According to the results of a survey conducted last year by the Macau Library and Information Management Association, Macau ranks as one of the most library-prolific places in the world per capita.
The survey results, which have been recently released, stressed that there were a total of 68 public libraries in the MSAR in 2015, “making it the most dense of its neighboring regions.”
In addition, there are more than 30 private libraries in the city, and 103 school libraries, of which some 34 belong to tertiary education institutions or are “specialized” in a particular subject area.
Online media All About Macau jokingly remarked that it seems “we have been surrounded by libraries all this time without knowing it.”
However, with some 68 public libraries in Macau and many others of different types, the government project to convert (most of) the Old Court Building into a new Central Library is bought sharply back into question.
There are, for example, 18 public libraries in the broad vicinity of the Old Court Building, based within a half-kilometer radius from the site and easily accessible by foot. This is just but one criticism leveled at the project: its location.
In an emailed statement to the Times last month, Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC) media representatives recognized the significant presence of library resources within Macau but argued that they are mostly of “communal nature […] serving as the points of communal services.”
“Central libraries in every city have their own specific functions,” the statement continued. “[They are] the conductor of the public library network, introducing different kinds of applied technology and innovative thinking, allowing residents to use various library resources in an equal and fair manner.”
“In accordance with the standards of […] the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, it is recommended [that a Central Library] be located in an area centralized with cultural facilities in big cities; while in the city center in medium and small cities,” noted the bureau statement.
Local architect and city planner Carlos Marreiros agrees that the city needs the central library and reasoned that the location makes perfect sense. “A lot of people are against the Central Library being based in that area, but actually cultural services should be in an outstanding position in the city; the [city] center is not just for cathedrals…” said Marreiros.
The IC says that it backs the project’s specific location at the site of the Old Court Building on the basis of two key criteria: convenience and spacing. With regards to the former, the IC notes that the location must facilitate accessibility for residents in each district and foreign researchers, and it must have unimpeded access to public transport services.
It must also have adequate space for the installation of facilities and the potential development of a large-scale book and document collection.
Storage appears to be another crucial concern for those who back the project. Advocates say that, despite being one of the most library-prolific places in the world, Macau has an urgent need for more library space and storage space.
“The public libraries are full to the brim,” Marreiros put forward. “We need more book storage space urgently – especially for the [historical] manuscripts which require a lot of space and [resource] to preserve.”
“Another challenge in Macau is the humidity,” he explained, adding that the facilities needed for proper storage in the sub-tropics are costly.
Indeed, aside from its controversial location, some are also disputing what they regard as the project’s excessive cost. Outlined in the government’s five-year plan and set to be initiated before 2020, the project could cost the city as much as MOP900 million. The president of the Legislative Assembly, Ho Iat Seng, is just one of those who has called for clarification on the need to spend such resources on a library.
The IC head Ung Vai Meng, said at a press conference in August that he considers the sum “reasonable”, taking into consideration the scope of what is envisioned and the potential value of the public resource.
Marreiros agreed with the opinion, stressing that the building could become a great monument to the government’s advancement of culture-based industries in the city. “It proves that culture has its own dignity,” he said.
“[MOP900 million] sounds like a lot, but you need to remember that building something inside an existing [structure] always costs much more [than starting from nothing]. It sounds very expensive, but you need to understand what is involved exactly,” said Marreiros. “Think about how much a hospital or a casino costs!”
The project, which envisions a possible 11-storey tower built on the site of the Old Court Building, seeks to preserve at a minimum the structure’s façade and internal staircase at the entrance.
Although studies in the past have found the public libraries can exert positive influence in areas of education, reading and literacy, as well as the dissemination of general information to the less wealthy stratums of society, the digitalization of reading services and storage threatens to make these enormous municipal buildings somewhat obsolete in the near future.
An issue widely raised in conjunction with such studies is that while the costs of new public libraries can be quantitatively measured, the benefits are far more elusive. They are also, to some extent, reliant on the perceived value of the service by the public itself.
The IC believes that the project will bring “the development of cultural diversity, in addition to enhancing dialogues and exchange between different cultures [… and] these cultivate the power of knowledge and the basis of competition for both individuals and the society.”
Macau would rank 3rd in libraries per 100,000 people
Though international data on the number of public libraries per capita is sometimes contradictory or unreliable for even some of the world’s most famous cities (and virtually non-existent for Macau), a popular measure used by several sources is “libraries per 100,000 people.”
By this measure, Macau, with a total population of around 650,000 as of earlier this year, would come in at just under 10.5. According to information from the World Cities Culture Forum, this puts the MSAR behind the highest ranked cities of Edinburgh, UK (60.5) and Warsaw, Poland (11.4), but ahead of Brussels, Belgium (10) and Paris, France (9.2). Were it to be included in the forum’s survey of 20 international cities worldwide, Macau would be ranked third.
In comparison, Hong Kong, which is known for its plethora of bookshops and book readers, weighs in at just 4.2 with around 300 libraries, according to the World Cities Culture Forum, for a population in excess of 7 million.