The Japanese word "oyake" translates as "public." But I always felt there was a subtle difference in meaning, even though I could never quite figure out why.

So, I looked up their etymologies, and now I know the reason.

Oyake was originally written with the kanji characters for "big" and "residence." As such, the word implied palatial edifices, and eventually came to denote the imperial court--the seat of power and authority--or the government, if you will.

"Public," on the other hand, derived from the Latin "populus" (people). This fact seems to give "kokyo," a synonym for oyake, a more "lively" nuance--or at least that was how I felt upon watching "Ex Libris: The New York Public Library," a documentary film that began showing in Tokyo recently.

The New York Public Library offers all sorts of community outreach programs in its stately main building and multiple branches, serving the public by going way beyond the array of activities usually associated with such an institution.

Symposiums are held frequently with scientists and poets. There are free mathematics classes for children, and work and skills classes for adults.

The library even loans digital devices to citizens who have no Internet connection at home. The aim, as explained by a staff member, is to rescue such people from "digital darkness."

Half of the funding for these community outreach programs comes from private donations.

This is indeed a "public" library in the true sense of the term--not in the sense of "government-run."

One person remarked in the film that a library is "a pillar of democracy," meaning that one of the basic principles of democracy is that everyone--rich or poor, and irrespective of the color of their skin--has ready access to knowledge.

Anti-intellectualism and divisiveness are spreading in America today, but The New York Public Library presents a totally different face of America.

I suppose the image many of us have of a library is that of a place for studying for school entrance tests or borrowing books for free.

But even in Japan, more libraries are now expanding their activities. New York is probably too far away, but it may be a good idea to venture away from your neighborhood library and explore others.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 25

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.