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A Historical Perspective: The Root Cause for the Underdevelopment of User Services in Chinese Academic Libraries

by Jing Liao

The low prioritizing of user service is a longstanding problem in Chinese academic libraries. While acknowledging various external and internal obstacles for this problem^ this article argues that traditional library culture, as demonstrated throughout the article, constitutes the root cause for the underdevelopment of user services on information accessibility in Chinese academic libraries.

Jing Liao is Assistant Librarian, Assistant Professor of Library Administration, Ricker Library of Architecture and Art, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 208 Architecture Building, 608 Taft Street, Champaign, IL 61820, USA <>

U ser service refers to what a li- brary does to facilitate retrieval of information and access to in-

formation for patrons. It entails not only actual reference service rendered by librarians but also the establishment of policies and procedures, such as collec- tion availability and accessibility, that enable patrons to obtain materials in a myriad of formats. The inadequacy of user service which limits information ac- cessibility in China's academic libraries has been for decades the focus of com- plaints lodged by both local users and foreign visitors.' To diagnose the causes for this inadequacy has been an on-going task for scholars of library science. Early scholars focused on extemal sociopolitical causes, and recent scholars identify vari- ous internal causes for the underdevelop- ment of user service.^

While taking into full account these extemal and intemal causes, we should also ponder if there is a root cause under- lying these immediate causes. As I shall demonstrate below, the traditional concept of books and knowledge in China are flindamentally at odds with the very phi- losophy of user service. These beliefs ossified over time to become the comer stone of traditional Chinese librarianship and gave rise to the millennia-old practice of holding books as personal treasures out of reach. Even when modem academic libraries were established in early twenti- eth century, these old concepts about books and knowledge continued to pro- foundly influence the way in which the latter were run, as evidenced by the con- tinued existence of various restrictive pol- icies and practices to this day. In fact, I would argue that most of the immediate causes for underdevelopment of user ser-

The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Volume 30, Number 2, pages 109-115

vice can be attributed, in varying degrees,

to the lasting influence of these concepts.





The embryonic form of the Chinese im- perial library can be traced back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC).^ In high

"The embryonic form of the Chinese imperial library can be traced back "

to the Shang Dynasty

antiquity, the Shang rulers already used the earliest known form of Chinese writing for preserving records of prognostication about important events of farming, hunt- ing, war, and religious worship. Before any of these events took place, a Shang

ruler would consult a high priest to make a prognostication by interpreting cracks, produced from buming a drilled hole on

a tortoise shell or a cattle bone (shoulder

blade). If the events tumed out as pre- dicted, the ruler would have the prognos- tication as well as the events carved on the same piece of shell or bone. The characters are mostly pictographs and ideographs, which is the earliest known Chinese writing system aptly called "oracle bone inscriptions" in English.'' The Shang rulers held these inscriptions sacred be- cause they were records of confirmed decisions or judgments and because they provided important precedents to the Shang rulers for future deliberations. The quantity of these inscriptions is enormous

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even by modem standards. Since 1928, more than 160,000 pieces of oracle bones have been excavated from royal tombs in Anyang, the last capital of the Shang Dynasty.^ What is even more astounding than the magnitude of these collections is the absolute secrecy in which they were

kept. In the abundant accounts of antiquity recorded from the Zhou Dynasty (1122-


BC) to the Han Dynasty (202 BC -


AD), there is practically no mention of

oracle bone inscriptions, let alone these huge collections. If it were not for a fortuitous discovery at the tum of the twentieth century, we would still be in the dark to this day about this earliest extant form of Chinese writing, to speak nothing about these huge collections of oracle bone inscriptions. The extraordinary secrecy of these collections indicates how deeply the Shang rulers believed in writing's sacred power and to what extraordinary lengths they went to keep all written records hidden to all but their high priests.^ By inventing, employing, and collecting the oracle bone writings, the Shang rulers assumed the role of the sole intermediary between the supernatural and human world and thereby legitimized their abso- lute religious and secular power. If their huge collections of oracle bones represent the prototype of an imperial library, their handling of^ these collections presages the way imperial libraries were to be man- aged in later dynasties. As China entered the humanistic age during the ensuing Zhou Dynasty, the magic and religious aura of writing began to dissipate and literacy spread to a broader but still elite strata of the society. However, although writings and books lost much of their erstwhile sacred power, they never ceased to be regarded as an essential source of sociopolitical and cul- tural authority. While the Zhou rulers could no longer monopolize the use of writing, they would by no means relin- quish the control of written records as the source of wisdom, knowledge, and power. Instead of high religious priests, they entrusted their historians or scribes with the tasks of writing, compiling, and stor- ing historical records.^ As these tasks were deemed crucial to the running or even to the existence of the Zhou states, it is not surprising that these historians were trusted, high-ranking officials.^ This continued practice of collecting and stor- ing written records for dynastic rulers' exclusive use culminated in the establish- ment of the first imperial library at the

110 The Journal of Academic Librarianship

beginning of the Han Dynasty. When Liu Bang (247-195 BC), the founding em- peror of the Han, decided to establish an

imperial library, he put his capable prime minister Xiao He (?-192 BC) in charge. Xiao avidly collected documents from previous dynasties, especially those con- taining important geographical and popu- lation information. He passed on these documents to Emperor Liu Bang and helped the Emperor to effectively utilize them when formulating the Han laws. Xiao was also widely praised for design- ing a very unique stone building to store the imperial library.' This stone house contrasts sharply with those houses made of wood during the period and attests to the careful planning of Xiao He. He surely played a major role in reducing the hazard of fire by having the imperial library built of stone. To make the emper- or's library doubly secure, Xiao designed

a canal to surround the stone building.

Apart from his aggressive acquisition and preservation endeavors, Xiao introduced rules to restrict access to the imperial holdings. There are ample accounts of the implementation of such restrictive rules."* For instance, in 66 BC, a high official Su Chang lent some items from the imperial collections to a friend for copying. After this unauthorized lending was discovered, Su was impeached and removed from his position." The imperial libraries of subsequent dynasties were established and managed on the model of this first imperial library. The most notable development is the dra- matic expansion of the imperial holdings during the Sui and Tang dynasties (581 - 906) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1919). Owing to the sociopolitical stability and economic prosperity, many Tang emperors indulged in their passions for expanding

the imperial collections. Experts were sent out to for rare items throughout the coun- try. If the owner of a rare item did not wish

to sell, the imperial library would borrow

it and ask experts to hand-copy it.'^ After copying was completed, the library would

retum the item to the owner together with

a reward, such as a roll of silk or money.

Thanks to such policies, the imperial col- lections expanded to over 70,000 volumes during the heyday ofthe Tang.''' The Qing imperial collections reached an even grander scale, surpassing the imperial col- lections of all previous dynasties both in quantity and quality. According to Youmei Wang, the Qing imperial library owned 195,732 volumes consisting of more than 13,000 titles."*

In view of such an impressive expan- sion of imperial collections, one may expect that there would have been a corresponding expansion ofthe user base. However, this was certainly not the case. There were no significant changes in the pattem of service. Throughout all dynastic periods, the mission of imperial libraries remained unchanged: to provide the emperors with a largely exclusive access to the rich reservoir of wisdom and knowledge and hence enhance their abso- lute power as the rulers of the land. Apart from the emperors and their inner circle, only court-appointed scholars were allowed access to the collections when they needed references for their own writ- ings or for verifying the edition of a rare item in the imperial library. Of course, it would not be accurate to say that imperial libraries never opened its doors to the world outside the court. During the North- em Song Dynasty (960-1126), the impe- rial library relaxed requirements allowing entry to those who came to the capital for the annual imperial examination. How- ever, this "open-door" policy was re- versed later due to the loss of books. The abrupt end of this adventure in "pub- lic service" aptly underscores that the imperial library liinctioned as the custo- dian of knowledge and power for dynastic rulers exclusively.







Private collections came into existence roughly around the time when the first imperial library was established.'^ Then and after, most private collectors were important officials and members of the intellectual elite. Over time, the average size of private collections increased steadily. Even back in the early Han, Cai Yong (132-192 BC), a famous scholar, calligrapher and official, owned ten thou- sand items.'^ From the Han Dynasty onward, aristocratic families and educated elites joined in the determined quest for books and built various well-known large private libraries at different times. For instance, in the Tang Dynasty, Li Mi (722-789), an equally renowned private collector and member of the imperial academy, owned as many as thirty thou- sand items.'^ The development of private collections or libraries also has much to do with the quest for power. The power is not the absolute authority of a dynastic ruler, but the economic, sociopolitical.

and cultural power of intellectual elite. To some, book collecting was a sound finan- cial investment with the promise of ex- cellent returns. The value of a rare copy could be doubled every seventy years on average during the Song Dynasty (960- 1279).'^ The rarer the item was, the faster its value appreciated. Later, during the Kangxi reign (1662-1722) of the Qing dynasty, an item from the Song could be sold for three Hang of silver (approximate- ly 1.5 ounces) or more; but by the late Guangxu reign (1875-1909), the same item would fetch thirteen Hang silver (approximately 7 ounces).'^'' The majority of collectors, however, were striving not so much for financial returns as social prestige and political power. From the Han Dynasty onward, scholarly accomplishments, especially in the studies of Confiician classics, were a prerequisite for the fast track to official titles in most dynasties. During the Han, owing to the scarcity of schools and books, the owners of a large book collec- tion not only enjoyed extremely high social prestige but also possessed real political power. Thanks to their large book



of a large book

collection not only enjoyed extremely high social prestige but also possessed

real political power."

holdings, their households became centers of Confucian scholarship and thereby monopolized the chances of garnering official appointments within their house- holds for generations. During the Tang Dynasty, the system of civil service examinations was formally established for the express purpose of providing an opportunity for all citizens, including commoners, to gain entry access to officialdom. Although the intellectual elite could no longer maintain a monopoly on scholarship and officialdom as in the past, they continued to enjoy a tremen- dous advantage over the commoners who did not have easy access to books. It is not an exaggeration to say that books, scho- larship, and officialdom were intricately bound throughout dynastic China. For this reason, books were regarded by many as the most valuable of family treasures. A high-ranking official in the Tang Dynasty is reported to have told his children to

take good care of three treasures passed on to them: land, trees, and books. The land is for growing food, the father explained, while the mulberry trees are for feeding silkworms, which produce silk for clothing. But the most valuable legacy, the father stressed, are books which make the children wise and lead them on the path to officialdom.'^' Of course, it would be incorrect to assume that all private collecting was motivated by such a quest thirst for pow- er. There are many laudatory accounts of famous scholars sparing no expense to acquire books purely for the love of them. Su Dongpo (1037-1101), a great poet, writer, and painter, once remarked that scholars could do without good living conditions but must have good books to read.^^ Zhu Yizun (1609-1829), a cele- brated scholar of the Qing Dynasty, lost

his official position as a result of copying a book in the government collection. Zhu claimed that the loss was worth it and he had no regret as he obtained what he wanted.^^ Although these lofty-minded scholars did not covet wealth and power by collecting books, their book collec- tions nonetheless empowered them to become famous scholars, a cultural force

to be reckoned with. It would be inaccu-

rate to think that books provided them with merely pleasures of the mind. As books were so crucial to their self-

empowerment, it is little wonder that owners of private libraries would go to any lengths to keep their collections intact within their immediate families and pre- vent any public exposure. Many of them simply named their libraries "Mansions for Storing (Away) Books" {Cangshu lou

or Cangshu ge). They set up strict rules to

forbid public access to their collections. For instance, Du Xian (dates uncertain), a

famous collector of the Tang Dynasty, laid down rules for the family to observe, forbidding his children to lend books to an outsider. Zhao Mengfli (1254-1322), a well-known scholar, painter, and calligra- pher in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), put

a special seal on the books so that they

would not be made available to others.^ Others would adopt even more radical measures to protect their collections. An anonymous collector in the Ming Dynasty

built his library on an island. Moreover, he used a drawbridge to connect the library and his house. At night he would raise the bridge so that no one could get close to his collection. Fan Qin (active 1507-1566 AD)

of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) would

go to further extremes. Fan was the owner

of the famous Tian Yi Library with its well-

known collections of books. To protect his

treasure, he set up very rigid rules outlining when the library could be opened, namely, only on the condition that all his sons and grandsons would be in attendance. Anyone who violated the rule by lending a book to an outsider without the knowledge of Fan Qin would be prohibited to participate in family ancestral worship for three years, a most severe punishment at the time. The daughter of a high-ranking official married

a distant relative of Fan who believed she

could gain access to Fan's collection through her marital ties. But this did not happen because she was a woman and also because her husband was only a distant relative. By laying down such extreme measures. Fan Qin wanted to make abso- lutely sure that his collections would be well preserved to benefit his descendants and theirs.^^ To Fan and most other private collectors, libraries were important resour- ces of the economic, sociopolitical, and cultural power of their clans.

Of course, irom time to time, some generous private owners attempted to share their collections. A group of biblio- philes in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD) practiced interlibrary loan among themselves.^^ Zhou Yongnian (1582- 1647), a scholar in the Ming Dynasty, opened his collection to not only fiiends, but the public as well. He wrote an article to advocate the establishment of a com- munity library.^^ Unfortunately, Zhou's example was fieeting and it came to an end upon his death.




Insofar as the owners of imperial and most private libraries did their utmost to forbid public access to their holdings.



of imperial and

most private libraries did their utmost to forbid

public access to their "


their book collecting was in essence a form of self-empowerment. Such an approach to book collecting had a dark side as well, resulting in massive destruc- tion of books at various times. As I shall

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demonstrate presently, the wanton, mas- sive destruetion or censorship (a less radical form of destruction) of books by some emperors constituted a most per- verse testament to an exclusive or mono- polistic philosophy of librarianship. When books were seen to impart knowledge detrimental to their grip on power, or when books were in danger of falling into an enemy's hand, they unhesitatingly ordered the destruction of books, including their treasured collections. Here are a few of the most notorious incidences of book destruction as de- scribed by the Ming scholar Hu Yinglin (1551-1602).^^ In 206 BC, Xiang Yu (232-202 BC), the archrival of Liu Bang for the throne, led his troops to attack the capital of Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC). He torched the palaces ofthe Emperor of Qin, destroying tens of thousands of books. By some historical accounts, the frre lasted for almost three months.'^' Next, toward the end ofthe Westem Han (202 BC- 9 AD), Wang Mang (45 BC-23 AD), the usurper ofthe Westem Han, burned the collections created by the emperors of Westem Han. Then, in his fight against Wang Mang, Liu Xiu (6 B.C-57 AD), the would-be founder of the Eastern Han (25-220), burned whatever remained of the collections. About 33,090 volumes were gone forever in these two fires.^° Toward the end ofthe Eastem Han, General Dong Zhuo (?-192) forced the young emperor to move the capital and thousands of volumes were burned or looted during this disastrous migration.^' About three hundred years later during the Liang Dynasty (502- 557), peasant rebels bumed more than 200,000 volumes.^^ The An Lushan (? - 757) rebellion, which lasted for almost ten years in the Tang Dynasty, made the em- pire lose almost 51,852 volumes.^^ In each of these catastrophic incidences, books became the targets of anger and destruction because they were seen as the source of power of the emperors whom throne eon- tenders or peasant rebels sought to over- throw. In other words, books were in effect "sacrificed" for having been caught in the rivalry for power. Perhaps one of the most striking exam- ples of such massive book destruction occurred when Emperor Xiao Yi (508- 554) of the Liang Dynasty was about to be chased out of his capital. He decided to torch his splendid collections of about 140,000 items.^'* This was no doubt a heart-breaking decision for this emperor known for his cultural refinement. Despite all his genuine love of literature and arts.

112 The Journal of Academic Librarianship

he would rather see his precious collec- tions bumed to ashes than captured by his enemies. To the emperor, allowing access to his books simply meant supplying his enemies with weapons. If the imperial book hoarding resulted in the massive book destruction by the challengers to throne, the private book preserving led to equally massive book destruction ordered by the rulers. The most notorious of such book destruction was the "Incidence of Buming Books and Executing Intellectuals" ordered by Qin Shihuang (259-120 BC) or the First Em- peror of the Qin Dynasty. The event was touched off by remarks made by a scholar. At an imperial banquet, this scholar ar- gued that, if the emperor wanted his empire to last long, he should follow ancient examples and enfief the royal family members. The emperor's chancel- lor Li Si (2807-208 BC) immediately denounced the scholar for borrowing an- cient examples to challenge the present empire. Upon the recommendation of the chancellor, the Emperor ordered that all ancient records and texts be bumed, with the exception of only those pertaining to the Qin history and some practical arts. Confrician classics such as Book of Songs and Book of Documents and the works of other philosophical schools were major targets of destruction. He also ordered the execution of all those who dared to discuss these texts or knew someone who had done so but did not report it.''^ So, in 213 BC, countless precious books were bumed and the burgeoning private collec- tions undoubtedly bore the brunt of this onslaught. In fact, not only were these private collections destroyed, but 460 scholars (and presumably some book col- lectors) who disobeyed the imperial orders were executed.^^ Apparently, in the eyes of the Emperor, private posses- sion and ownership of books were a threat to the empire as it would allow for the empowerment of private individuals at the expense of his absolute power. The court-sanctioned book destruction and censorship never ceased to exist. In fact, it became extremely harsh and exten- sive during the Qing Dynasty. Not belong- ing to the Han ethnic majority, the Qing rulers had developed a paranoia about uncomplimentary references to non-Han ethnic minorities and went all out to de- stroy and censor books and records they deemed explicitly or potentially subver- sive. In 1772, Emperor Qianlong (1711- 1799) issued an order for the compilation of the Siku Quanshu (The Emperor's four

treasuries), an annotated collectenea con- sisting of four categories (classics, history, philosophy, and belles letters). To com- plete the project, the Emperor ordered the court and local officials to collect all rare items nationwide. He further encouraged private owners to donate their rare books to the imperial library. The whole collecta- nea, containing 10,680 titles, took 700 editors, collators, and copyists twenty- two years to complete.^^ While this project helped preserve a great many important works of philosophy, history, and litera- ture, it also led to the irrecoverable loss of numerous books. The Emperor ordered the compilers to examine every item carefrilly and destroy any item containing any anti- Machu (the ethnic group of the emperor) contents. About 151,000 volumes were demolished in a nationwide campaign of book destruction and censorship. Wars and social disorder continued to bring terrible consequences to book col- lectors in the modem time. During WWII, various libraries in China lost 1 billion items.''' In terms of the absolute number of books destroyed, any of the incidents mentioned above would pale in compari- son with the Great Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The earliest phase of this cataclysmic ideological campaign wit- nessed the massive devastation of books by Red Guards in an effort to eradicate all remnants of feudalism and capitalism. With the intense fervor of a religious fa- naticism, the Red Guards ransacked most historical sites and institutions of leaming, destroying whatever objects that would remind people of China's feudal past and the capitalist West. Books, of course, were the prime targets of destruction. Fortunate- ly, this wave of indiscriminate destruction of public cultural objects was very soon stopped by the decrees from the central govemment, and libraries of public insti- tutions were spared large-scale destruc- tion. Making the collections unavailable by the temporary closing of libraries and the longer suspension of circulation of materials about pre-modem China and Westem countries produced probably the unintended effect of protecting library holdings. Private collections, however, fared much worse. When the Red Guards targeted the homes of famous scholars and book collectors, they destroyed many books immediately and confiscated the remainder of these collections. Of these confiscated collections, some were com- pletely destroyed and others only had parts left for retum to the owners after the Cultural Revolution. This destruction of

private book collections was so rampant that it is impossible to give an accurate account of the number of books destroyed, but it was probably in the millions.'"' Just as imperial and private book hoarding often ended in massive book destruction amid various kinds of rivalry for power, each catastrophic incidence of book de- struction deepened the recognition of books' precarious existence and hence intensified the hoarding instinct. With each repetition, this vicious cycle of book hoar- ding and destruction struck public-phobia ever deeper into the minds of imperial and private collectors alike.






As shown in this historical overview, the belief that knowledge is power undergirds traditional Chinese librarianship. From antiquity to the end of dynastic China, how the owners of imperial and private libraries behaved regarding their attitudes of books had much to do with the posses- sion, preservation, or deprivation of reli- gious, sociopolitical, and cultural power. Indeed, the owners of imperial and private libraries shared a similar philosophy of librarianship: to monopolize the source of knowledge and, when they could not do so, control the dissemination of knowl- edge in ways conducive to the acquisition and enhancement of their sociopolitical and cultural power."" This philosophy of librarianship strikes us as being very sim- ilar to the monopolistic philosophy of librarianship embraced by feudal lords, aristocrats, and ecclesiastical churches in pre-Renaissance Europe.'*^ Interestingly, the philosophy of mod- em librarianship also rests on the belief that knowledge is power. However, the power now in question is not that of imperial rulers or the privileged elite, but that of the general public. Indeed, Francis



power now in

question is not that of imperial rulers or the privileged elite, but that of the general public."

Bacon, the seventeenth century Enlight- enment thinker, had the empowerment of the public in his mind when he put forward

his motto "Knowledge is power. ""^^ Thanks to persistent drive of public empowerment, crystallized in this Baco- nian motto. Western libraries have gone through a thorough transformation since the Renaissance. Instead of exclusively serving kings and the aristocratic elite, they have eventually become the custodians of knowledge and power for the general public. User service has consequently become the centerpiece in modem aca- demic librarianship. The earliest builders of Chinese aca- demic libraries were keenly aware of the need to rethink the primary library mission along the line of user service. However, this fundamental change of the philosophy

of librarianship proved easier thought than

done. Not only did these Chinese pioneers

not have as long a transitional period as their Westem counterparts had, but they also had to fight against an exclusive philosophy of librarianship that had existed millennia longer and hence was far more deeply entrenched. For evidence


the Chinese tendency to retain tradition-


beliefs about the library, we might look

briefly at some relevant developments in the turbulent early years of modem China.

After the Opium War in 1842, Chris- tian missionaries opened the first two public libraries to operate on a Westem model in Shanghai, China: the Xujiahui Public Library (1847) and the Shanghai Municipal Consult Library (1851)."*" Both

offered free circulation of library material. Significantly, however, neither evoked much response. Clearly, the audience the- ses institutions were meant for was not yet ready to benefit from what they had to give. To some extent, this may have been due to a lack of interest in Christian missionary literature. But it also reflects

a failure to appreciate Westem library

practices. At a later point, sometime after 1880, the movement toward library reform be- gan to gain momentum from progressive native sources. Here, the pivotal figure was undoubtedly Zheng Guanying

(1842-1922). A prominent banker/indus- trialist with extensive connections to the

West, Zheng expressed his sense of the need for library reform in a series of essays written from 1884 to 1893 and collected in

a volume entitled Sheng shi wei yan

(Wamings to a Prosperous Age). His idea for library reform shows quite clearly what he felt he was up against. His first and perhaps most important point was a scath- ing critique of the traditional Chinese library as a book repository whose private

status made it almost completely useless as an agency for educational improve- ment."*^ Yet his vision of library reform, despite able support within the Qing min- istry by Deng Huaji (1826-1917), failed to find favor at the Imperial court. Once again, we can only assume his ideas did not accord with traditional Chinese belief about what a library should be. It would take the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894 to bring the Chinese intelligentsia closer to Westem library practices. This time the effort to modemize was led by one of the most dominant scholars and thinkers Liang Qichao (1873-1929). Like Zheng Guany- ing, Liang drew his notions of library reform from the West. Unlike Zheng, however, he managed to translate these into reality through the library of the Qiang Xue Hui (Study Society), which he founded in Beijing. Yet, as Liang dis- covered, it was not enough just to create a library. Instead, he and other volunteers had to energetically encourage the Chi- nese intelligentsia in Beijing to use it. The fact that he had to do so suggests that even the Chinese intelligentsia were still unac- customed (if not actually resistant) to the concept of free public circulation of library materials. And the fact that his library was shut down by the Qing govemment in less than six months on the charge of dissem- ination of subversive ideas points to even stronger resistance elsewhere. From these cmcial years of transition, marked by stmggle and resistance, we can see how difficult the acceptance of Westem library practices was likely to prove. When Chinese imperial and private libraries became important resources for collections in modem academic libraries, the traditional concepts of books and knowledge and the conventional practices of library management were inherited un- consciously.''^ Indeed, although pioneers in Chinese modem librarianship realized the importance of opening collections to public, although library patrons changed from the privileged few to the general educated public, most academic libraries continued to enforce strict measures to limit public access to library collections. The library establishment seemed far more interested in preserving and expanding book collections than making books con- veniently accessible to users. In the eyes of many early academic librarians, books were precious objects to preserve and li- braries were the repositories of such pre- cious objects, as they had always been in traditional China.

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Since China launched economic reform and opened herself to the world in 1979, Chinese academic libraries have made great progress in their drive towards mod- emization. Achievements are particularly remarkable in three areas: collection de- velopment, space expansion, and the adoption of modem technologies. If we look at Bejing University Library for example, the size of its holdings increased from 2,460,000 in 1963 to more than 4,500,000 volumes in 1995."^ To house its newly acquired holdings, the Beijing University Library had a grand building constructed in 1998 that has more than 274,000 square feet, with the capability of housing up to 3,000,000 volumes."^ The rapid expansion of the Bejing University Library reflects a national trend. Among 1,000 major universities, more than one third had new libraries built between 1988 and 1994.'*' The building of new facilities brings no small benefits to users. Newer and larger libraries usually provide additional read- ing rooms, seats, and computer terminals for use by patrons. More significantly, in the drive to have these new libraries built to modem standards, many state-of-the-art information technologies were adopted. For instance, back in early 1980s, com- puters were a rarity in the entire system of Chinese academic libraries. In Guangdong province, there was only one computer terminal among forty academic libraries up until 1980.^ However, beginning with the 1990s, automation systems and then Intemet facilities were quickly established in all major academic libraries. In addition to their local automation systems, 100 university libraries initiated a networking project to share their information resour- ces in 1994.^' Some Chinese academic libraries have begun to render services to the entire country and even the world. In 1997, Beijing University Library for the first time successfully delivered an article electronically to the University of Pitts- burgh, signaling the emergence of a new service feature in Chinese academic librar- ies.^^ The adoption of modem technology not only greatly expedites infonnation retrieval by patrons, but also compels library administrators to formulate new policies and formats for the dissemination of knowledge. Now, more than 700 out of 1080 universities offer various courses on infonnation literacy.^^

114 The Journal of Academic Librarianship

The impressive new services noted above seem to be largely "by-products" of a nationwide infrastructure upgrade rather than the result of a concerted effort by library administrators to prioritize user service. In areas not directly impacted by the infrastmcture upgrade, there is a no- ticeable lack of improvement in user ser- vice. The neglect of personnel training, for example, is a sobering reminder that user service remains a low priority in Chinese academic libraries. For their tangible ben- efits to patrons, smart machines cannot possibly be a substitute for libraiy profes- sionals devoted to user service.^ Indeed, not until the 1980s were there truly professional librarians who had received rigorous formal training in library and information science rather than in other disciplines.^^ Although the profile of library person- nel has improved since library school graduates began to join the rank in the mid-1980s, the lack of professional librar- ians is nearly as severe now as before. The number of library school graduates can hardly keep up with the increase of library expansion and, to make things

"The number of library school graduates can hardly keep up with the increase of library "


worse, many of these graduates left their positions as soon as they found better paying jobs outside of academic li- braries.^ As noted by Ping Ke in a recent article, many academic libraries have now come to realize the crucial importance of the training of dedicated library profes- sionals, as they "have started placing greater emphasis on their human resour- ces than before in order to maximize the ability of employees and to help them reach their potential."^^ The neglect of personnel training is reflected in not only the quantity but also the quality of trained professionals, espe- cially with regard to the inculcation of the modem user-oriented philosophy of librar- ianship. Although they have a sophisticat- ed knowledge of information technologies, many library professionals continue to think in the mode of traditional librarian- ship and regard themselves more as custo- dians of books than as the servants of

readers. Recently, I visited several academ- ic libraries in China. While I was deeply impressed by their collections, facilities, and main-stack services, I was rather dis- appointed to note that their departmental libraries provided services to solely to faculty members and students within the departments. The collections in these li- braries were even unavailable in the uni- versity online databases. Yet some of these departmental libraries were equipped with the latest infonnation technologies and run by technology-savvy professional librar- ians. Confronting this stark incongmity between the state-of-the-art technologies and the antiquated circulation policies, we can clearly see the extent to which the old conception of books and knowledge has handicapped the development of user



The present situation of user service in Chinese academic libraries is a story that gives us reason for hope as well as for sober reflection. When viewed against the millennia-old public-phobic practices of imperial and private libraries, what Chi- nese academic libraries have accom- plished is impressive. The progress made in the last twenty years is particularly breathtaking. The introduction of modem information technology has breathed new life into Chinese librarianship, dissipating the stale aristocratic thinking about books and knowledge by providing convenient and often unhindered universal access to the Intemet.

Although information technology has brought about marked improvement to information accessibility in the domain of electronic data-sharing, it has not done much to help improve user service in the areas where the physical handling of printed books is still a necessity. As online publication is but virtual print—a pale reflection of the truly important printed books—it can hardly pose a real challenge to the entrenched notion of books as precious objects. In fact, as illustrated, some library administrators still cling to historic notion of books as did the keepers of imperial and private libraries. They still treat their collections as treasures for a small circle of privileged users and are not willing to share them with the public at large. So long as they do so, they are bound to regard book acquisition and development as the primary mission of the library and continue to ignore user service. They will also seek to maintain various restrictive policies on both intra-

library and interlibrary loan out of an excessive concem for book preservation. So only by confronting and understanding the old conception of books, knowledge, and all associated practices can Chinese academic libraries tackle the root cause of poor user service and work towards estab- lishing user service as the central library mission.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Professors Jane Block, Robert Burger, Leon Chai, and Cara Ryan for reading the draft of my article.



1. Inadequate services are mainly reflected in restricted entrance to libraries, closed-stack system, antiquated service, and slow re- trieval of requested materials. For detailed studies, please see Henrietta Lo, "The Ob- stacles to Reform: China Modernized its University Libraries," College & Research Libraries 48 (November 1987): 504-512.

2. Confronting this problem in the 1980s, Henrietta Lo, Lee-hsia Hsu Ting, and other scholars emphasized the adverse impact of sociopolitical upheavals in twentieth cen- tury China on the development of Chinese academic libraries in general and user serv- ice in particular, see Henrietta Lo, "The Obstacles to Reform," and Lee-Hsia Hsu Ting, "Library Services in the People's Republic of China: A Historical Over- view," Library Quarterly 53 (April 1983):

134-160. This argument was obviously quite convincing at the time when China was still struggling with the attermath of the cataclysmic Cultural Revolution. But it is difficult now to attribute it to external sociopolitical factors as the last two deca- des represent a period of remarkable soci- opolitical stability and economic growth in the last two and a half decades in Chi- nese history. Therefore, some scholars be- gin to examine various internal factors that impede the development of user serv- ices. For instance. Ping Ke points out that "some academic libraries still maintain close-stack [sic] system; in other libraries, students are not allowed to share the same reading rooms that are assigned to faculty members, although major reference books are housed in these reading rooms," see Ping Ke, "Toward Continual Reform:

Progress in Academic Libraries in China," College & Research Libraries 63 (March 2002): 164-170.

3. Chaoxian Li, Zhongguo tu shu guan shi (History of Chinese libraries) (Guizhou Jiao yu chu ban she, Guizhou, 1992), p. 18.

4. Kwang-chih Chang, Shang Civilization (New Heaven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 31-42.

5. Li, Zhongguo tu shu guan shi, p. 25.

6. Jiyu Ren, Zhongguo cang shu lou (Ancient

libraries in China), (Liaoning: Liaoning ren min ehu ban she, 2001), p. 343.

7. Ibid, pp. 343-355.

8. Ibid, p. 350.

9. Youmei Wang, Zhongguo tu shu guan fa zhan shi (The History of Library Develop- ment in China) (Jilin: Jilin jiao yu chu ban she, 1991), p. 33.

10. Shu'a n Jiao , Zhongguo gu dai cang shu shi hua (History of Ancient Book Collect- ing in China) (Taiwan: Taiwan shang wu yin shu guan, 1994), p. 27.

11. Ibid, p . 27 .

12. Shaohua Xie , ed. , Zhongguo tu shu he tu shu guan shi (History of Books and Libra- ries in China) (Wuchang: Wuhan da xue ehu ban she, 1987), pp. 84-85.

13. Ibid, p . 88 .

14. Wang, Zhongguo tu shu guan, p . 188.

15. Ibid, p . 151 .

16. Ren, Zhongguo cang shu lou, p. 13.

17. Wang, Zhongguo tu shu guan, p. 40.

18. Xie, Zhongguo tu shu, p. 96.

19. Ren , Zhongguo cang shu lou, p. 116.

20. Ibid, p . 116.

21. Xuemei Li, Zhongguo jin dai cang shu wen hua (The Chinese Culture of Book Collecting) (Beijing: Xian dai chu ban she, 1999), p. 20.

22. Ximi Li, ed., Zhongguo gu dai cang shu yujin dai tu shu guan shi liao (Historical Documents of Ancient Collections and Pre-modem Libraries in China) (Beijing:

Zhonghua shu ju, 1982), p. 21.

23. Ren, Zhongguo cang shu lou, p. 90.

24. Li, Zhongguo jin dai

25. Ibid, pp. 22-23 .

26. Nanoy Lee Swann, "Seven Intimate Li- brary Owners", Harvard Journal of Asia- tic Studies 1 (1936): 369-390.

27. Ren, Zhongguo cang shu lou, p. 109.


29. Ibid, p . 189.

30. Li, Zhongguo gu dai cang shu, p. 4.

31. Ibid, p. 13.

32. Xie, Zhongguo tu shu, p. 65.

33. Li, Zhongguo gu dai cang shu, p. 7.

34. Xie, Zhongguo tu shu, p. 65.

35. Derk Bodde, "The State and Empire of Ch'in," in vol. 1 of The Cambridge His- tory of China, edited by Denis Twitchett & Michael Loewe (Taibei: Caves Books Ltd., 1987), p. 69.

36. Ibid, p. 71 .

37. Kent R. Guy, The Emperor's Four Treas- uries: Scholars and the State in the Late Ch 'ien-lung Era, (Cambridge, Mass: Har- vard University Press, 1987), p. 1.

38. Ren, Zhongguo cang shu lou, p. 189.

39. Xinxia Lai, "Zhongguo cang shu wen hua man lun" (A Discussion on Book Collect- ing History in China), in Zhongguo gu dai cang shu lou yan jiu (Studies on Chinese Ancient Libraries) edited by Jianguo Huang & Yaoxin Gao (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1999), p. 21.

40. Ting, "Library Services," pp. 145-151 .

41. Sidney L. Jackson, Libraries and Librar-

cang shu, p . 21 .

Ibid, p . 186.

ianship in the West: A Brief History, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1974).

42. Elmer D. Johnson & Michael H. Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World, 3rd ed. (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1995), pp. 33, 107.

43. John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations: A Col- lection of Passages, Phrases, and Prov- erbs Traced to their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature, 16th ed., (Boston:

Little Brown, 1992), p. 178.

44. Ren, Zhongguo cang shu lou, p. 1822.

45. Dongyuan Xia, comps., Zheng Guanying ji (Collective Works of Zheng Guanying) (Shanghai: Shanghai ren min chu ban she, 1982), pp. 304-305.

46. Xi Wu, Beijing da xue tu shu guan jiu shi nian ji lue (The Ninety Years' History of Beijing University Library), (Beijing: Bei- jing da xue chu ban she, 1992), pp. 16-17.

47. Priscilla C. Yu, Chinese Academic and Re- search Libraries: Acquisitions, Collec- tions, and Organizations, Foundations in Library and Information Science, vol. 36, (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press Inc., 1996), p. 13.

48. Qiang Zhu, "The construction of the New Peking University Library", in Building Li-

braries for the 21st

Century: The Shape of

Information, edited by T.D. Webb, (Jeffer- son, NC: McFarland & Company, 2000), pp. 53-73 .

49. Zongzhong Huang & Li Huang, "Gai ge kai fang 20 nian de Zhongguo tu shu guan shi ye" (The Chinese Librarianship during the Reforms in the Last Twenty Years), Tu shu guan (Library) 2 (1999): 1-10.

50. Xiangjin Tan & Youjun Wei, "Guangdong Sheng tu shu guan zi dong hua" (Automa- tion in Guangdong Libraries), Gao xiao wen xian xin xi xue kan (Journal of Infor- mation Science in Academic Library) 3:3 (1996): 26-31.

51. Qinjian Yuan, Bo Shao, & Bo Ni, "CER- NET wang luo zhong xin de WWW xin xi zi yuan jian she de xian zhuang" (Current Situation of CERNET), Qing bao zi liao gong zuo (Information Resource) 2 (1999): 21-23.

52. Rush Glenn Miller & Peter Zhou, "Global Resource Sharing: A Gateway Model", Journal of Academic Librarianship 25 (4) (July 1999)281-287.

53. Huang, "Gai ge kai fang," p. 8.

54. Mingrong Hu & Haiwang Yuan, "Quali - fled Librarians are Key to Modernization of Chinese Libraries", Kentucky Libraries

66 (3) (Summer 2002): 18-20.

55. Maureen Dianne Pastine, "An International Library Exchange in China: Academic and Research Libraries in PRC," College and Research Libraries News 6 (June 1986):

392-394, 396-398.

56. Xiaoning Yang & Rongxing Cheng, "The Chinese Academic Library: Its Situation and Problems", Education for Information

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57. Ke, "Towards Continual Reform," p . 164.

March 2004