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Focus on libraries in China

By Margaret Adolphus

China has consistently baffled the West, and defies generalization. It is a land of paradox, and two in particular quickly become apparent:

  1. a policy of isolationism versus attempts to emulate the West, and
  2. an unequal society despite 60 years of communism and state control.

Both these trends have a bearing on the current state of libraries. World-class institutions and beacons of good practice that compete with anything in the West for resourcefulness and service development exist alongside places with poor collections and card catalogues.


China's written culture goes back thousands of years (movable type was invented just over 1,000 years ago), with the earliest documents dating from the 2nd century BCE. Its early libraries focused on collecting, compiling, and classifying books and documents – with the result that many are preserved to this day (Tang, 2001).

Western influence was first felt when the American librarian and missionary Mary Elizabeth Wood established the first library school at Boone University in 1920 (Chu, 2001a). After the communists came to power in 1949, China closed its doors first to the West, and then to everyone. During the Cultural Revolution, universities were closed and many collections, both Chinese and Western, were destroyed.

At the end of the 1970s, China emerged from this destructive period, opened its doors to Western influence (obvious to the visitor in the form of neon signs, branded T-shirts, and fast-food outlets), and grew its market economy. Once again the West became its model for librarianship, and recent years have seen energetic attempts to bring its libraries up to Western standards.

Writing at the beginning of the 21st century, Chu (2001a) maintained that, "librarianship in China is being melded into modern librarianship, gaining much in common with that of the West", although Chinese libraries still lagged behind. Attempts to adopt an international perspective can be seen in China's founder membership of the International Federation of Library Associations, and frequent publication in Western library journals. Opportunities for foreign travel for all but an elite, however, remain limited.

Internet penetration

China now has the world's highest Internet population: 338 million (China Internet Information Network Center, 2009). This figure, however, reflects the size of the overall population and not the extent of penetration: at 25.3 per cent it ranks well below Australia (79.6 per cent) and the US (74.1 per cent) (Internet World Stats, 2008).

In addition, there remains a huge digital divide in China: Internet penetration is much lower in the west of the country and in rural areas. According to recent statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center (2009), there is 60 per cent and 59.7 per cent penetration in Beijing and Shanghai respectively, while Sichuan has 13.6 per cent, Tibet 16.4 per cent, and Yunnan 12.1 per cent. As far as profession is concerned, students are the most likely group to be connected (33.2 per cent), while penetration is lowest (between 2-3 per cent) among agricultural and rural migrant workers.

As in Africa, 3G mobile phones have greatly enhanced Internet use, with 46 per cent accessing the Internet via their mobiles. It may also account for a big increase in the rate of penetration – 19.1 per cent in June 2008 rising to the current figure of 25.3 per cent.

Such perspectives are important: China is grappling with the challenge of bringing its libraries up to Western standards, but is hampered by the wholesale destruction of collections which occurred during the Cultural Revolution, and by the unevenness of its information and communications technology network. It has destroyed part of its past, and without equitable connectivity to the Internet it cannot fully participate in the knowledge economy.

The growth of the digital library

Given that the 21st century library has such a strong digital component, Internet penetration is vital to its success. Zheng claims (2006: p. 764) that "China has a huge digital gap which is a barrier in the universal service of China's library and reference consultation". The library service in general can be described as uneven, with the best resourced university libraries being concentrated on the east coast.

Not surprisingly, therefore, bridging the digital divide is a huge priority for the Chinese Government, and much work is being done on the construction of networks. The China Education and Research Network (CERNET) was launched in the mid-1990s, managed by the Department of Education. Its national centre is hosted by Tsinghua University and there are regional centres in Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an, Guangzhou, and other places in central and eastern China.

China woke up to the idea of the digital library later than the West – according to Zhou (2005: p. 440): "digital libraries did not find its [sic] blossom until 1998". The same author (p. 437) implies that in the first decade of the 21st century Chinese library schools lag behind their Western counterparts in terms of preparing librarians for the digital world, and pleads for a forward-looking curriculum, and the inclusion of subjects and research relevant to the digital age.

Nevertheless, Chinese librarians are certainly trying to make up for lost time, and there have been various digital library projects, for example the China Academic Digital Library (CADL), and China Academic Digital Library and Information System (CADLIS) (see Shen et al., 2008).

China Academic Library and Information System

One of the most successful ventures has been the consortium, China Academic Library and Information System (CALIS). Funded by the Department of Education and managed by Peking University, CALIS provides services to universities and colleges. It has used its position as China's only consortium to negotiate good deals from Western publishers for foreign databases, although publishers may prove less generous as China becomes more prosperous. CALIS libraries can also share one another's own collections and catalogues, thus offering a huge range of resources and bibliographic databases.

CALIS extends all over China, with four discipline centres:

  1. science, social science and humanities;
  2. engineering and technology;
  3. medicine; and
  4. agriculture and forestry.

It has seven regional centres: Nanjing, Shanghai, Jilin, Chengdu, Xian, Guangzhou, and Wuhan, and [as of August 2009], 1,009 member libraries. According to Shen et al. (2008) it subscribes to 216 databases including approximately 20,000 international conference papers and journals, 10,000 national journals and hundreds of thousands of e-books.

A scientific network

As a nation rapidly industrializing, China puts much emphasis on science. Its science and technology community has been (since 2005) served by the National Science and Technology Library (NSTL), an information network infrastructure and virtual institution consisting of four libraries:

  1. Library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences,
  2. National Engineering and Technology Library,
  3. Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences Library,
  4. Institute of Medical Information & Library.

Not surprisingly, this combined collection offers vast resources, which are available both in China and internationally. NSTL also offers a number of services, including access to a large range of scientific documents via its databases, document delivery, a Z39.50 compliant international catalogue, and a virtual reference service (Meng and Liu, 2005).

A tradition of resource sharing (Meng and Liu, 2005) and the growth of networks have facilitated these large digital library developments, as has work done on bibliographic data to ensure their interoperability. China has China Marc, which is different from Marc, although some conversion programmes have been written, and CALIS's records will shortly be uploaded to OCLC.

Academic libraries – the 985 and beyond

There are a total of 3,901 higher education institutes (HEIs) in China [as of August 2009], the majority of which possess a library. Unsurprisingly, the quality of these HEIs varies greatly –- just as in the US, there are the "Ivy League" type universities and the community colleges. The Chinese Government has made various attempts to bring a small group of universities up to a standard where an elite could be created to drive the country forward socially and economically. Project 211 (100 universities for the 21st century) was set up in 1995 by the Ministry of Education to bring the country's top universities up to international research standards; three years later, in May 1998, the 985 project (the fifth month of 1998) was set up to fund a smaller number of universities (nine initially) for a period of three years.

A top research university requires a top research library. What constitutes the latter is hard to quantify, but Western standards would indicate extensive print and digital collections, an institutional repository with digitized versions of their theses and other research outputs, 24/7 virtual access facilitated by remote authentication, virtual reference services (i.e. "Ask a Librarian"), and tools which enable searching across various databases.

The best of the best

There is no doubt that some libraries meet these criteria. Take Tsinghua University Library, for example. The recently updated English version of its website is shown in Figure 1. The interface is logically constructed and easy to navigate, and the site is also a portal, with MetaLib enabling cross-database search. Information services are also provided to mobile phone users.

Image: Figure 1. Screenshot of Tsinghua University Library's home page.

Figure 1. Screenshot of Tsinghua University Library's home page

Other similarly well-appointed libraries include:

  • The National Science Library, Chinese Academy of Sciences (NSLC), which is world-class. The main library is in Beijing and there are branches in Lanzhou, Chengdu and Wuhan. It has a staff of over 470, buildings of 80,000 m2, and a collection of 11.5 million items, including full-text foreign and Chinese scientific, technical and medical (STM) journals, e-books and theses. Its website has cross-database searching, online reference services, and remote and mobile authentication.
  • Fudan University Library, which has a large range of foreign language databases, including Web of Science, ProQuest, SwetsWise, OCLC ArticleFirst, and many STM resources; it also has personalization (MyLibrary), cross searching via MetaLib/SfX, and the Ask a Librarian virtual reference service.
  • Shanghai Jiao Tong University Library, which also has a large number of foreign language databases, as well as an information commons and a virtual reference service.
  • Peking University Library , with a total building area of 51,000 m2, the collection capacity has reached 6,500,000 items. Ancient rare books are very important in the Peking University Library collection. The Library holds 1,500,000 ancient items, including 170,000 items of rare books. Among them are more than 1,000 unique and rare treasures.

Yao and Zhao (2009) conducted a study of the top ten university libraries via their websites, to compare and analyse various aspects of their collections and service offerings, such as virtual reference services, metasearch capabilities, digital resources and subject navigation systems. The libraries analysed were:

  1. Tsinghua University Library
  2. Peking University Library
  3. Nanjing University Library
  4. University of Science and Technology of China Library
  5. Fudan University Library
  6. Zhejiang University Library
  7. Shanghai Jiao Tong University Library
  8. Renmin University of China Library
  9. Sun Yat-sen University Library
  10. Xi'an Jiaotong University Library

They concluded that all these libraries held a combination of their own databases (theses, digitized special collections, cataloguing systems, subject navigation, etc.) and foreign commercial databases such as EBSCO and Elsevier. They also provided a resource portal, and most of them had authentication systems and virtual reference; about half had cross searching.

Large buildings, small collections

The top libraries in China, therefore, would appear to be relatively well equipped. But what are their collections really like? The Cultural Revolution had a huge impact on the growth of collections in China. Many university libraries claim to hold large collections, but the range of titles is often far less than the volume counts. The Western collections are improving, but are generally uneven and lacking collection focus.

The libraries which fall outside the 985 group form a very long tail of small libraries with very inadequate collections, and resources.

Academic libraries worldwide are tending to emphasize virtual as much as physical access, putting their resources into digital collections and services rather than buildings. So it is paradoxical to see large academic libraries being built all over China: Shanghai Jiao Tong's Library buildings extend over 45,000 m2 (see Figure 2), those in Guangzhou are 70,000 m2. This can be contrasted with libraries in the West which are increasingly moving away from using their buildings to house stock towards using them to incorporate learning spaces and information commons.

Image: Figure 2. Model of the new library at Shanghai Jia Tong University

Figure 2. Model of the new library at Shanghai Jia Tong University

Publishing and scholarly communication

The health of the library reflects that of the publishing industry: scholars write, libraries store, but publishers make content available.

In China, all publishing, both scholarly and that aimed at the general public, is in the hands of the state. There are approximately 570 official Chinese publishers [as of 2009], each putting titles out with an average print run of 5,000. Unofficial publishers, those not in state hands, must purchase an ISBN from one of the official ones (proceeds from which make up for relatively modest sales), and it is not infrequent for several titles to be published using the one ISBN.

Much scholarly publishing is available in databases – either by publishers themselves, or aggregated by companies such as ProQuest. In China, this is mostly in the hands of state sponsored organizations, such as CALIS or China National Knowledge Infrastructure ( or which has assembled databases of Chinese journals (full text), dissertations, conference proceedings, newspapers and reference works.

The growing economic success of China has, according to Xia (2006; p. 105), led to a move by publishers to bypass peer review and adopt a "pay to publish" model in order to make commercial profits, which risks lowering the quality of scholarly publishing.

And, China has a culturally rooted casual attitude to copyright – perhaps based on the Confucian idea that the writer is the transmitter, not the maker (Fang and Zhu, 2006, to whom a restrictive attitude to intellectual property inhibits the free flow of ideas). Thus many works in databases and publishers' catalogues are there without the permission of their owners.

China has also been slow to follow the trend towards digital repositories – a search on OpenDoar [August 2009] revealed only eight institutional repositories in China, most of which were in Hong Kong – and there is little consciousness of the benefits of open access (Fang and Zhu, 2006).

Public libraries

There were, according to 2007 statistics, 2,799 public libraries in China, employing 51,650 people. The Chinese have a great sense of the educational and social value of the public library: according to one author, "it is important for the library to be the dissemination hub of knowledge and information and to be a school for the lifelong education of its citizens" (Liu and Li, 2007).

In keeping with this aspiration, libraries are not merely places for reading, but centres of culture. There are public lectures, exhibitions, activities for children such as family reading campaigns, foreign language training, art courses, and summer camps.

All libraries at county level have children's areas; some also offer facilities to the elderly, the blind and otherwise disabled, in the form of special seating and spaces, braille reading devices, computer training and reading parties.

The "curse" of the collection

Chinese public libraries offer a catch-all service, accommodating every user group. This is different to the West, where libraries often specialize; for example, a business district library would have commercial directories, one in an area with a lot of young families would cater particularly for children. It is not unknown for Chinese public libraries to offer highly specialized academic services in the form of scholarly databases, or access to, say, the Library of the Chinese Academy of Science.

Bin and Miao (2005) acknowledge that public libraries will need to segment more (presumably that would mean different libraries targeting particular markets). Whereas Western libraries tend to weed their collections as they grow them, Chinese public library collections just grow. This means that the utility of the collection, the use per title, diminishes and the library becomes less efficient. The reach of public libraries needs to be greater for the whole population. This is especially evident when comparisons are made with other Asian countries.

Dongguan and Shanghai – meeting multiple needs

And yet, there are some excellent new initiatives in public libraries. Shanghai Library is the largest public library in the country, and one of the largest in the world. In 1995, it merged with the Institute of Scientific and Technological Information of Shanghai (ISTIS), resulting in the first library in China which combined a public library with one for science, technology and industry research. It thus serves the general public, the scientific community, and the city's legislature and administration.

It's interesting to note that the English version of the website ( has a pleasing, open feel to it, unlike the websites of many English public libraries, which are imprisoned within the straitjacket of local government branding.

Image - Figure 3. Screenshot of Shanghai Library website.

Figure 3. Screenshot of Shanghai Library website

The most innovative and forward reaching library (in terms of developments which may be copied elsewhere) is probably the new library in Dongguan, a rapidly growing city just up the line from Hong Kong, which has received several awards including a Presidential Citation for International Innovation from the American Library Association (in 2008). It's easy to see why: opened in 2005, Dongguan Library has a lot of the service oriented qualities that one sees in the top US public libraries, such as Ann Arbor.

In good Library 2.0 fashion, staff don't wait passively for users to come to the library, but plan activities to attract people through the door – reading programmes, educational initiatives for migrant workers, language classes in Cantonese, Japanese and English, a cartoon festival (cartoons are very popular with Chinese youth), and etiquette classes for children. The building spans 44,654 m2 and sets out to be as user friendly as possible, with an easily navigable layout, adaptations for those with special needs, and children's areas.

Even more significantly, Dongguan was one of the earliest libraries in China to connect a cluster of local libraries into a network, something that is common in Japan and Korea, but too expensive for most Chinese libraries. Dongguan's cluster network, Interlib, was created through collaboration with a local software company, and now one central library and (currently) 46 branch libraries are joined together; there are also 102 service points throughout the city, where people can renew their library cards, request items, and use reference services.

This means that over an area of 2,465 km2, users can check the online catalogue and reserve items, pick them up from a library of their choice, and benefit from the vast amalgamated collection. The latter is media neutral and includes 250,000 e-books and 9,000 periodicals. Chief librarian, Donglai Li believes that the cluster system, with a central hub and branches, is "the trend for library development, and it will promote cooperation and resource-sharing between libraries".

Dongguan also boasts the country's first 24-hour self-service library, a reading room where patrons can scan their library cards and withdraw items, opened in 2005. A similar system was set up by a library in Liaoning Province in 2008. Dongguan Library also set up the first library ATM (a library self-service station) in the country in 2007, which can be located anywhere in the city.

Image - Figure 4. Dongguan Library - opens in a new window.

Figure 4. Dongguan Library


One of the traditions which is slowly changing in Chinese academic librarianship is the appointment of academic staff to the post of chief librarian, often in the final years of their careers before retirement. Thus a librarian managing a small library may be professionally qualified, but lack properly trained support staff. At the senior management level, it is not uncommon for the head of a university library to be an academic nearing retirement, a titular appointment with his or her deputy doing the day-to-day work.

Several writers bemoan the fact (Chu, 2001b; Fang and Zhu, 2006) that librarianship is seen as low paid and low status: librarians are perceived as people who hand out books, rather than skilful manipulators of information in a digital world. There are a number of excellent library schools – Wuhua is the top one, followed by Nanjing, and there are also good schools in Guangzhou, Peking and Shanghai, but their graduates often seek jobs in other related fields such as publishing, the media, archives or information institutes (Chu, 2001b).

Although there is some recognition of the importance of continuing professional development, there is little attempt to prepare future senior managers for their role – there are, for example, no management courses for evolving library managers such as those which exist in the US or Australia.

The system remains highly centralized –- the library school curriculum is defined in Peking and not locally. The same goes for the operation of libraries: the centre determines priorities, there is little local autonomy to develop particular emphases or initiatives which can then be pushed to the centre. Whereas the West has developed strong and influential senior managers full of new ideas, in China the atmosphere tends to be more risk averse, accommodating a greater level of governing complexity.

Nevertheless, being highly centralized no doubt has advantages: in Britain and the US, consortia tend to be locally based, and there is nothing as extensive as CALIS.


Any attempt at an overview of library developments in China is inevitably going to merely scratch the surface, with just snapshots and brief consideration of the main issues. I have not, for example, discussed specialist libraries, which are, according to an article by The Library Society of China (2006), the largest library sector: in 2006 there were libraries in nearly all the nation's 19,200 hospitals, employing 70,000 employees; around 94 military libraries, employing 2,100 professional librarians, 14,000 trade union libraries, and 6,000-8,000 subject specific libraries.

China has some excellent libraries: a few are world-class, many provide an excellent service to their patrons. And while quality is patchy, the Government is making great strides in extending the network over the whole of the country. The growing popularity of the mobile network presents opportunities for libraries to develop services for this group of users.

On May 12 2008, a major earthquake devastated the Wenchuan County in China's Sichuan province, killing tens of thousands of people and making millions homeless. One of the biggest challenges in the aftermath was the control and prevention of epidemics. On the evening the earthquake occurred, the Medical Library of the People's Liberation Army organized a team of medical librarians to help with health information. Instructional brochures on dealing with sanitary problems and disease were prepared within 48 hours and sent, and two librarians were sent to the earthquake zone to assist the medical teams. Finally a website was set up to help the many volunteers who poured into the area from all over China (Jin et al., 2009).

While there is much talk about Chinese libraries reaching Western standards, it is difficult not to conclude from such an example that the West also has much to learn from them.

References and further reading


Bin, F. and Miao, Q. (2005), "Electronic publications for Chinese public libraries: challenges and opportunities", The Electronic Library, Vol. 23 No. 2, pp. 181-188.

China Internet Information Network Center (2009), The 24th Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China, CNNIC, China, July.

Chu, J. (2001a), "Librarianship in China: the spread of Western influences", Library Management, Vol. 22 No. 4/5, pp. 177-180.

Chu, J. (2001b), "The renaming of library schools in China and the effects", New Library World, Vol. 102 No. 7/8, pp. 274-277.

Fang, C. and Zhu, X. (2006), "The open access movement in China", Interlending & Document Supply, Vol. 34 No. 4, pp. 186-193.

Internet World Stats (2008), "Alphabetical list of countries", available at [accessed August 26 2009].

Jin, C., Youxiang, Z., Junqin, H., Rui, C., Wei, H. and Rongqing, L. (2009), "China's Sichuan earthquake: role of a medical library in the immediate recovery process – insights and observations", World Library and Information Congress: 75th IFLA General Conference and Council, August 23-27 2009, Milan, Italy, available at [accessed August 26 2009].

Liu, Y.Q. and Li, D. (2007), "Developing an integrated public library service in Dongguan, one of China's fastest growing cities", New Library World, Vol. 108 No. 5/6, pp. 278-285.

Meng, L. and Liu, Y.Q. (2005), "The present and future of China's National Science and Technology Library: A new paradigm of sci-tech information resource sharing", New Library World, Vol. 106 No. 7/8, pp. 343-351.

Shen, X., Zheng, Z., Han, S. and Shen, C. (2008), "A review of the major projects constituting the China Academic Digital Library", The Electronic Library, Vol. 26 No. 1, pp. 39-54.

Tang, J. (2001), "The new face of academic libraries in mainland China as they enter the twenty-first century", Library Management, Vol. 22 No. 4/5, pp. 181-186.

The Library Society of China, "The vigorous advancement of libraries in China", IFLA Journal, Vol. 32 No. 2, pp. 113-118.

Xia, J. (2006), "Scholarly communication in East and Southeast Asia: traditions and challenges", IFLA Journal, Vol. 32 No. 2, pp. 104-112.

Yao, L. and Zhao, P. (2009), "Digital libraries in China: progress and prospects", The Electronic Library, Vol. 27 No. 2, pp. 308-318.

Zheng, S. (2006), "Virtual reference services in China: helping the information-poor", The Electronic Library, Vol. 24 No. 6, pp. 763-773.

Zhou, Q. (2005), "The development of digital libraries in China and the shaping of digital librarians", The Electronic Library, Vol. 26 No. 1, pp. 433-441.

Further reading

Library Management China
Library Management China is published by Emerald and includes articles both from Chinese authors and from Library Management which have been translated into Chinese.

Chinese Journal of Library and Information Science
The journal is sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and is the first English language scholarly journal in the field.


The author is indebted to Steve O'Connor who allowed himself to be interviewed for this article, and also to Yao Xiaoxia, secretary-general of CALIS, Donglai Li, chief librarian of Dongguan Library, and Dr Yan Quan Liu of Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA for their help.