
Because public libraries in Japan did not arise from the spontaneous efforts of Japanese citizens or library officials, it was perhaps inevitable that the reformation occurred in name only. For a long time after the war, public libraries in Japan continued to function as reference libraries, autocratic in their approach. The administrative attitude all but said, "Be grateful that we are magnanimously providing you with an opportunity to use these books, the treasured property of the state and governing bodies." A spontaneous domestic movement to seize the foreign concept imposed by the Occupation Forces and make it our own was essential in order to reverse this trend and allow the true ideal of the public library to take root in Japan.
It was the Citizens' Library Movement, first promoted by the staff of the Hino Municipal Library in Hino City, Tokyo under Director Tsuneo Maekawa, which first arose to undertake this task from the latter half of the 1960s to the 1970s. Maekawa declared that "A library is, above all, a facility where people use and borrow books," a statement in direct opposition to the existing style of library, the main function of which was storage and preservation, only permitting people to consult books on the library premises. "Even if I were to travel about the city trying to convince people, it would doubtless be ineffective. If we want the people of Hino City to understand this concept," he continued, "the only way is to let them experience it for themselves. In order for real libraries to take root in Japan, the Japanese people must first understand the true nature of a library. If we had not extracted the essential component of a library and demonstrated it to the citizens of Hino, they would have been unable to comprehend it." (Warera no toshokan, "Our Library", Chikuma Shobo, 1987)
What Maekawa meant by 'real library" was not necessarily an impressive building or large collection of books. Even without any building at all and only a poor collection, if citizens are given the opportunity to freely borrow those books, that facility constitutes a library. Accordingly, the staff of Hino Municipal Library decided to launch their movement with a mobile library, transporting several thousand books around the city by van. Next they built several small branch libraries, and then finally, in 1973, they completed the central library. "When we switched from lending space to lending books, the library became the property of the people. Normally, working people, housewives, children, and students are unable to spend many hours at a stretch reading in a library. Borrowing books to take home allows them to make practical use of them."
As a result of this movement which began with the just one Himawarigo, Sunflower Book Mobile, there are now approximately 2,500 prefectural and municipal public libraries for everyone in Japan. Anyone can borrow books free of charge from their neighbourhood library. The library staff are generally kind and helpful, and if they do not have the book someone wants, they will borrow it from another library for the user or even purchase it, if it is unavailable. A copy service is also provided at minimal cost to copy necessary pages from a magazine or a book. Although in terms of quality and quantity there is still room for improvement, at least a firm foundation has been laid for the network of public libraries throughout Japan.
Imagine the situation today if the Citizens' Library Movement had not begun to spread thirty years ago. Without a doubt, public libraries in Japan would have remained locked within authoritarian bureaucracy.
Politicians generally tend to be indifferent towards issues concerning the consolidation of public cultural services. Libraries do not win votes, they reason. Japan is, of course, no exception to this rule. Yet the various branches of government administration will be unable to function effectively without a solid mass of spontaneous, active citizens who have access to the information they need for the resolution of current social issues, whether they be garbage disposal or misdemeanours by delinquents, disaster preparedness or the elderly. Libraries have the resources and power to raise up such citizens. Despite this, however, it appears that national Diet members and local council members do not feel the need. Most likely, in their innermost hearts, they prefer obedient citizens who refrain from making troublesome comments.
If we merely wait for someone to present it to us on a platter, therefore, it is unlikely that the "real library" of which Maekawa speaks will ever materialize. This is the lesson to be learned from the experience of the Citizens' Library Movement.
Issues on the Electronic Library Project
Thirty years have passed since the Citizens' Library Movement began. During
that period, public libraries in Japan have certainly made great strides. Unfortunately,
however, progress has not been entirely smooth. Most noticeably, the majority
of the nation's politicians and government officials do not yet sincerely believe
that public libraries are essential to the daily life of Japanese citizens.
And the distortions arising from this are becoming increasingly evident.
A primary example is the repeated reductions in library budgets. When the Japanese economic recession began in the early 1990s, the national and local governments were suddenly forced to cut spending. At that time, cultural services such as libraries were the first to be sacrificed. Almost annually, local governing bodies have continued to implement drastic cutbacks in both prefectural and municipal library budgets, and employment of trained librarians is often deferred indefinitely. The national government is even moving towards abolishing subsidies for library construction.
At the same time, it is expending a phenomenal sum on the electronic library project centring on the National Diet Library (http://memory.loc.gov/), which functions as the central national library and is equivalent to the Library of Congress in the United States. As a launching pad, a Kansai branch will be established in 2002, becoming the first electronic library.
Does this project, however, have the capacity to deliver the nation's prefectural and municipal libraries from their current straitened circumstances? Although there is no guarantee, the project does indeed have the potential to do so. Through the digitalization of valuable materials contained within the collections of the Diet and other libraries, every citizen will be given access to these resources via the Internet. It will also allow the preservation of easily damaged, rare and ancient books made of acidic paper. Most important of all, if computer databases of all library collections, including not only that of the Diet Library, but of every prefectural, municipal, local, university and research library, are created and integrated, every citizen will be able to read books from any library in the land, regardless of their physical distance from the source. If this is the end result of the project, then it will certainly alleviate the current dilemma of public libraries unable to purchase new books due to budget cuts.
Moreover, an electronic library network could potentially transcend national boundaries, developing to encompass Asia and even the entire globe. In fact, the International Children's Library will be launched in the year 2000 as one component of digitalization of the National Diet Library. The library will include 130,000 children's books in electronic form as well as an experimental Internet publication of three multimedia picture books with both text and voice data that depict the life of children in Asia in thirteen different languages including Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean.
The Internet is capable of transcending regional and national boundaries. And through digitalization and dissemination via the Internet of books and resources previously only accessible within the walls of a library building, the electronic library will be able to link the libraries of Japan and the world. This is a truly glorious dream and I can envision tremendous possibilities if it materializes.
But a dream is not reality. The reality is that the contents and services of the electronic library project, which is scheduled to commence in two years' time, have still not been clearly explained, nor is it clear to what extent the ordinary citizen will have access to the resultant databases. Although there has been no forum provided for discussion among the many people concerned, including ordinary citizens, on what type of electronic library is most desirable, the project itself moves inexorably forward. No matter how good the plan, if it is implemented without taking the initial step of explaining to the people and obtaining their approval, then it is nothing more than an arbitrary favour bestowed by an autocratic national government. This is the hidden risk the electronic library project entails.
In addition, I find it very odd that the local public libraries which were established through the work of the Citizens' Library Movement, seem, for some reason, to evince little interest in this project despite its national scope. By rights, it is the local public lending libraries which should be presenting the demands of Japanese citizens and aggressively proclaiming the type of electronic library desired by its users, yet they are not doing so. Perhaps they fear that the computer will destroy the long history of our book culture, or even that the creation of a network will destroy the short tradition of public libraries based in the local community. If so, they should clearly state their opinions, and themselves create a forum for discussion on the project by ordinary citizens and library users.
Thirty years ago, the Citizens' Library Movement in Japan declared that "an unread book is not a book", and launched an action policy aimed at dismantling the bureaucratic library system which merely preserved unread books, and creating real libraries where library staff themselves would ensure that books were available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. The electronic library project has great potential. If we merely wait, however, for someone to provide us with the end result, it will not be a real library. We must directly apply the lesson learned from the Citizens' Library Movement.
(translated by Cathy Hirano)
Born in 1938 in Tokyo. Kaitaro Tsuno has worked as editor and publisher for 35 years in many types of publications. He has been interested in how books of existing media would be changing in the recently emerging multimedia society and would like to have contacts with people of other countries and regions through diverse publishing activities.
The Book and The Computer (Quarterly): http://www.honco.net/