John Hickok

Summer Travel Journal: Japan & Korea
John Hickok

July 12, 2006

Hello again, colleagues.

The month of June is now over, and with it, my visit to two more countries: Japan and Korea. Certainly these two countries warrant a full month of visiting each, but due to the abbreviated time for summer, I had to combine them.

Japan’s higher education environment is frequently ranked at the top within Asia. And indeed, there is a longstanding history of quality higher education in Japan. But does this extend to the library? Well, yes and no. As for facilities, the top national university libraries are quite complete: modern buildings with high technology (wifi, etc.), strong showings of online catalog software and Western academic databases (Web of Science, etc.), and more. The prefecture and smaller (city) university facilities are also strong, just with less items — database subscriptions, etc.

When it comes to reference and instruction service, however, there are several differences between Japan and the United States. One example is that many Japanese universities combine their reference and circulation desks. While this may seem like an efficient consolidation of services, it makes the quality reference service — due to the noise, traffic, etc. — more difficult. Another example is the training of librarians. While most U.S. academic librarians have a MLIS after their bachelor’s degree, a large percentage of Japanese librarians have a “Shisho” (certificate) after their bachelor’s. This certificate is obtained by completing some courses through an “extended education” department — often part-time. Thus, the librarian title does not carry the same academic rigor as its American counterparts.

Two more examples in Japan are not unique to Japan only — they are typical of other Asian countries, too. First, the library director is almost always a non-librarian; that is, a professor from an academic department assigned by the university president to “preside over” the library for a two- to three- year term. Why doesn’t a librarian preside? Primarily, historical tradition — that a faculty member must administer the library. However, this system makes innovation and long-term planning difficult; not having the library managed by a librarian who understands library issues.

Second, library instruction is not often promoted as an ongoing service of the library. New student orientations are certainly given, but continual education — weekly workshops, customized sessions for professors, etc. — are much less common. One explanation for this phenomenon is the nature of Japanese undergraduate education: it is still heavily “memorize and take an exam” rather than exploring library resources and preparing an independent research paper. Thus, with undergraduate students not needing library resources as much, the library doesn’t have the demand to provide so much instruction.

In all, the academic libraries I visited were impressive structures for their collections, automation, technology and facilities. As reference and instruction services improve, in proportion, this will help Japanese academic libraries develop more to their potential.

Many of characteristics I outlined for Japan, also exist in Korea. Korean academic libraries — in terms of their buildings and facilities — were mightily impressive! I saw some of the most modern and high-tech libraries in all of my travels. For example, one library was almost a perfect replica of the U.S. Library of Congress architecture, and another library was so high tech with computers/wi-fi/touchscreens and more, it looked more like a R&D lab than a library.

However, several of the same issues in Japan, are also common in Korea. Library directors were typically outside appointees, undergraduate curriculum rarely involved library research, instruction was not often ongoing, and more.

Two characteristics in Korea were different from Japan. First, librarians in Korea typically earn a bachelor’s in library and information science (BLIS), and then go directly into employment. A problem with this is that librarians in Korea have very little subject specialization — not having a subject degree. Second, a main/single/consolidated reference desk is not the norm in Korea. Rather, multiple references desks — one on every floor, or in every collection area — is much more the trend. I observed that while this may have a wider service appeal, it was quite labor intensive, keeping librarians at desks and allowing less time for more advanced projects and planning — bibliographies, instruction lessons, Web guides, etc.

In all, Korea’s libraries are fantastic in their facilities, and like Japan, as reference and instruction outreach improves correspondingly, the libraries’ role as an active information-consultation-learning center, will be more fully realized.

For July, my final country visit, I am headed to Taiwan.

Regards from Asia,

Me in Japan, visiting Okayama University’s library. Yes, that’s a backpack I have, filled with all kinds of sample brochures and handouts!

Hickok at Okayama University Clock Tower

Photos of me viewing Japan’s Nippon Decimal Classification (NDC) and Korea’s Korean Decimal Classification (KDC). Interestingly, many libraries will use Library of Congress or DDC or Western materials, but NCD or KDC for their respective language materials.

Hickok with Decimal System Posters

Examples of the hi-tech library features in both countries, including a student signing in to the library using their mobile phone (student IDs are embedded into their phones), and a touch screen reservation system in the lobby for study carrels and group study rooms.

Hi-Tech Library Features

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