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Virus-led library closures a calamity for Japan univ. students, researchers: survey

The National Diet Library is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward in this November 2018 file photo. (Mainichi/Koichi Yamashita)

TOKYO -- The vast majority of Japanese university students and teaching staff in a recent survey said they are having trouble doing their research because of library closures due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, with some students even saying they will not be able to finish their final year theses on time.

University and reference libraries including the National Diet Library have been shuttered to help prevent transmission of the coronavirus. But this has left especially humanities students and lecturers without access to much of their research material.

According to the April 17-30 online survey by the group Toshokan Kyukan Taisaku Project (closed library countermeasures project), the closures were "severely impacting" the work of 57.5% of the 2,519 respondents, comprising both students and researchers. Added to the 37% who said their work had been "somewhat affected," more than 90% of the respondents revealed they were having at least some trouble due to the shuttered libraries. Furthermore, 70% of the 760 student respondents who have to submit their graduation, master's or doctoral thesis this academic year said the lack of access to written materials meant they would not be able to finish on time.

Humanities and social sciences majors and specialists made up 85% of respondents. Natural sciences journals tend to be available in electronic form, but texts required for humanities research are often unavailable online, meaning a likely larger hit for those study areas.

"I was surprised as the number of people who feel a strong sense of crisis was greater than I had expected," said Japan Society for the Promotion of Science specially appointed researcher Mugiho Maeda, who launched the closed libraries countermeasures group. She added, "I would like to see institutions expand their online services and other measures while placing top priority on prevention measures for library staff."

Putting resources online was one of the respondents' ardent requests, including the more than 70% who wanted libraries to make digital materials currently only accessible from inside libraries available from outside the facilities as well.

Meanwhile, about 40% of the pollees were using the National Diet Library regularly. However, the library is closed until at least May 20, and has also suspended its distance services, in which it would provide copies of documents to users without them actually coming to its building in Tokyo.

The education ministry has sent a notice to all universities across Japan asking them to be flexible in how they award academic degrees during the coronavirus crisis. However, adapting the ministry policies appears likely to be difficult for the schools, as their students' circumstances while campuses remain closed can vary widely.

(Japanese original by Tomohiro Ikeda, Science & Environment News Department)

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