Reflections on Chinese libraries

Now that the exchange is drawing to a close, there are some threads that cut across the libraries we’ve seen that we want to share.  At moments we’ve been wowed by the innovations and ambitious library programs Fujian Province and probably China as a whole are undertaking. There is an earnestness and sincere desire to pull library service forward. This was evidenced many times by the intense interest in our presentations and even directors saying that they wanted to do their best to learn from us.  Granted, sometimes we could tell that attending our presentations was a mandatory staff activity and many in the audience spent the time playing with their cell phones.  But many times, once the discussion got going, young staff members would stand up with questions or comments that showed a hunger for new ideas and answers to some of the same questions Oregon libraries are thinking about.

We sometimes wondered privately what we had to teach when faced with state of the art technology that we lust after in Oregon.  But then we would think about the other aspects of the libraries we’ve seen.  Such as the fact that they have a very strong relationship, even dependence, on vendors to build collections in what seems like a carte blanche way.  New municipal library branches are often established because someone gave money, a building, or a collection and the library took on the responsibility to operate without new staff.  It’s our perception that this phenomenon has a lot to do with the popularity of RFID.  It seems that most libraries accept and keep everything they are given or they buy.  Reputation is still tied to the number of volumes and there is an abundance of space.

Staffing seems slim and some libraries rely very heavily on volunteers.  Working in a library is a government job that you get by taking a general exam and then are appointed to the library.  Once in, you’re there to stay and transferring to other government departments does not seem to happen.  One group of young staffers asked us many questions about promotion and evaluation in American libraries, and admitted that there are those among them who feel stuck.  Even many of the library directors we met seem to have gotten their job this way.  That may explain some of the great interest in  learning from the exchange librarians and the dependence on vendors. We had the feeling sometimes that there was sincere desire to improve library service but not necessarily the knowledge of what that might mean or professional opportunities to learn.  It’s interesting to note that many of the directors who had new buildings to show described a design and planning process where they personally created the design and made the decisions.  Very often the new library would have state-of-the-art features and all the expected elements of a contemporary library.  But then there would be some detail such as a huge space with nowhere to sit or no OPAC stations near the book stacks that would make us scratch our heads. It’s also interesting that two of the Chinese exchange librarians who were in Oregon in April said that the thing they noticed most was the degree to which American librarians love their job and are committed to their work, implying that this is different from their experience in China.

Throughout the trip we tried to understand the relationship of libraries and citizens to today’s Communist Party.  One great benefit of the cultural exchange aspect of the trip was the opportunity to spend lots of time with our Chinese hosts and have long conversations about their lives and views on the world.  It was a revelation to see how open China is today compared to our outdated notions about “Red” China. It’s a free-wheeling, highly commercial country now and people feel the same stresses Americans do about educating their kids, finding a job, buying a home, and making ends meet.  There are an unbelievable number of luxury cars on the road – Mercedes, BMWs, Audis, and Porsches are common.  Another stereotype dashed about what a Communist country is like!  We had some times when the Internet did weird things with our email if the message contained certain words but we also learned that VPNs are in widespread use and that many young people get their news from sources outside China by using a VPN.

Many libraries have a Party member on the management staff and the major universities seem to each have a Deputy Director who is also the designated Party Secretary. It took a few conversations to understand that these universities have a prestigious designation to a national program called 211 which seems to be guided in some way by the government to meet certain standards.  It seems that making sure the library is complying is part of the job of the Party Secretary on staff.  Our friend, Ms Liu, indicated that this was more administrative than ideological and was only one of the many roles she plays.  The provincial library has a Party disciplinary committee and this was explained to us as having an oversight role with management (not staff), particularly regarding use of funds.  There is a large national frugality and anti-corruption campaign underway, which is another indication of the directions current leaders are taking the country.

If there is one big idea we will bring home, it’s a greater respect for China and a better understanding of why China is on its way to being one of the world’s most important superpowers.  We’re so thankful for the opportunity to experience China personally and we will think about what we’ve learned for a long time.

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