INTERVIEW: Reconsidering the value and role of libraries in the digital age

September 08, 2013

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

The arrival of the digital age is greatly transforming libraries. Going forward, what is the exact role a library should play? What is needed to be able to make efficient use of these vast book repositories? In search of answers, The Asahi Shimbun Globe sat down and spoke with two experts in the field.

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More than 500 years have passed since Johannes Gutenberg started the printing revolution. Today, with the advent of digital technology, the dissemination of information is exploding around the globe.

In the world of the Internet, where anyone can be an originator of information, we are already saturated with an abundance of news, facts and figures. The key then is “how to combine and reuse all this accumulated information.” What is required is a method for unearthing and extracting important bits from a large quantity of accumulated information and combining them into new creations. Since ancient times, the basic system of the library, which makes a vast amount of written material easily accessible by searching an index, has served that purpose. Much more than we give it credit for, the library is still a futuristic entity.

However, problems stand in the way of the library being able to fully exhibit its potential. First, a public processing system related to copyrights and intellectual property rights is needed so material for which the owner or copyright holder is unknown can be publicly used. Second, it is necessary to train a new type of librarian who will be responsible for the digital knowledge base. As a profession, we must create an “advanced digital librarian” fully versed in information technology and intellectual property law.

When paper-based books are turned into digital media, they often blend text, video and sound. Books in the next century will probably look nothing like they do today, and the differences between museums, libraries, art museums and archives will become obscure. Information pertaining to the collected works, documents, records and books at each institution will be shared. When that happens, new value will be created via accumulating, storing, retrieving and reusing such information, and a social, institutional structure will be required.

An example of what I mean is the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake Archives that the National Diet Library is endeavoring to create. In the hope of contributing to disaster management and prevention, the archives are focused on gathering all records associated with the earthquake and creating a database that anyone will be able to search. The materials being collected range from official documents to personal websites and include sound and video along with traditional text and still images. If it is realized, the archives will probably serve as a kind of predecessor for the “library of the future.”

The European Union is already building a huge digital library, Europeana, in an attempt to unify European knowledge possessed by libraries, museums and archives across the continent.

In kanji-using cultures such as Japan, China and South Korea, there is also an accumulation of shared historical culture. It would probably be possible to build an East Asian multilingual digital library. First, however, Japan should build a “library of the future” that can serve as a model.

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Born in 1957, Yohimi is a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies. Since 2011, he has also served as one of the university’s vice presidents. His main areas of study are sociology, urban culture, media culture and cultural studies. Publications include "Toshi no Doramatorugi" (Urban Dramaturgy), "Posuto Sengo Shakai" (Post-Postwar Society) and "Shomotsu to Eizo no Mirai" (The Future of Books and Video).

(This interview was compiled by Kyoko Isa of the Culture and Lifestyle News Section.)

* * * * *


In ancient times, books were handwritten manuscripts possessed by only a very small fraction of people. With the invention of printing and the Industrial Revolution, they became widespread.

Publishing became an industry and books became commercial products. Books that sell well are thought to be good while poor-selling books are seen as being inferior. Books that don’t sell soon disappear from the market. That's the rule by which publishers make a living. But at the same time, they would like to see the publication of books stay around forever. Additionally, if so-called formal or difficult books disappear because of a lack of sales, publishing standards will fall, and the publishing industry will eventually wane.

Thus, the modern library system was born. Authors and publishers, by giving some rights to libraries, allow books that are “commercial products” to be used for free. In exchange, even if the author dies or the publishing company goes bankrupt, libraries have an obligation to try and preserve published works as “cultural or common property” for as long as possible and allow anyone the opportunity to read them free of charge. This arrangement is a contract, so to speak, between the publisher and the library. The creative activities of authors and editors are also aided by the knowledge stored in libraries. It is a system of mutual support, and the 20th century was an unprecedented golden age for books.

However, since the 1960s, due to the influence of television, recorded music and video, some people have been claiming that books won’t sell as well as they once did because people will lose interest in reading. With the advent of digital books, there have also been sensationalist reactions predicting the “death of paper books.” I, however, do not believe such a thing will take place.

A paper book, actual ink printed onto actual paper, is a material object. A digital book, data in the form of 0s and 1s that can be read by computers and information devices, is not. Paper books have an inherent presence not shared by digital books, while unlike digital books, the content of a paper book cannot be instantaneously sent to a distant location. Instead of one replacing the other, books should be thought of as existing in two formats, one that is a tangible object and one that is not.

Electronic books are still not very popular in Japan. They have yet to establish themselves as viable “commercial products.” Libraries are still at the stage of considering whether or not to store digital books as “community property that is not commercial product.” It is necessary to wait a little longer to see how things will turn out. That aside, whether or not modern libraries will be able to firmly maintain their foundational principle of lending out books for free as community property is also a question that needs to be answered. Unless both the users and the people operating the libraries conscientiously maintain a careful awareness of this point, a successful outcome will not be realized. Within the flow of administrative reform, whether or not libraries will be able to continue to lend books for free is something that is more worrying.

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Born in 1938, Tsuno has served as an editor for Shobunsha Publications, a producer for the Black Tent theatrical company, editor in chief for the quarterly magazine Book and Computer, a professor at the Faculty of Representational Studies at Wako University and also its chief librarian. He has written numerous books, including "Hon wa Dono Yo ni Kieteyuku no ka" (In What Way Will Books Vanish) and "Denshi Bon wo Baka ni Surunakare" (Do Not Trivialize Digital Books). In 2003, he won the Nitta Jiro Literary Prize for "Kokkei na Kyojin, Tsubouchi Shouyou no Yume" (Funny Giant, Tsubouchi Syoyu’s Dream).

(This interview was compiled by Atsuo Hirata of GLOBE)

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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Shunya Yoshimi (Photo by Kyoko Isa)

Shunya Yoshimi (Photo by Kyoko Isa)

  • Shunya Yoshimi (Photo by Kyoko Isa)
  • Kaitaro Tsuno (Photo by Atsuo Hirata)

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