“Vibrant community hubs” seems to have recently become quite the library mantra. It’s often a phrase used to indicate the diminished role we expect books to play in our libraries. As in, “Libraries are no longer just about books and today represent vibrant community hubs where one can ___” (fill in the blank with “go to a meeting,” “make something on a 3D printer,” “start a business,” “get job counseling,” “take a class,” or almost any other activity except reading a book). The assumption behind this movement—if we can call it that—is that people no longer need libraries for books. They are now so readily available and inexpensive, that if we are to survive and continue to serve our communities, we must shirk the book brand and transform ourselves into something else.
But an interesting new development in Japan is turning this theory on its head. Libraries in Takeo, Ebina, Tagajo, and Takahashi have joined forces with the Culture Convenience Club/Tsutaya (hereinafter called the CCC)—one of Japan’s largest book and media retailers—to build dramatic new “book centers,” which combine a high-end bookstore with a library, along with a Starbucks, and sometimes even a full-service restaurant and pub. The results have been spectacular.
Here’s the way it works.
These new book centers represent a significant departure from traditional library models—both in Japan and the U.S.—in a variety of ways.
First, the book centers are essentially outsourced to the CCC under the Designated Manager System, which allows Japanese cities to contract with private businesses to manage public services such as libraries, zoos, and museums. About 20% of the public libraries in Japan are operated by private companies under this arrangement. In the Takeo facility, this is not just a bookstore being shoehorned into a library. All facilities are carefully designed from the ground up as integrated libraries/bookstores, either as brand-new buildings or significant renovations of existing facilities. Most of these book centers have collections of around 200,000 to 300,000 items, and the bookstore section normally accounts for 20% to 25% of the titles and floor space. Typically, both the CCC and the city share the capital costs of the project, which is one major advantage of these public-private partnerships.
These facilities don’t operate like your typical library either. First, all staff—both library and bookstore—are employed, trained, and managed by the CCC. The book centers are open 7 days a week, 12 hours per day, including all holidays. They are arranged using the same Lifestyle classification system (similar to the BISAC bookstore classification system used in the U.S.) the CCC uses in its bookstores. Customers are welcome to read any book they want inside the library, regardless of whether it’s from the bookstore or the library. However, if they want to leave with it, they need to check it out or buy it. The focus in these facilities is distinctly on books. Although they have Wi-Fi, they lack the banks of public access PCs that crowd so many of our libraries. If patrons don’t have their own device—most people in Japan do –a tablet can be borrowed from the front desk for an hour or two.
By almost any measure, these new book centers have proved hugely successful. Visits at the new Tagajo library have jumped 1,527% compared to what they were before the CCC took over, and circulation has increased 350%—and that doesn’t account for book sales. Other locations have seen increases ranging from 171% to 269%. Customer surveys show significant satisfaction improvements over traditional library models. The communities get a vibrant new facility, open more than twice as many hours, that does two to three times as much business as their old libraries, all for not much more money than they were paying to operate the traditional model.
Lessons for Us?
Japan and the U.S. have different cultures, but this new book center model offers benefits worth considering, regardless of location.
- Integrating Libraries and Bookstores. Clearly, one of the reasons for the success of the Japanese model is that it allows the library to attract customers who would normally only use the bookstore and vice versa. It gives bookstore customers the opportunity to select from a library collection that is much broader and deeper than that found in most bookstores and provides library customers with the opportunity to purchase popular titles immediately instead of having to wait weeks for a hold or visit another retail outlet to buy it. It gives all readers a higher likelihood of finding the material they want than either institution can do on its own.
- Diversified Funding. In the U.S., public libraries are funded almost exclusively (92%) by local and state tax revenue—a source of revenue that has been under severe pressure recently, as it is caught between a public disinclined to raise taxes and the steeply rising costs of pensions and basic services. Adding commercial revenue streams from the bookstore and Starbucks has allowed the CCC book centers to more than double their hours, while handling three times the amount of traffic without a significant increase in cost to the city’s tax revenues. Moreover, unlike tax support, retail revenues naturally increase as the amount of business the library does increases.
- Public/Private Partnerships. Because the CCC and the cities share the capital costs of these new book centers, communities have been able to build new showcase libraries that they would never have been able to afford on their own. And, they get a new bookstore to boot. Everybody benefits.
This piece only scratches the surface on the conversation raised by this new book center model in Japan, but there is sure to be a lively discussion in the future. That said, one takeaway is clear: If you want to turn your library into a vibrant community hub, the evidence from Japan suggests that you should double down on books.