Reflections on Chinese libraries

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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.

Speaking the Lori/Pat dialect

Since we’ve been here, we’ve met people from a variety of provinces, municipalities, and villages.   And what we’ve found is that even though the Chinese language in written format is consistent, the spoken language varies greatly, with many dialects.   Which leads to the story of the Lori/Pat dialect.

While in Shanghai, Pat and Lori began practicing some Chinese words that we could use to break the ice with the people we would meet during the exchange.     Pat had downloaded an e-book on her iPad that contained basic vocabulary words (e.g. hello, numbers, yes, no, thank you, etc.).  The best part (at least what we thought was the best part) was it has an audio function that allows you to hear a word pronounced — very important for a language that has four distinct tones (at least for Mandarin speakers – Cantonese has more!)  What this  means is that a single “word” can have four different meanings, depending on the tone used when speaking the word.

Pat and Lori began to practice with each other by listening to the dulcet tones of our audio e-book instructor and carefully repeating after her.  We thought we were doing well until we met up with Angela and began practicing our words on her – she couldn’t understand us at all!  Neither could the Mandarin speakers that we’ve met from various libraries – but we were able to understand each other – so we determined that we had inadvertently created our own dialect, in a country that already has many.

What’s been most humorous about this attempt to “learn” a little language is that we continue to practice words together – often muttering repeated words or people’s names to each other in the car or other random times – as we try to speak in the appropriate tones, which likely makes us sound a little nutty to those around us.  Can you imagine hearing someone repeating the word for library several times to themselves?  While we have made some progress in recognizing certain words in conversations, we still struggle with the pronunciation of many words, but we’re determined to keep working on our Lori/Pat dialect until it becomes recognizable to others…

Chinese medicine up close and personal

Fujian province has many geothermal hot springs and consequently many spas.  Although residents don’t enjoy swimming at the beach, they do enjoy going to the spa for a hot soak, especially in the winter.  Massages are also popular and are considered a good way to maintain a healthy body.  There are commercial spas that offer a wide variety of massage techniques and there are traditional Chinese medicine establishments that offer Chinese massage treatments as one option for medical treatment.

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Our last morning in Xiamen was unscheduled, and Xu, our host, proposed going together for a massage.  There was much discussion about where to go and what kind of massage have but it turned out that the Chinese medical clinic was the most convenient option on a Sunday morning so we agreed to give it a try in the spirit of having a cultural experience.  Angela was delighted, as she goes for a Chinese massage each month in Portland.  Pat was happy to have some kinks worked out of her back after hauling heavy luggage around for several weeks and Lori was willing to give it a go.  We shared a room with 3 massage tables, 3 technicians clad in white nurses uniforms, a cup of tea beforehand, and then the experience of having intense pressure applied from head to toe and occasional moans and groans when one of us reached our pain limit and had to beg for mercy.  Now we know what it feels like when a Chinese doctor works on opening a blocked channel in the body. It hurts! Final verdict on repeating the experience: Angela – yes!  Pat – maybe… Lori – no thanks!

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Xiamen Children’s Library

Xiamen Children’s Library is another library under the Culure Dept. rather than the municipal library.  This is not an usual thing and has something to do with an intent on the part of the provincial government to promote cultural knowledge.  The Deputy Director  gave us a tour and then served tea while we sat in their meeting room and talked shop with key members of the staff.  The building is 6 floors tall, with reading rooms and service points on most floors.  It’s open 7 days a week until 6:30 pm. As with every public library we’ve seen, it’s fairly empty during the week and extremely crowded on weekends.  Consequently, it opens at 8:00 am on Saturday and Sunday.  It’s a little eery to visit big buildings full of technology and materials but no patrons, but every library has talked about the huge crowds they get on the weekend.

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Notable facts about the Children’s Library:

– It has a cool rooftop vegetable garden tended by children as a library weekend activity.  Each child plants some seeds in a big pot, tends that plant as it grows and gets to take home the harvest.

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– It also has a couple of craft rooms and a cullture room where cultural programs take place (such as puppet shows, music and classes in the Fujian dialect).

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– There are over 1,000 events each year.

– All the storytime programs are given by volunteer parents (a common theme).

– They have 870,000 ebook titles!  The ones we saw were anime-type animations, some with educational themes.  It sounds like many come in packages from publishers and some may even be provided by companies.  The ebook collection takes 12 terabytes of computer space.  We made him repeat this figure, but apparently it’s true!

– There is a collection of 200,000 books in English purchased with funds received each year from a foundation. We saw many picture books we recognized.

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– The touchscreen ebook stations have a one hour time limit because parents don’t want their kids spending too much time on the computer because it’s not good for their eyes. The computers have filtered Internet access.

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– Library staff give outreach talks at schools once a month to promote the library.  They were very curious about other ways to get kids interested in the  library, especially teens.  But teens are mostly working so hard to prepare for the national exams that they don’t have much time for anything else.

– They love the idea of Read To The Dogs!

That evening, we were treated to a lively banquet with the Xiamen Children’s Library staff, including the Director, who had just returned from the conference in Changting.

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Historic Changting

Changting is designated as a national historic and cultural city. It’s the center of the Hakka ethnic group, was a center of revolutionary activity in the 1930s and the hometown of the Red Army.  Mao Ze Dong spent time in Changting in 1932 along with Soviets assisting in the Revolution.  They occupied buildings that are now museums.

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A local librarian from Changting arranged a walking tour of these sites after the conference.  We visited a former Confucian temple where Mao and colleague Zu De stayed.

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We also saw a missionary hospital in which one of Mao’s daughters was born. The picture in the photo below is of Mao’s wife.

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We also went to a Song Dynasty (960-1279) building that was used as an Imperial Examination site during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  In 1932, the first congress of delegates of workers, peasants and army men was held in the building and later it became the headquarters of the Soviet government in China.

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Changting is very proud of its role in Chinese history and it was a great treat to see these places for ourselves.  Our tour guide sang 2 beautiful revolutionary songs – beautiful melodies that ended with a unique whistle – used by the comrades as they carried on the struggle.

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Our last stop was Changting’s mother statue, where we also were treated to a beautiful sunset.

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Fujian Society of Library Science conference

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Monday we participated in the annual conference of the Fujian Society of Library Science.  The conference opened at 8:30 with remarks by Fujian Provincial Library Director Zheng followed by a speech by the Deputy Director of the Fujian Culture Dept, Chen Ji.  At the morning break we were invited to meet with Deputy Director Chen for a short meet and greet conversation.  He was very gracious and interested in the state of our libraries in the U.S.

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Several short presentations followed given by library system vendors and then it was time for Lori’s presentation on Academic Library Design.

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Pat’s presentation on Services to Children and Teens at Multnomah County Library was next on the program after a lunch break.

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In contrast to American library conferences, there was one continuous session with many speakers rather than multiple tracks or workshops to select.  The audience took notes or listened, but did not ask questions or engage in discussion.  It had more of the feel of a day-long class than an opportunity for collegial discussion.

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On the way to the library conference

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Sunday morning we left for the Fujian provincial library conference, held this year in Changting.  Changting is located at the far western edge of Fujian province near the border with JiangxI province.  Six of us rode in FPL’s Buick Shanghai GM minivan (not including the Chairman), following Director Zheng’s car in a little motorcade through the lovely Fujian countryside.

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Fujian province is rural and lush with tropical greenery and the occasional farming village.  It’s very hilly.  As we drove west we passed through a mountainous region, driving on a 4-lane toll road with little traffic.  The engineering solution to building the road through the mountains was to tunnel under rather than going over.  The toll road had dozens of long, illuminated tunnels, some of which were longer than one kilometer.  It was an impressive and beautiful drive.

As has been a common theme on this trip, we were treated to a delicious banquet along the way by the FPL staff.

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Nihao Fuzhou!

We arrived today in Fujian!  Lori and Pat flew in from Shanghai after spending a few days braving the unseasonal record-breaking rains of Typhoon Fitow.  Angela arrived via Taipei.  Our first impressions of Fujian?  Relief at seeing the familiar friendly faces of Ms. Ye, Ms. Yang and Ms. Liu, friends made during their visit to Oregon in April.  And it’s green, tropical, sunny and bustling, not unlike a young Las Vegas set in HawaiI (without the casinos).  The late afternoon sun was beautiful. This was the view from the 13th floor of the Min Jiang Hotel.

Fuzhou at dusk