New Libraries Offer Boost to Withering Downtowns; Fifth of Municipalities without Any Library

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Miyakonojo City Library is housed in a renovated department store, in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki Prefecture, on Feb. 14.

Local governments are turning more and more to public libraries as they try to revive the hollowed-out downtowns of regional cities.

By providing space for quiet reading, while also offering conversation spaces and cafes, these libraries are now evolving into places of social exchange.

Meanwhile, more than 20% of cities, towns and villages across the country do not have libraries, creating a gap in book access.

Department store renovation

At the Miyakonojo City Library in Miyazaki Prefecture, students chat and read magazines with drinks in hand as bright, bouncy piano music plays in the background and natural light streams into the atrium.

On the second floor, some elderly people sit on couches, relax and talk.

This library prioritizes comfort and does not ask visitors to stay quiet.

The three-story library is housed in a building once occupied by Miyakonojo Daimaru, a department store that went bankrupt in 2011.

When the city and the local business community were discussing how to use the site, there was a proposal to turn it into another department store, but the city decided its aging library could use the building, and after renovations, the new library opened in 2018.

“I thought that even if we established a commercial facility there, it would have been difficult to keep it going in Miyakonojo, which has a population of around 160,000,” Mayor Takahisa Ikeda said. “I wanted to make it a library, a place for residents to relax.”

The library has kept the atrium as it was in the department store. There are few walls, and the bookshelves are spaciously arranged. Visitors can choose from a collection of about 530,000 books.

There is also a cafe, a space for teenagers and a children’s playground. There’s even a supermarket in the next building.

When the library was being planned, the city expected 270,000 visits a year. However, the six years through February of this year brought more than triple that number for a total of about 5.55 million visits.

The library has become a wellspring of vitality for the district, where many shops had shuttered, and about 40 new restaurants and other stores have opened in the surrounding area to cater to the library’s visitors.

“I hope the library will become the nucleus of an even more vibrant town,” said a 44-year-old owner of a clothing boutique.

Cure for urban decay

A number of public libraries were built in the 1970s. When their rebuilding came due in the 2010s, many were relocated to city centers as municipalities sought to use libraries as a cure-all for hollowed-out downtowns.

In 2022, the central municipal library for Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture, with a population of around 100,000, moved to a new location in front of Sakata Station, where a supermarket had closed in 1997.

The city positioned the new library as the core of a redevelopment project that had stagnated for more than 20 years. It also developed a tourist information center, a hotel and an apartment block as part of the redevelopment project.

The library has now increased the number of books on shelves by 60% and its number of seats by more than 200%, making it a place where people can come and interact. There were more than 480,000 visits to the library in fiscal 2022.

Niigata Prefecture’s city of Nagaoka, home to around 260,000 people, also moved its municipal library in summer last year to the site of a former department store, a five-minute walk from Nagaoka Station.

The library is now housed in a 10-story building as the centerpiece of a redevelopment project.

“The flow of people, which tended to stay in front of the station, has spread to the surrounding area,” said a city government official.

Disadvantaged towns

Municipalities are not required to have libraries. The education ministry has issued a notice that simply says “municipalities shall make efforts to establish libraries.”

According to the Japan Library Association, there were 3,287 public libraries in the country as of April 2022. However, only 78% of municipalities had libraries this fiscal year, with 71 municipalities in Hokkaido and 13 in Chiba Prefecture having no libraries.

“Residents often ask [for libraries], but budgets are limited and priority has been given to things like the earthquake resistance of schools,” said an official of a local government in the Kanto region that has no library.

There is other worrisome data for public libraries. Their expenditures on books, newspapers and other materials are on the decline.

According to the association, average spending on materials per library in fiscal 2020 came to ¥8.61 million, down about 40% from 20 years ago.

“Sufficient funds must be secured to purchase materials so that reading can be promoted among residents so libraries, the foundation of the right to knowledge, can be improved,” said Sadao Uematsu, professor emeritus at Tsukuba University and chairman of the board of directors for the association.

“Libraries are being asked to take on more diverse roles. I hope local governments will grasp the needs of residents and consider measures to use libraries as facilities that also serve to promote the community and culture.”