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New libraries boost withering downtown areas

                                The Miyakonojo City Library is housed in a renovated department store in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki prefecture.
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The Miyakonojo City Library is housed in a renovated department store in Miyakonojo, Miyazaki prefecture.

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

By providing areas for not only quiet reading, but also conversation spaces and cafes, these libraries are now evolving into places of social exchange.

Currently, more than 20% of cities, towns and villages do not have libraries, and that creates a gap in access to books.

Department store renovation

At the Miyakonojo City Library in Miyazaki prefecture, students sip on drinks as they chat and read magazines while lively piano music plays in the background and natural light streams into the atrium.

On the second floor, older adults relax on couches and talk.

This library prioritizes comfort rather than silence.

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

When Miyakonojo and its local business community discussed 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 facility 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,” said Mayor Takahisa Ikeda. “I wanted to make it a library, a place for residents to relax.”

The building’s new design kept the former department store’s atrium. There are few walls, and bookshelves are spaciously arranged. Visitors can peruse a collection of about 530,000 books.

There is also a cafe, a space for teenagers and a children’s playground.

When the library was being planned, the city expected 270,000 visits a year. However, in the past six years more than triple that number walked through the library’s doors, for a total of about 5.55 million visits.

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

Cure for urban decay

A number of public libraries were built in Japan in the 1970s. When it was time for rebuilding them in the 2010s, many were relocated to city centers in the hope they could revitalize downtown areas.

In 2022 the central 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 project.

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

Niigata prefecture’s city of Nagaoka, home to about 260,000 people, also moved its library last summer, 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 Nagaoka official.

Disadvantaged towns

Municipalities are not required to have libraries. Japan’s education ministry has issued a notice that simply says, “Municipalities shall make efforts to establish libraries.”

According to the Japan Library Association, as of April 2022 there were 3,287 public libraries in the country, dispersed among 78% of municipalities. But 71 municipalities in Hokkaido and 13 in Chiba prefecture have no libraries.

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

Other worrisome data for public libraries: Expenditures on books, newspapers and other material are on the decline.

According to the association, average spending per library in fiscal 2020 was about $55,340, down about 40% from 20 years ago.

“Sufficient funds must be secured to purchase material so that reading can be promoted among residents so libraries, the foundation of the right to knowledge, can be improved,” said Sadao Uematsu, chairman of the library association’s board of directors.

“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.”

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