Facts on Japanese libraries

(Updated and corrected)

If you’ve never been to one of Japan’s public libraries, I suggest you check one out. While they vary in quality from place to place, in my experience they’ve been great resources of free books and periodicals (especially magazines). The users tend to be surly older men there to get a free newspaper, kids playing with the picture books, and serious students studying for exams. While they have some odd rules (no late fees, you can actually check out periodicals, and there are draconian photocopy limitations), all in all I love them.

So that’s why I was so happy to see that Japan’s ministry of education has some numbers on Japan’s network of public libraries as part of a survey taken every three years of “social education” institutions like libraries, civic centers, and museums.

Some facts:

  • At the time of the survey, taken over 2007 and 2008, there were 3,165 public libraries in Japan, or one for every 40,349 people. In the US, there are an estimated 122,356, one for every 2,485 people. That compares to 42,204 convenience stores and 13,000 pachinko parlors. The number is up from 2,396 in 1995. (Correction: The US number included public school libraries, whereas the Japanese numbers did not. The corresponding US number is 16,604, or one for every 18,312 people.)
  • Japanese people borrowed over 600 million books in 2007.
  • There are a total of 34.03 million cardholders (26.7% of the population), who borrowed an average of 19 books apiece. Elementary school-age cardholders were more avid readers, borrowing 35.9 books each. The cardholder population is actually down from 36.9 million in 1999 but up from a sharp fall to 26.4 million in 1998.
  • However, today’s cardholders visit the library 5 times a year, vs. just 3 times in 1995.
  • Though there are only 14,981 employed librarians or assistant librarians in Japan (including those working at privately run collections), it’s estimated more than 200,000 people have passed the official librarian exam. In the US, there were 150,000 employed librarians in 2008. That’s 4.7 librarians or assistants for each library vs. just 1.2 per library in the US. I am not exactly sure what to make of this difference, but maybe it has something to do with the relatively higher qualifications needed to become a qualified librarian in the US (a masters degree in library science) vs. Japan (an undergrad degree in library science or a degree in any field plus some extra training).
  • By far the biggest library in Japan is the National Diet Library in Tokyo with a collection of 34.7 million books, compared to the US Library of Congress’s 141 million. I guess if the Diet doesn’t actually have to make any decisions, its members don’t need to do as much background research!

While I won’t get into it now, Wikipedia has some info on the history of libraries in Japan if you’re interested.

(link thanks to J-Cast)

41 thoughts on “Facts on Japanese libraries”

  1. Japanese libraries rock.

    The disparity between Japanese and US libraries is huge but the total holdings – 800,000,000 for US public libraries according to the ALAs 2009 report and 375,000,000 for Japan puts Japan on top per capita.

    Given that Japan produces far fewer books than the United States (English speaking world really) I like Japanese public libraries for their completeness and range of academic as well as popular titles.

  2. Why on earth would you need an MA in something to reshelve books?

    Also, many major municipal libraries have (aside from excellent collections of local history and other regional fields) usually got rather good English periodical collections. I used to go up to my local one regularly and read things like MAD magazine – try doing the equivalent in the Minneapolis City Library….

    That’s a huge jump in library growth actually, from 1995 to now. Almost 50% more? And from 1998 to 1999 they had ten million new subscribers??

    “no late fees, you can actually check out periodicals, and there are draconian photocopy limitations”

    No late fees rock. Though my university library wouldn’t let you get out anything for the same length as your book return was late. And the photocopying rules are nuts. I was once at a public library with one of my profs and wanted to get some of those Zenrin maps copied. Turned out I was not allowed to photograph an entire two-page map, as that was considered an entire “work”. I could only do half. So in the end, I signed up to photocopy all the left-hand side sheets and my prof signed up to do all the right-hand side ones. Insane…..

  3. Links getting eaten by the software?

    A US gov source says just under 10,000 public libraries in the US in FY 2005 suggesting that just about everything would square up per capita.

  4. Still not counting the same thing though – many Japanese libraries have multiple buildings and yet would only count as “1” (the one that I frequent would have 3 buildings and bases at 2-3 outlying offices). The US 16,000 number looks more like the total number of library buildings in the US.

    9,198 is the number of library “Administrative Entities”.

    I can think of a reason why the number of cardholders is hard to compare as well – the Japanese public libraries that I frequent require yearly renewal while I don’t think that is common in North America (resulting in lots of cards that haven’t been used in years still counting). That could also explain massive year on year changes like “The cardholder population is actually down from 36.9 million in 1999 but up from a sharp fall to 26.4 million in 1998” if the survey was done at an odd time (say, before summer break) one year and not the other or using a slightly different methodology.

  5. However I should note that not all libraries in Japan require yearly renewal – I’ve had a card for my local library system since 1992 and it is still valid. Some may have say five year periods as well. I don’t remember if the two municpal libraries I frequented before that were one year or not, as I was only there a year.

  6. Old-timer in Japan here – I remember when (20-30 years ago) there were few public libraries. When I asked why, I was always (often?) told that Japanese didn’t want to read books that other people had read – just like they didn’t want to buy used cars or furniture. Times and countries change – but I always get a chuckle when I pass the crowded local library.

    (I was told that Japanese wouldn’t use dishwashers because women liked to wash each dish by themselves – before the small, countertop ones were invented.)

  7. Qualified librarians usually run the libraries, and hourly wage slaves do the book restocking. I think the MA qualification makes sense when you consider that librarians organize the entire collection, and design custom filing systems for any non-standard items. While that matters the most in university libraries or really great public libraries that have actual research collections, local libraries tend to have a surprising amount of unique primary source material from the community, and the librarian has to organize and catalogue all of that stuff so it can be found.

  8. Re: the homeless people in libraries thing, there was a very nice homeless man who basically spent every day in the library in my home town (Montclair, NJ). When he died a while back, the local paper did a long profile of him that I think ran on the front page, instead of just the usual obituary.

    On the other hand, I remember it being big news when the Morristown library tried to kick out one homeless man that spent every day there, who was a vile person both in terms of hygiene and temperament. I think he sued them for denying him access to a public facility or something. Don’t remember how it worked out.

  9. One reason for the qualification in the US I suspect has to do with the high level of competition. Without a high barrier to entry there would be thousands of people who become qualified as librarians but never get to ply their trade.

  10. I was being a little sarcky with the reshelving comment – in high school I used to have a job I loathed reshelving the books at the central city library. It was like giving an alcoholic a job in a wine shop. I was always getting told off as I would find a book that looked interesting and then start reading it (luckily no real librarian can really get angry at a schoolkid actually reading a book…).

    But on a more serious note, does organizing and cataloguing really require an MA? What exactly do librarians do that requires a semi-advanced degree?

  11. I love my library back home… they had all the latest DVDs, tons of graphic novels and star wars merch and even had playstation games. and all you need is a library card 🙂

  12. Said on the ALA site that only 40% of US public libraries have a librarian with a Masters degree in library science so plenty are getting by without it.

    “Don’t remember how it worked out.”

    I think that case is mentioned in the article I linked – he (or someone just like him) won.

  13. “ll the latest DVDs, tons of graphic novels and star wars merch and even had playstation games”

    Hmmm. Something seems to be missing from that list….

  14. Masters is the new BA though. What causes credentialist creep? The people who are sitting on the top of the foodchain are usually those with advanced credentials. Hiring for library positions (still considered a sexy job by nerds) is a huge amount of work (I participated in a search for a university subject librarian, a bit different but same ballpark) and making a certain type of credential necessary for applicants cuts that workload tremendously. If anyone with a BA in 20th century American lit could apply for a career track library position in a big city, there would be thousands of applications.

    My point of view is that a year of work experience with a mentoring component will probably do more for librarians than a 1 year MA – especially the increasingly common online kind.

  15. A professional librarian should know both the Dewey and Library of Congress filing systems by heart, and be able to both rebind an old book and program database software.

  16. “A professional librarian should know both the Dewey and Library of Congress filing systems”

    Depending on where they are, of course.

  17. I can’t help but think that rebinding and programing databases could be farmed out for cheap. As for knowledge of the filing systems, I like the Japanese idea of standard tests for that sort of thing. Students shouldn’t have to pay $20,000 for the privileged of memorizing a bunch of stuff.

  18. Programming, yes. Rebinding, as it involves actual books, and in less than ideal state, perhaps not.

  19. I don’t know – depending on the volume, they could probably get a decent rate from a local company plus pick up and deliver rather than have a senior librarian who could be making $50 an hour spend way too much time on that sort of thing.

  20. I suppose if it is local, but then how many local specialists would there be? City size would be a factor. It would also depend very much on the book – something from 1847 would need a lot of care (and something from 1719 even more). I suspect that with older books especially we’re talking about some pretty hefty degree of expertise. Of course if it’s just the over-thumbed 2008 edition of Harry Pothead and the Deathly Gallows, then yeah, doesn’t matter. Buy a new one, even.

  21. There should always be something around for binding the usual crap.

    I tend to think that very old or rare books that are damaged should not be repaired and instead should be placed in the protected part of the collection. If they really do need to be repaired, I think that they should be sent to professionals with the right equipment.

    In any case, book binding, at anything below the absolute highest levels, is still something that is best learned on the job.

  22. I’ll admit I don’t have a full grasp of all the components of a librarian job, but I know they do a ton of stuff. Problem is, Japanese libraries (even universities) have far fewer real librarians, so it can be hard to find someone who can answer real questions instead of just being able to help you fill out paperwork. I get the impression that over here, the qualified librarians are too scare to actually interact with patrons and are pretty much relegated to management.

  23. “I’ll admit I don’t have a full grasp of all the components of a librarian job”

    A MLsc is going to find this thread in 3 years and get angry at us.

  24. Perhaps if we were more (is that possible) insulting about the work of a librarian they would find the thread sooner, come over, and go “SHHHHHHHHHH!!”

  25. Even though I don’t know exactly what librarians have to study to be qualified, the fact that this is the person in charge of deciding what gets to be in the library, I still like the idea of it being someone with a level of education higher than a BA.

  26. That is a point – we’d hate for them to be some trailer trash fundy who thinks Harry Potter* is the spawn of Satan. As it is my hometown libraries have been dumbed down over the past decade or so.

    *Damn, two Potter references in the one thread.

  27. You know Hogwarts has a fantastic library – but I don’t recall a librarian character in any of the books. Now Unseen University, on the other hand…

  28. I often wonder if Japanese students in a Japanese library are the same as abroad? May sound like a stupid question, but they really stand out in the US and UK. They seem to relish the lack of foreigners braying and eating to have a personal Zen moment in a building where both braying and eating are forbidden 😉

    Things that are 100% consistent in my experience:
    – usually sitting quietly on their own
    – the girls often sitting 正座  style on the chairs
    – a portable digital translator (rarely a laptop)
    – straight shoulders, even when leaning forward on elbows intently
    – no unnecessary clutter or untidiness on the desk
    – no fidgeting whatsoever, even the pencil/pen is held perfectly still when not writing
    – shoes sometimes removed and tucked neatly under desk (especially girls)
    – literally oblivious to the world around them (I once purposely left my kanji SRS open on my acer to try and attract an adorable girl in flowery tights walking by, but to no avail)

    I just wondered if they were a bit more gregarious or if they group studied in their own country?

  29. Katie, your comment reminds me of something that I really like about Japanese libraries – they usually have different seating areas for those who are bringing in materials to study and those who want to sit and use library resources. It makes things much easier for researchers.

    As for how the kids behave – keep in mind that most of the Japanese that you see abroad will be college age or older and thus more likely to have their stuff together. Most of the Japanese studying in public libraries in Japan will be middle and high school students so you get a mixed bag of serious study and equally serious jackassery. Most will still have a loads of different pens, however.

  30. “I don’t recall a librarian character in any of the books.”

    Oh, she features all right. The cliched “dragon lady” librarian. Madam Irma Pince.
    “A warning: If you rip, tear, shred, bend, fold, deface, disfigure, smear, smudge, throw, drop, or in any other manner damage, mistreat, or show lack of respect towards this book, the consequences will be as awful as it it within my power to make them.”
    — Irma Pince, written inside a library book

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