Despite the increasingly widespread readership of electronic books, e-book loan services at libraries show no signs of catching on.
Why don't more people use these apparently useful digital libraries? What are the challenges these services face, and how will they be used in the future?
Digital libraries offer considerable benefits for both users and libraries. People who find it difficult to visit a library, such as the elderly and those who are extremely busy, can borrow a book anytime anywhere, simply by using their personal computer or some other terminal.
E-books do not suffer from damage or deterioration, and people simply lose access to the books once the loan period expires, so there is no danger of returning them late.
There is also no issue of space with e-books, and they provide such useful functions as the ability to enlarge or reduce the size of the text, and text-to-speech capabilities.
Nevertheless, there are only 30 digital libraries in the nation, according to research by the Japan Library Association, although there are varying definitions of what constitutes a digital library.
This means that of the 3,244 public libraries nationwide in fiscal 2014, only about 1 per cent offer e-book services. Likewise, less than 2 per cent of local governments - 1,718 in April 2014 - provide such services.
A key reason these figures are so small is the relatively few e-books available for loan. Also, most of the books that are available were published many years ago.
According to an estimate by hon.jp, Inc., the operator of an e-book search engine, there are more than 750,000 e-book titles currently on the market. However, the number available to borrow at libraries ranges from only a few thousand to slightly more than 10,000.
This is because the loaning of e-books is considered to be a public transmission under the Copyright Law, so unlike printed books, the copyright holder's permission is needed to make e-books available for loan.
Furthermore, a library buys the right to access an e-book, not an actual book that can be stocked at the library. It is possible, therefore, that the library may be unable to access a book at some point in the future.
E-books for use at libraries also cost more than what the general public pays for them, and more than printed books. And quite often libraries are asked to purchase them in bulk so that the same e-books can be read simultaneously by many people, meaning a considerable expense.
"Pricing rules for selling e-books to libraries are yet to be established. Given the potential impact on the sale of printed books, publishers and authors often deny or postpone granting copyright permission for sales to libraries," a hon.jp staffer said.
How are digital libraries actually doing?
In 2007, the Chiyoda Library in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, launched the Chiyoda Web Library, the first e-book loaning service in the nation. It began the service when it moved to the main ward government building, which had limited space for the library.
About 17,000 people are currently registered as users of this digital library, and about 600 e-books are borrowed per month. "Even now this service is still relatively unknown, so we're conducting promotional activities to attract more people," said Mutsumi Sakamaki, the head of public relations at the library.
The digital library contains 7,500 titles. E-books featuring special electronic functions are particularly popular, such as 3-D pictorial books about insects and flowers, and language reference books with a text-to-speech function.
However, about 1,500 of the library's e-books are available for free from Aozora Bunko, creating the impression that the digital library has a small selection overall.
Chiyoda Library also tries to avoid duplications with printed books when choosing which e-books to buy. "The number of e-books that a library can hold is still relatively small," Sakamaki said.
So what does the future hold for digital libraries?
Toru Sanpei, head of the secretariat of the Japan Electronic Publishing Association, said digital libraries would be useful in places outside urban areas that do not have any bookstores or libraries. However, such municipalities do not have the budget to introduce an e-book loaning system, he said.
"Unless a requirement is set, such as each prefectural government being required to set up a digital library, use of e-books is unlikely to become widespread," Sanpei said.
Active support from companies
Private enterprises have recently been doing a great deal to promote widespread use of digital libraries.
Japan Digital Library Service, established by major bookstore Kinokuniya Co. and publishers Kadokawa Corp. and Kodansha Ltd., began full-fledged activities in April to help libraries introduce e-book services.
It plans to release a maximum of 10,000 e-book titles for libraries before summer, including new books from the two publishers that were not available for libraries before, as soon as they gain approval from the authors.
Also in April, e-books distributor Media Do Co., and OverDrive Inc., a leading e-books distributor in the United States, formed a business partnership to launch a similar service. Rakuten Inc., which has been selling e-books for the general public, acquired all shares of OverDrive in April, in anticipation of the possibilities of public digital libraries.
Behind this decision is the increasing use of e-books, good progress in digitizating documents at the National Diet Library, and the scheduled enforcement in April next year of a law to eliminate discrimination against disabled people.
The new law may bring great progress in the introduction of digital libraries aimed at providing support for people with visual impairment.Speech