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Book sterilizer machines, e-books at hit at libraries in Japan amid pandemic

This photo shows a book sterilizer machine installed at Fukuoka Prefectural Library in Fukuoka's Higashi Ward on Feb. 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Kimiya Tanabe)

FUKUOKA -- An increasing number of public libraries in Japan are introducing book sterilizer machines and e-books amid the prolonged coronavirus pandemic -- moves that some hope will encourage reading and boost library visits.

    At Fukuoka Prefectural Library in the southwestern Japan city of Fukuoka, books were seen standing inside a device resembling a microwave oven. When a staffer pushed a start button, a blue light shined inside. The device is a book sterilizer machine that applies ultraviolet light and a deodorizing antimicrobial agent to books and blows away particles such as dust between the pages. It is self-service and can disinfect up to six books at a time in about 30 seconds. A person in charge commented, "We'd like to recommend this to those who are concerned about viruses."

    The prefectural library temporarily closed between Feb. 28 and May 18 last year, when the "first wave" of the coronavirus spread. When it reopened, it took thorough measures to prevent infections, including installing a thermographic camera that measures visitors' temperatures, making antiseptic solutions available and limiting visitors' time in the library to two hours or less. Even so, there were users who remained concerned about touching books handled by others, so this past January the library introduced four sterilizer machines each costing about 900,000 yen (about $8,300).

    One woman in her 60s who lives in the city's Higashi Ward said she had been wiping borrowed books with alcohol antiseptics before. She was pleased about the library's decision, saying, "I can borrow books with more peace of mind as it has sterilizer machines."

    Libraries installing book sterilizer machines have spread nationwide. TRC Library Service Inc., headquartered in Tokyo, which sells sterilizer machines to libraries for 690,000 yen to 890,000 yen apiece, sold 945 machines between April 2020 and January 2021 -- 4.7 times the number sold in the previous seven years. Another Tokyo-based company, Kihara Corp., which sells library equipment and developed a book sterilizer machine about 10 years ago, has installed its machines in some 1,000 locations. More than 80% of them were apparently installed after March 2020, when the coronavirus began to spread.

    This screenshot shows the website of Kumamoto City Library's e-library page.

    Besides sterilizing machines, "e-libraries," which lend e-books online, have been on the rise. Kumamoto City Library in the southwestern Japan city of Kumamoto launched its e-library service in November 2019, when it renewed its system, enabling people to read books on devices such as computers and smartphones without physically visiting the library. Between the system's launch in November 2019 and March 2020, an average of 1,983 people used the service each month. But the number of users surged after the start of the pandemic, increasing 3.3 times to 6,579 between April and December 2020.

    The library's director, Michio Sakamoto, 57, explained, "It's largely attributable to the fact that we enabled municipal elementary and junior high school library cards to be used at the city library in May 2020, when schools were temporarily closed due to the coronavirus." While the library has more than 17,000 e-books, it intends to further expand its collection for pupils, including pictorial e-books.

    According to the Association for E-publishing Business Solution, a general incorporated association based in Tokyo, an e-library system was introduced by the capital's Chiyoda Ward in 2007, and by 2017 such systems had spread to 70 local bodies across the nation. Though some local bodies such as the Yamaguchi Prefecture city of Shimonoseki and the Saga Prefecture city of Takeo halted their e-library systems due to low usage, 53 local bodies launched e-libraries in 2020, and another 33 had introduced them this year as of March 2, increasing the total number to about 170 nationwide. The spread of the coronavirus has played a part in this.

    Nobuhisa Wakayama, 59, operation division chief at Fukuoka City Public Library, which started lending some 7,000 e-books on March 3, holds hope for the future of e-libraries.

    "There's merit in that people refraining from going out can borrow books without visiting libraries. As they can enjoy books at home, I hope this will eventually encourage them to visit libraries," he said.

    When it comes to preventing infections, Setsuo Shinno, 70, head of the material preservation committee at the Japan Library Association, a public interest incorporated foundation based in Tokyo, emphasized the importance of general infection prevention measures such as washing and disinfecting hands. He added it is effective to leave books for a certain period after they are returned. He additionally cautioned, "There are materials at libraries that need to be preserved for many years. I don't deny sterilizer machines, but I want people to use them properly because ultraviolet light deteriorates paper."

    Takenori Noguchi, a professor at Senshu University whose specialty is library and information science, commented, "Introducing sterilizer machines to eliminate users' concerns is understandable." But he added, "An excessive response is not necessary because there have been no cases in which the coronavirus has spread via library books."

    As for e-libraries, Noguchi welcomed their widespread introduction amid the pandemic, saying, "They have the potential to draw in a new demographic group whose members have seldom been to libraries, such as young people and those who have been busy working."

    (Japanese original by Yumiko Tani and Azusa Yamazaki, Kyushu News Department)

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