December 3, 2015

Uproar over publication of Haruki Murakami’s high school library records


Remember these? (Image via Wikipedia)

Remember these? (Image via Wikipedia)

As a library patron, the right to privacy is a hugely important one, and when violations of that privacy become public, librarians tend to get pretty angry. And they’ve had cause aplenty; in the wake of the Patriot Act, and subsequent revelations about the NSA metadata surveillance program, the extent to which that right to privacy legally extends has increasingly shrunk.

We’ve written before about librarians speaking out and taking action against our culture of surveillance, as well as supporting proposed legislation to that effect. But what happens when a library’s confidential patron records are breached not by law enforcement, but by the press on the hunt for a hot celebrity story? Well, librarians get angry.

And that’s exactly what just happened in Kobe, Japan, after a local paper named the Kobe Shimbun did just that. Justin McCurry at The Guardian reports:

Librarians in Japan have ditched their traditional regard for silence to accuse a newspaper of violating the privacy of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s best-known contemporary writer, after it revealed his teenage reading habits.

As a schoolboy in the western port city of Kobe, Murakami delved into the three-volume complete works of the French writer Joseph Kessel, according to library cards leaked to the Kobe Shimbun newspaper

The records in question were the books’ old borrowing cards, which still carried Murakami’s name. Naturally, this didn’t sit well with librarians.

The newspaper defended its actions, but the Japan Librarian Association accused it of violating the privacy of Murakami and other students whose names appear on the cards.

“Disclosing the records of what books were read by a user, without the individual’s consent, violates the person’s privacy,” said an association report.

And in case you’re wondering, here’s what “defended” meant.

Hideaki Ono, assistant managing editor at the Kobe Shimbun, described the author as the face of contemporary Japanese literature, and said anything related to his professional life was of legitimate interest. “Murakami is someone whose work, and the way he developed his literature, is the subject of scholarly study,” Ono told Agence France-Presse.

“He is known to have profound knowledge of British and American literature. But [the cards] showed he also explored French literature in his younger days. We believed these facts are of great public interest.”

Ono admitted, however, the newspaper had not tried to contact Murakami or any of the other former students who borrowed the books.

“Great” may be an overreach, but Murakami has enough fans in the world that odds are at least one person really wants to know which books the author checked out of the library 50 years ago.

The records reportedly made their way to the newspaper when they were discovered by a library volunteer in a collection of old books on their way to disposal. Were the records confidential, or were they trash? That’s up for anyone pursuing legal action to figure out, but it does call to mind the story of Paul Moranwho spent years collecting John Updike’s trash and rode his habit all the way to fame and notoriety.

In both instances, the decision to make items related to a famous author publicly available without consent was justified by alleged public interest, though the public/private border of legal demarcation was much clearer in Moran’s case, as the items he collected had already been discarded. In the case of these Murakami relics, the library (which has already issued an apology) is at fault for not having a stricter protocol of record-keeping, but I would argue that the paper is guilty of bad-faith journalism by even considering traditionally confidential records, even a celebrity’s, to be fair game.



Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.