Libraries have been forced to close temporarily in many areas of Japan due to the spread of infections of the novel coronavirus, as they are places where many people gather. The situation has surely inconvenienced many people in their studies, research and jobs. Even since the reopening of many facilities, various restrictions remain in place.
Under the state of emergency declared by the Japanese government earlier this year, closures spread to libraries nationwide. According to a project by volunteers supporting museums and book centers, when a survey was carried out at the beginning of May, 92% of 1,692 public libraries run by local bodies and other such operators across the country were closed at the time.
Since the state of emergency was lifted, most libraries have reopened, but based on virus prevention guidelines, people’s time inside them is restricted, with some allowing people to remain only for an hour, and others for just 30 minutes. Some have also taken such measures as removing half of their seats as a physical distancing measure.
At the same time, various efforts have been made during library closures to ensure that people don’t become out of touch with books.
In areas including the town of Kadena in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, open-air libraries have opened. Librarians have also delivered books to people’s homes, while some libraries have offered drive-thru loans. Book-delivery services are no doubt helpful for the elderly and others who face mobility difficulties even in the absence of an outbreak of the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, digital book loans have also been gaining attention following the increase of such titles at public libraries from the mid-2000s. These come with added benefits such as automatic text-to-speech functions for the visually impaired.
According to Japan’s Association for E-publishing Business Solution, a total of 100 local bodies had introduced such services as of July this year, while some 30 others are preparing to do so in light of the prolonged battle against the coronavirus.
There remain outstanding issues such as boosting the number of titles and familiarizing users with these new functions, but people can use such services that do not involve contact with others with a sense of security. Encouraging people to do so is surely one way to increase their contact with books.
When it comes to virus prevention measures, debate has arisen over whether institutions should be collecting people’s names and contact addresses when they enter the facilities. Libraries are places that anyone should be able to use freely.
Institutions must strive to avoid creating psychological hurdles for users. They need to create rules on how long they will keep the information and utilize such systems with care.
Libraries are part of the regional infrastructure of knowledge, and serve as a hub for the community. The question is how the facilities can deliver books to people who want to read them while enhancing measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. We hope to see a new page of efforts in this sphere.