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Focus on libraries in China

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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.