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Stay-at-home lifestyle amid pandemic boosts northern Japan's e-libraries

This photo shows a person browsing Abashiri City Digital Library's website in Abashiri, Hokkaido, on March 16, 2021. More than 900 people registered to use the library in the first three months after its launch. (Mainichi/Takeshi Honda)

SAPPORO -- The stay-at-home lifestyle necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic is boosting traffic numbers at e-libraries operated by local governments in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.

    The ratio of e-books among all loans by the city of Abashiri library grew to some 10% in three months after it launched the service last December. In some municipalities, e-book loan numbers doubled compared to the previous fiscal year.

    Abashiri City Library advertises its e-library with the slogan: "24 hours a day, 365 days a year, read books anywhere." A library representative said, "Picture books to read to children seem popular among mothers, and 'Aozora Bunko' (a Japanese digital library similar to Project Gutenberg), which catalogues classic books, appears to be a hit among the elderly."

    The library started the e-library service on Dec. 15, 2020 with about 2,000 e-books, increasing that to some 3,000 volumes in three months. As of March 6 this year, 905 people had registered to borrow the e-books, with loans reaching 2,340. That makes up a little less than 10% of the library's usual loan number, which clocks in at about 10,000 per month.

    December was when a third wave of coronavirus infections hit Hokkaido, prompting people to stay inside. This, in turn, is suspected of boosting interest in e-libraries. The trend appears especially strong among stay-at-home moms, who have few chances to go out, and corporate salarymen, who find it hard to get to libraries during the day.

    According to the Association for E-publishing Business Solution, as of January e-libraries had been instituted by 143 local governments across Japan, including five municipalities in Hokkaido. The city of Noboribetsu also introduced an e-library in March, and the city of Obihiro launched one on April 1 with one of the largest stocks of e-books in the prefecture.

    The numbers of library users have grown in Hokkaido municipalities other than Abashiri, as well. In the city of Kitami, registered users almost doubled from 1,055 at the end of March 2020 to 1,906 by the end of February 2021. The number of lent books grew 2.3 times. In Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital, the number of e-books lent between March and May last year, when libraries were temporarily closed, was over twice that in the same period the previous year, and the number has remained 30% to 50% higher each month compared to the previous year.

    When Tomakomai City Library simplified its e-book borrowing procedures last June, such as allowing users to set passwords without physically visiting the library, the number of e-book loans surged from 26 in June 2019 to 207 in the same month the following year.

    The merits of e-libraries for local governments include not needing a physical space to store books and being able to save on acquisition costs if they use free Aozora Bunko e-books, whose copyrights have expired. Some libraries are introducing unique services to lure in readers, such as the town of Teshio's tie-up with a U.S. e-library service to enrich its English-language offerings, and Sapporo's feature e-books on particular topics including "armchair travel."

    "The genres that saw more e-book loans, such as computers and cooking, precisely reflect stay-at-home demand," said Takao Asano, the chief of the circulation service division at Sapporo Municipal Central Library, an e-library book pioneer in Hokkaido. "I think the coronavirus caused many people to notice the merit of e-books, which you can read even when you're on the go."

    A Kitami City Public Library representative commented, "E-books not only allow readers to avoid the three Cs (confined spaces, crowded places and close contact), they have features that print books don't have, such as an audio function and moving pictures. I want people to experience them."

    (Japanese original by Takeshi Honda and Mitsuko Imai, Hokkaido News Department)

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