"I went to the university library for the first time today, but all I could find was a building full of books!”
These words were spoken to me by a faculty member who recently relocated from the UK to Japan. What he was saying (in ironic British style, of course) was that the library he found at his new university was nothing like the libraries he had been used to before coming to Japan. In the UK, a university library tends to perform so many functions that its traditional status as "a building full of books" has become almost peripheral.
The university library provides a wide range of advice to researchers and graduate students in areas such as data management, publishing, copyright, referencing, and even teaching and conference presentation skills. Often, specialist librarians in specific subject areas offer one-to-one consultations to help researchers plan new research projects and locate hard-to-find materials. The library also offers extracurricular learning support to undergraduate students in areas such as study skills and written and oral expression, and in some cases also manages curricular reading lists and recording of lectures for online distribution.
In Japan, however, services such as these tend to be spread around other locations in the university, while the library focuses mainly on its traditional functions of managing books and other academic resources. This system is fine if you understand it, but it can be confusing to faculty (and students) who are accustomed to using their university library as a one-stop shop for specialized, personalized advice on a whole range of matters relating to teaching and research. Working out where to go to get this kind of advice in a Japanese university is a challenge in itself.
On the other hand, I am impressed at how progressive some Japanese university libraries have been in the provision of physical learning infrastructure, such as innovative spaces for both private study and collaborative work (“learning commons”). I think libraries overseas have a lot to learn in this regard.
My advice: When visiting a university for the first time, don’t waste your time taking photos of the clock tower or browsing the tacky souvenirs in the student union store – you’ll learn a lot more about the university if you head straight for the library!