Readers, local governments increasingly turn to e-libraries

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The website for the Chiyoda Web Library, through which people can borrow e-books

Many public libraries are trying out electronic library services, such as lending electronic books, amid the pandemic.

As of April 2021, such services were offered by 205 local governments, more than double the number a year earlier. E-libraries are taking root in local communities, helping to maintain the reading habits of people who have been unable to go to the library.

Help from special grants

E-library services let a user borrow e-books by accessing the library via their computer or smartphone. TRC Library Service Inc., which provides many local governments with such services, has a collection of about 87,000 e-books in Japanese.

In fiscal 2020, a total of 111 local governments adopted e-library services, according to the Association for E-publishing Business Solution, a general incorporated association comprising companies engaged in the e-book business.

“Last year, when a state of emergency was declared for the first time amid the coronavirus pandemic, many libraries suspended operations,” an official from the association said. “The rise in [e-library services] stems largely from the public’s attention being drawn to such services, through which people can borrow e-books from home or elsewhere.”

Local governments’ ability to use the “regional revitalization special grant” to introduce e-library services has also helped them spread, the association said. The central government awarded the grants to local governments to help them cope with the pandemic.

Borrowing nearly triples

More and more e-books are also being lent out. The Chiyoda Public Library run by the Chiyoda Ward Office in Tokyo opened an e-library called the Chiyoda Web Library, ahead of other libraries in the country to lend e-books. The e-library lent 4,625 titles in April and May last year, when the library temporarily closed under the state of emergency — up from about 1,000 a year earlier.

The Chiyoda Public Library, which started an e-book lending service in 2007, lent out 20,095 e-books last year, about 2.7 times the number in the preceding year.

Unlike paper books, use of the web library run by the Chiyoda Ward Office is limited to people living, working or attending school in the ward. Last spring when many educational institutions were temporarily closed, there was increased borrowing of illustrated books aimed at children, including preschoolers. Textbooks for learning foreign languages, with listening comprehension functions attached, are also popular, according to the library.

Many users say being able to enlarge the text of books is convenient or that they appreciate not having to lug heavy books to and from home.

“Providing people, including the elderly and the visually impaired, with a venue for reading books is the job of a public library,” said an official at the Chiyoda Public Library. “Services like e-libraries can help libraries expand what they can do.”

Hurdles remain, however. A survey by the Association for E-publishing Business Solution of local governments revealed such issues as not liking the titles available through an e-library service, or a village having a limited budget.

“If libraries show their users a hybrid way of reading books — in which people can enjoy reading both e-books and paper books — the uses of a library will expand,” said Senshu University Prof. Yashio Uemura, a scholar on publishing. “It will also lead to renewed appreciation for libraries’ original purpose and importance in providing users with reliable information.”