Computer Use in Libraries in Japan

Historical background on technological implementations in public libraries in Japan

The Situation in 1998

A survey done by the Japanese Ministry of Education in August 1998 (1) found that computers could be found in 98.3% of prefectural libraries (average of 27 per library), in 90.4% of city libraries (10.7), and 77.5% of libraries in towns and villages (3.9). However the vast majority of these computers were being used by the library staff and were not available for public use. The computers were being used for managing circulation, acquisitions, and organizing and searching the collection. The majority of prefectural libraries had collections that could be searched by OPAC, but some were still using CD-ROMs. For city libraries, the trend was reversed with most of them still using CD-ROMs.

The computers that were available to the public were mainly being used to search the OPAC. In libraries in towns and villages at this time, there was not even an average of one computer available to users. On average, 3.5% of public libraries provided users with access to computers that were connected to the internet.
The number of libraries that provided access to subscription databases was still very low at this time. A very limited number of libraries that offered subscription databases charged patrons for this service.

At that time, 21.7% of prefectural libraries, 4.7% of city libraries and 0.5% of libraries in towns and villages maintained websites where users could search their collections online.

In order to keep up with the changes in library services, 56.6% of prefectural libraries, 31% of city libraries, and 18.3% of libraries in towns and villages provided some form of professional development for their librarians.

To summarize, libraries at this time had started to make technical advances, but there were still many that were not using online technologies as a part of their services.

The Situation in 2002

A report by the National Association of Public Libraries (NAPL) published in March 2002 (2) found that 80% of public libraries had some sort of computer system in place. The NAPL report mentions another report published by the Japan Library Association which found that 55% of public libraries had computers in 1993 and 70% had them by 1999, so some progress had been made by this point.

However, while the average number of computers in public libraries in Japan by 2002 was 13.7 (across all kinds of public libraries), the majority, or 9.4 to be precise, were still being used by the staff. In 1993, public libraries had an average of 10 computers, with 8.5 being used by staff and in 1999, there were 13.4 computers and 10 of them were being used by staff. So it seems that by 2002, a very small gain had been made in the average number of computers per library and a small drop was made in the average number that were being used by staff. However, it should be said that these numbers are somewhat misleading because the average prefectural library had around 26 computers, while the average municipal library had somewhere between around 5 and 10. Putting all libraries together into one average distorts the data.

In 2002, 10% of public libraries did not have a computer for patrons to use to search the libraries’ OPAC. However, 79.9% had between 1 and 10 computers available for searching the OPAC from within the library. Furthermore, 22% of libraries had no computers available for patron uses other than searching the OPAC. Another 22% only had 1 computer available to patrons, while another 16.2% had only 2.

It can be seen that public libraries in Japan had still not embraced the internet at this time. Only 73.9% of libraries were connected to the internet in 2002. However, the 2000 report of the Japan Library Association stated that the figure for 1999 was around 30%, so this is actually a large increase in a short time. Of the libraries that had some way to connect to the internet, 43.4% had only 1 staff computer that could connect to the internet and 65% provided no patron computers that could connect to the internet.

A total of 96% of libraries that had an internet connection said that staff used it for library business on a regular basis. By this time, the internet was being used for acquisitions, organizing the collection, reference, and interlibrary loans.

Only 10 public libraries in all of Japan offered internet service to patrons who brought in their own computers. Only 89 libraries allowed users to print out content from the internet on library printers.

In terms of blocking undesirable sites and activities, 47.6% of libraries used some form of filtering software. Some libraries (58.8%) also placed the computers close to the circulations counter so users could be monitored that way. A few libraries (31%) had Terms of Use documents that restricted users’ activities.
In 2002, 37.1% of public libraries had websites, and a further 16.9% said they were in the process of making one. Again, while these figures are quite low, they represent a large increase from 1998 (13%) and 1999 (20%). Websites included user guides, newsletters, bulletin boards, statistics, links, OPACs, indexes, reservation systems for items in the collection, and in a very few cases, databases.

The Current Situation

It can be seen that while advances were being made by 2002, public libraries in Japan had still not embraced the full power of the digital age and the internet. While computers were being used by staff members, libraries were still not providing computers and internet access for their patrons. This is a problem that continues to exist today, with many libraries, even academic libraries, only allowing patrons to access OPAC terminals and blocking or severely restricting their access to all other internet websites.

How are computers used in cataloguing, acquisitions, reference work, circulation, ILL and for electronic services (ie. Websites, subscription databases)?


Librarians use cataloguing software to catalogue and classify new books. They also use the same software to correct entries and make sure there are no duplications in the database. They will also use the internet and other resources to check their cataloguing data. They will probably also belong to some mailing lists about cataloguing and use email to ask questions about tricky cataloguing issues.


Librarians use computers to order books online. They also can accept suggestions for acquisitions by email or through the library’s website.

Reference Work

Librarians use computers to access the library’s OPAC, subscription databases, and the internet to answer patron’s questions. Questions may come from people who are at the library, from people who are on the phone, or from people who email in questions or send them through the library’s website.


Librarians use computers to keep track of books that have been checked in and out. They also use them to register new users and keep track of overdue fines. Users can make reservations for books or other materials via computer.

Interlibrary Loans

Librarians and patrons can search for materials that are not in their local library via websites from other libraries, union catalogues, or the internet. Librarians use computers to arrange for interlibrary loans on behalf of patrons.

Electronic Services (Websites, subscription databases)

Librarians use computers to create their libraries’ websites and to access subscription databases. A library’s website might be an instrument for one-way broadcasting (from the library to the users) or it can be two-way (library to users, users to library), or completely interactive (library to users, users to library, users to users).

What are the competencies necessary for this type of work?

In order to work with computers, at the very least it is necessary to have an understanding of how word processing software works. It has become increasingly necessary for librarians to supplement that knowledge with an understanding of spreadsheets, databases, presentation software, and website design packages. Libraries that are seeking to implement Library 2.0 features need librarians who are also familiar with social media including blogging and Twittering, mashups, and chatting, and who also have an understanding of contemporary issues such as privacy and censorship.

How can library staff can keep their skills up-to-date?

Library staff can keep their skills up to date through various channels. Ideally, the library should offer professional development for its staff. When budgetary restraints make it difficult to hire trainers, the library staff should offer to train/mentor each other. Another way for librarians to be proactive about their professional competencies is to take courses at colleges and universities on topics such as library science, computer science, and business. Finally, and probably most importantly, librarians should keep themselves up-to-date by subscribing to and reading relevant journals, magazines, books, and instructional manuals.


  1. 図書館の情報化の必要性とその推進方策について-地域の情報化推進拠点として-(報告). 東京: 文部科学省, 1998.
  2. 公立図書館における電子図書館のサービスと課題に関する実態調査報告書. 東京: 全国公共図書館協議会, 2002.

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