Smartphones blamed as Hongkongers lose interest in the city's libraries

Are city's 77 libraries on borrowed time? 6.2 million fewer items checked out of libraries amid smartphone craze

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 4:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 11:16am

Hongkongers have been borrowing fewer books from public libraries over the past five years - with the city's obsession with smartphones being blamed for steering people away from literary pursuits.

The city's exam-oriented education system was also criticised for not developing a love of reading among students. And one cultural commentator said many of the "readers" visiting libraries were there for the air conditioning or to kill time.

The number of items borrowed from the city's 77 libraries, including 10 mobile libraries, fell 6.2 million over the past five years, from 61.7 million in 2009 to 55.5 million last year, according to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which manages the public libraries.

Jimmy Pang Chi-ming, head of publishing house Subculture, said the reading culture in Hong Kong had been bad for years.

"Nowadays, Hong Kong people just surf the internet with their phones or tablets whenever they're free," Pang said. "Fewer people read books so there are also fewer new books being published. It's a vicious circle."

He said local publishing houses would seldom launch new books beyond the run-up to the summer book fair.

Pang added: "Those who are supposed to have the most leisure time for reading - students - do not read for leisure now but for school assignments as they have to fit in with the exam-oriented education system."

That seemed to be borne out by the statistics, which showed that the most borrowed English-language adult non-fiction book last year was an old Use of English AS-level paper. It was borrowed 9,124 times.

At the top of the Chinese adult non-fiction list was the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination book Chinese-Language Examination Report and Question Papers, which was loaned out 6,404 times.

The department listed Louis Cha Leung-yung's Chinese-language novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes as the most borrowed book in 2013 - taken out just over 11,000 times. It was first published in 1957.

The list of most popular English-language fiction was topped by The Five People You Meet in Heaven, a novel by American writer Mitch Albom that was first published in 2003.

Cultural commentator Perry Lam Pui-li said the new figures revealed a worrying trend. "The literary concept is not well-developed in Hong Kong," he said. "There's not even a sizeable poll to investigate how many books the average Hongkonger reads in a year."

He added: "Many so-called readers go to public libraries to kill time rather than really read books - especially in summer time when it's hot outside but the libraries are chilled."

A spokeswoman for the department said the decrease was a result of "a change in reading habits and library usage", adding it was a global trend. "We have observed that in the past few years readers tend to stay longer in the libraries because of the improved reading environment," she added. People would now go to the internet - including libraries' e-services - to research information, the spokeswoman said.

However, according to the department's statistics, the number of times the public libraries' seven e-book collections were used rose from about 142,000 in 2012 to only 194,000 times last year.

Since 2009, the department has expanded its library collection from 12.5 million books and multimedia materials to 13.1 million. The spokeswoman said professional judgment was exercised in the acquisition of books to meet the different needs of various groups, including ethnic minorities, and the collections remained "highly popular among readers". "The public libraries proactively promote reading and encourage the public to use library resources effectively, with a view to fostering lifelong reading habits," she added.