Category Archives: public libraries

kawasaki reading room ・はじめに

I finally got a chance to visit the Kawasaki Reading Room at the new Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center here at UNL. With it being summer, full of international travel (for those of us in Japan studies especially) and family events, it took me a while to get an introduction to the center.

The reading room is unique in the Asian-language libraries that I’ve visited here in the U.S. It’s not part of the UNL library system, and yet it is. The collection was started by a large donation from one individual – with diverse interests, let’s put it that way – but is now kept going by additional donations from all over. The collection is eclectic: zenshu of canonical literature; dictionaries and reference books; Japanese language test prep materials; a wall of manga; and a growing collection of tapes and DVDs of all kinds. (Death Note and Nobody Knows on the same shelf!)

As I type, the Kawasaki Reading Room’s collection is continuing to be integrated into the UNL library system, but much of it is not. Other shelves have handwritten “not for cataloging” signs on them. It’s a place in flux. And the library’s own relationship to it is hard to explain. It’s a “partner” but not “part of.” There are limitations on what kind of obligation that relationship can entail. It’s an opportunity for me, new librarian, to be learning about the complex realities of campus units and their varying degrees of integration with the central library system.

The Reading Room sadly has limited hours, but it’s welcoming and friendly. It may be small but that cozy space gives a sense of informality, where one can feel at home right away. When I visited I spent most of my time chatting with the director, Reiko Harpending, who was kind enough to give me a personal tour. While we talked, a mom brought in her elementary-school age son who wasted no time getting absorbed in a kids’ manga series. I felt like I was in a tiny but wonderful public library, one where almost everything is in Japanese.

This is in contrast to my experience before: I am a student at a large research university with an equally large Asian-language collection. It, too, has a physically odd relationship with the library in that it’s so isolated: it has its own 3 floors of stacks, for all Asian-language books, and its own office and cataloging area. It has its own reading lounge. This is all great. But not having been in an environment like this until graduate school, I couldn’t quite figure out why all of this had to be cordoned off from all of the other books in the library – ones in English, French, German, Russian, and so on, which were all mixed right in with each other. At this point, I chalk such things up to “an artifact of how Area Studies historically developed as fields.” On the other hand, though, the Asia Library is an integral part of U of M’s library system and is fully integrated with the library catalog system. There’s not really a question of whether the library budget can be used for the Asia Library’s projects; it’s a question of how much funding the Asia Library is getting to allocate as they will.

So why am I posting about the Kawasaki Reading Room? It’s a unique, friendly place, and I only wish it were open at hours other than 1-5pm on weekdays because I’d have spent some more time among the books and DVDs. I have a week left here in Nebraska, though, and one of my goals is to spend a good chunk of an afternoon there and do some personal research. I want to get a better sense of the collection, its shape and contents, and interesting finds that may be hiding around in there. On my first visit, I spotted a dictionary of naval terms while talking to Reiko that turned out to be the “property of the U.S. Navy” (don’t tell anyone!) and dated from WWII. I can’t wait to see what else is lurking there and to report back! With pictures. Stay tuned.

killing time at the bookstore – not the library

A quick observation – while reading a New York Times article on the closing of Barnes & Noble stores, I was immediately struck by their first interviewee’s comment: I kill time at the bookstore.

The theme of the article is that bookstores are used in non book purchasing ways just as often, and that the demise of a brick and mortar store is saddening those who don’t buy anything on top of both employees and those who do enjoy purchasing while they browse.

Or just browsing, in general. Amazon does a fairly good job of this but it’s far from the real thing.

I couldn’t help thinking about this situation in terms of libraries: because that’s what libraries are for. I think rather than talking about libraries attempting to simulate the bookstore experience – comfortable furniture, events, coffee – we could think of this from the perspective of the large chain bookstore taking over the library’s role in the community.

When it’s far more convenient to get to a Borders or Barnes & Noble (and there are more of them, making it easier to just pop in wherever you are), why bother funding libraries? If they let you hang out and read as much as you want (again, the interviewee talks about reading a book a chapter at a time when he comes in with time to kill), what need are libraries fulfilling, other than letting you check the books out without paying something on top of your taxes?

Why not rethink this upsetting situation in which bookstores are closing as an opportunity for libraries to make their case as the original entities fulfilling this role, and as an essential part of the community?

It seems to me that “community” spaces are more and more private, commercial spaces in the US. The bookstore, the coffee shop, the gym. I can’t remember ever going to a community center in my entire life. And my local library in Ypsilanti is very isolated, a drive away from where I live downtown, and is not even on public transit (which I use most of the time rather than driving). It’s easier for me to wander into the Barnes & Noble or Borders (or three) that are on my local errand runs – and that are on multiple bus lines – than to take a trip out of my way to the library.

Instead of focusing on single focal points, why not a distributed form of libraries – small storefronts, if you will? I can’t think of anything that could serve a community better than more spread-out, accessible, convenient service that promotes itself clearly and loudly as an antidote to disappearing bookstores – and as an irreplaceable part of the private-but-public fabric of the community.