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ARLGS Committee Member’s ‘Honeymoon’ visit to two Japanese University Libraries

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The ARLGS Web Editor, Lynsey Sampson, visited two Japanese University Libraries whilst on Honeymoon last May (2018) for her Library Chartership. Here she reflects on her visits:


Japan University Library Visits, May 2018

Lynsey Sampson, University of Strathclyde


The ‘Librarian’ in me could not resist organising two university library visits whilst my Husband and I were on Honeymoon in Japan last May. I felt it would really add an extra element and insight into visiting international libraries, especially when I would be able to draw on academic library comparisons from my visits and reflect on my own workplace. After emailing a succession of Japanese academic libraries, I was lucky enough to have two who responded to me and who were also based not far away from the areas we would be staying in, Keio University Library in Tokyo and Kyoto University Library in Kyoto. Both visits involved tours and meetings with members of the library staff.

Visiting Keio University Library

On the day of my visit to the first academic library, Keio University Library, I felt strange carrying out work during my Honeymoon but simultaneously it also felt like more of an adventure, going the ‘extra mile’ as part of my chartership. We arrived with time to spare, so both my Husband and I sat outside the library building whilst I made a few notes of questions and points to raise prior to the meeting. We also used the opportunity to take a few pictures of myself posing outside the library building. It was surprising, even before we entered, how similar the outside building’s brick work was to my own workplace. This was also true of Kyoto University Library too.

Initial Impressions of Keio University Library

Inside we were met by two members of senior staff, who welcomed us and showed us upstairs to a board meeting room. We were then joined by the most senior member of staff, the equivalent of a University Librarian here in the UK, and all three staff members promptly made a display of handing over their business cards to us prior to our discussions. It was interesting to be part of a cultural difference – the ritual of handing over business cards is seen as very important in Japan – even before our discussions and tour had begun! Prior to the discussions I was asked to speak slowly and I was glad that they had requested this as quite often I find myself, out of sheer nervousness, automatically talking at a faster rate than usual when in new situations which are often daunting. Being in Japan, in a Japanese library, engaging with like-minded information professionals from the other side of the world was certainly a new situation!

I was amazed at the sheer size of the university campus – 6 campuses throughout Tokyo – especially the ‘library’ given that it is made up of 6 university libraries, with the library I was visiting – known as ‘The new building’ – being one of three buildings on the Mita Campus known as ‘Mita Media Center’. I was glad to be visiting this particular library building, ‘The new building’, as it specialises in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, an area which interests me.

Discussions with Keio University Library Staff

Discussions commenced and I was soon learning that despite the culture, there were remarkable similarities between Japanese University Libraries and my own workplace. Keio operates a closed access policy like Strathclyde, with visitors requiring a recommendation letter. I can understand this, because like Strathclyde University Library, Keio has a large student population of 36,000, half of which are studying at the Mita campus meaning priority is given to those affiliated library users. However they do accommodate a large Alumni population with a walk-in PC using login details that time out after a certain period for this purpose, closely resembling the procedure at Strathclyde University Library. I was intrigued by the naming of the three library buildings on this particular site as ‘Mita Media Center’ so I posed this question. The answer – the library contains media resources in addition to print books meaning it cannot be called a library as the Japanese word for ‘Library’ means ‘book library building’ – made sense to me as I had begun to understand Japan’s cultural tendency towards being ‘literal’.

Tour of Keio University Library

I was surprised at how big this particular building was; I had felt we had covered all areas after walking down through the 5 levels open to library users but was amazed to discover the sheer enormity of the book collection which was housed in a further 5 levels within the basement. I was surprised that there appeared to be very little signage throughout the library. I felt it was interesting that the noise adherence on each of the 5 levels appeared to be tacitly respected at all times; with some areas not only being ‘quiet’ but ‘absolutely silent’ as even calculators and laptops were not allowed in some rooms due to the keys making too much noise. This actually seems strange given that the definition of ‘quiet’ in my workplace has a silent level 1 area that offers plug points on desks encouraging the use of devices. At Strathclyde we have colour coding on each library level which equates to the noise levels that should be followed as well as signage that reiterates this. We also have library users contacting us in order to resolve noise issues on silent floors; we even have a ‘noise reporting’ facility available on the Strathclyde mobile app for this purpose. Priority at Keio also seems to be for independent study rather than group study areas, with the presence of three single use rooms and only one multi-purpose room. However, through discussions, this appears to be changing after gaining feedback from students in a library survey. This made me think of how we enhance our services in line with student feedback.

Walking throughout the floors I was shown the locations of resources; books are arranged multilingually by subject, and the system used to categorise these is known as the Nippon Decimal Classification system (NDC). I was informed that this was similar to the Dewey Decimal Classification system used in academic libraries throughout the UK. It was interesting to note these similarities as the second university library which I subsequently visited did not follow the widely used and more simplified Japanese classification system, instead using a rarer version called the ‘National Diet Library’ (NDC).

Visiting Kyoto University Library

Initial Impressions of Kyoto University Library

Arriving at Kyoto University Library a week later, the second oldest research university and third largest library in Japan, I was greeted by the Librarian from the User Support division at the welcome gates. I was impressed with her grasp of the English language as I came to realise on Honeymoon that many Japanese people speak little English, if at all. Again, I was taken aback that as well as the main library that I was currently visiting, Kyoto had an additional 50 libraries! Although, the term library in this sense in some cases refers to a small reading room within a department.

Tour of Kyoto University Library

She immediately took us on a tour of the library. I was impressed in this library’s recently added ‘Learning Commons’ area located on the entrance floor, which consisted of movable, soft furnishings and sectioned off areas – ‘maker spaces’ – complete with whiteboards, to promote and facilitate group discussion and collaboration. To complete the set-up, a learning support desk offering guidance and ‘mini lectures’ from graduate students to aid learning and research. Having graduates who speak at least two languages working at the learning support desk seems like a remarkably simple but effective idea to enable a peer support system as well as integrating international students much more into the student community. I felt the learning commons area bore remarkable similarities to the whole of level two within Strathclyde, a space purely for group work. It did seem to me that Kyoto University Library had, in comparison to Keio, progressed further in terms of library spaces for discussion. Like us, they have group discussion rooms (5 in total of different sizes) which can be booked online. However, this system has not yet reached the online compatibility of smart phones with the Librarian admitting that the system is somewhat temperamental. This explains why they still have traditional keys for the rooms. In contrast, many of our students are using the Strathclyde mobile app as it has group discussion room booking options.

We were informed that the third floor is the designated area for students to bring their own devices to the library as this is where there are an array of desks with plug points available for this purpose. This is to support the library’s ‘bring your own device policy’, encouraging students to bring their own laptops. There are few computer facilities within the library for students to use as a result of this policy and after probing further I found out that students are generally funded by their parents to attend university, therefore there may be an assumption that they can afford to purchase a laptop. The fact that in both Japanese university libraries, there was a separate ‘computer centre’ building to the library building for students to seek IT support for issues such as connecting to the university Wi-Fi network, supports the position of students using their own devices. This is in stark contrast to Strathclyde University Library with over 600 computers available for student use. Other universities throughout the UK have adopted a ‘laptop loan’ initiative, enabling students to borrow a laptop whilst in the library thereby providing more flexibility to studying. The two Japanese University Libraries do not offer this, which I feel would be a good option for those who are on scholarships and cannot afford to purchase a device themselves. I have my reservations on how effective a laptop loan scheme would work for Strathclyde University Library as we do see many students using their own devices and for those who do not, our computer facilities seem to be adequate. However, I feel looking at increasing the plug point accessibility would provide our students with the flexibility in their study environment.

Impressions on both Japanese Universities in comparison to my own workplace

My impressions on both university libraries were quite different to my expectations prior to my visit; I was surprised at how both libraries seemed quite traditional in the library spaces which they offered, with more emphasis on individual quiet study space. I felt the separation between the library and IT support, accentuated my perception, with more of a ‘book’ presence and less focus on space. However, I countered, this could be largely due to the fact that on both visits I was informed the translation of Japanese print books to e-books is not currently easy to do. From further probing, I summarised it was difficult to transfer the Japanese language to digitised format and Japanese publishers currently see e-resources as less of a priority. A major consequence of this is the accumulation of print books and the space restrictions to accommodate them. Despite this challenge faced by both libraries, I really enjoyed seeing many more rows of books in comparison to my own workplace and it made me feel sad that Strathclyde University Library has a receding physical book collection. I also found that my own workplace is attracting and meeting a wider demographic of students both in terms of distance learning and at different life stages. For both Japanese university libraries, there was less importance placed upon encouraging ‘learning in later life’ and attracting mature students as there is less engagement in educational learning compared to here in the UK.

Despite the importance on a work ethos in Japanese culture, I felt that there seems to be less importance placed on higher education in comparison to UK society. I arrived at this conclusion due to what I perceived as library accessibility being more restricted in the Japanese universities; both libraries which I visited had opening hours that did not appear to offer wider accessibility, such as 24 hour opening, which is offered at Strathclyde during exams, at certain periods throughout the semester to reflect exams or assignment deadlines. Although I feel the reason for this may be because the Japanese higher education system places more emphasis on the attainment of exams rather than the submission of assignments with less importance on students being required to read widely. In this sense, I reflected, quiet space to study and availability of the reading material within the library appears to be the priority. Despite this, staff at Keio University Library explained that they accommodate distance learning students by arranging ‘library skills sessions’ run by Reference Librarians primarily for these students in the evenings. Keio also have ‘libguides’, online reference guides on topics such as how to search for resources which is similar to the libguides offered online to Strathclyde students thereby permitting ‘accessibility’ outside of the library building.

Keio University Library provides a novel way of ensuring accessibility of core reading material during in demand periods, through their ‘course reserve book’ scheme. This is essentially core reading material that is ‘reference only’ housed in a certain location within the library for easy accessibility for photocopying and note-taking by students. I wondered whether this would be ideal in our library as we often find there is a demand for certain core books on the reading list, with many taking the short loan copies out for longer periods than permitted and accruing high fines. This results in others not having the books to be able to refer to within the library. If there were more copies as purely reference, this would ensure there was always core reading material available. Loan periods for both Japanese University Libraries for borrowing books were different according to the patron group which is similar to my own workplace. However, in Keio, I was surprised that academic staff have no restrictions upon the number of times they can renew books, meaning they could effectively keep the book indefinitely causing difficulty for others to borrow.

I found it remarkable how both Japanese libraries were alike in the physical layout as well as the systems and processes in place. A challenge which they both faced was working within the library budget, in terms of resources such as staffing and e-journals. This is possibly why Keio University Library cited the staff rotation scheme, allowing staff to move between library departments and become much more multi-skilled. This seems to me to be a positive work around for not replacing staff as each department can draw on staff during peak periods. I feel this could be something that we could do at Strathclyde, as staff currently do not move between departments therefore are not learning transferrable skills as their job role prescribes them to stay within their specific section.

Final Reflections of both Visits

Overall, I was impressed by the ethos of both libraries; there was an understanding from both that reviewing processes and establishing new ways of working was key to establishing themselves in an international academic environment. Both Japanese University Libraries appeared to be keen to learn from other libraries through relationships and training programmes overseas helping to maintain their reputation within the higher education establishment and secure grants. Personally, I feel that if key staff members from these Japanese University Libraries visited Libraries here in the UK, such as Strathclyde, this would be beneficial for them in learning how to further modernise their learning environment. I really enjoyed my international visits and it made me constantly reflect on the comparisons and similarities throughout, and how these can be used as a learning tool.



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