Alongside the human rights and free speech issues that were raised at the London Book Fair’s China World Market Focus this year, there loomed the quintessentially Chinese issue of size, both in terms of population and expanse of land. When it comes to serving China’s public libraries, the country’s 1.3 billion readers remain a huge challenge: compared to the United States’ one public library system for every 34,000 residents, China’s ratio is one per every 489,000 potential library users—a vast gap to close no matter how fast growth is occurring.
It isn’t that there is a poverty of library resources and developments across the board, says Scarlet He, General Manager of Founder Apabi, a Chinese-based company that offers digital services to publishers and libraries alike. The problem is “regional”, with some regions largely or completely unserved, while others—namely, the two main urban centers of Shanghai and Beijing—develop their systems rapidly.
When it comes to expanding access, one of the simplest—and most palpable—changes came to the Shanghai Public Library earlier this year: in place of the old fee-based system, library cards and entry to the library are now offered to the public at no cost. Ongoing success, though, will require “special efforts to measure the new and different needs of information, because Shanghai is changing so rapidly as it reaches a population of 22 million,” says Robert Baensch, consultant at Baensch International. Even for a library that claims to be the “tallest in the world” (at 24 stories), China’s numbers-issue remains: The average 8,000-10,000 daily visitors often have to wait in long lines just to get through the front door.
This rapid growth of the major urban libraries throws into even greater relief the vast number of Chinese readers who are underserved by the library system. Hong Kong-based writer and editor Andrew Schrage says that some trace regional gaps in library service back to the governmental reforms of 1978, when local governments, suddenly given more power over their budgets, poured all available funds into things like tourism and commerce. There are those, however, who see even the dazzling metropolitan libraries as falling short of the standard of public service a library should offer—more like a “book museum” than a public library. “Book museum” is the turn of phrase used by the Chinese author and activist popularly known as “Xinran”, when speaking about the majority of public libraries: “They offer hardly any open and free services to ordinary Chinese,” she says.
Although not classified as public libraries, the 505,000 “Bookrooms” founded by the Nationwide Reading Project are working to bring books to all parts of the country, and Robert Baensch reports that Bookrooms are now in 84% of administrative rural villages in China. A different “party” in the field of Chinese public libraries comes from outside the government—indeed, from outside the country altogether. Xinran, whose own nonprofit, Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL), is registered in the UK, told PT about the influx of foreign NGO’s who have worked to found libraries in rural areas in the past ten years. The majority of these privately/internationally funded libraries—including the fourteen started by MBL—are focused on serving children and youth, the population that, along with parents, makes up a majority of library users across all of China, according to Scarlet He.
To help alleviate physical constraints of libraries, initiatives for digital expansion are moving quickly: this year’s London Book Fair marked the launch of Publishing Technology and the China National Publications Import and Export Corporation’s (CNPIEC) joint project, The Digital Gateway. Publishing Technology and CNPIEC have been delivering Chinese content to libraries through their ingentaconnect.com platform since last year, but The Digital Gateway, with both English and Mandarin interfaces, will serve to bring international content to more than 10,000 institutional- and public-library users in China. Additionally, Andrew Schrage points out that as far back as 2010, the Beijing Public Library system had an in-library ereader lending system—though this service is only available to those “owning” an “E-class” library card). The system has 50,000 titles available as ebooks, a number expected to grow by 20% in 2012. Shanghai now offers Bambook ereader rentals, but in keeping with its new policies of widened access (and in contrast to Beijing), this service is free to all its cardholders.
Even if digital does help widen the reach of content to remote areas, Henen Sun, CEO of Publishing Technology China, and George Lossius, CEO of Publishing Technology spoke to how the Chinese Government understands—and is trying to meet—the need for a library’s physical space: all libraries are expected to be “a public space where [patrons] can not only read, but also meet people and discuss ideas and issues.” Perhaps the greatest balancing act ahead for Chinese public libraries is determining the areas in which digital developments can meet readers’ needs, and which require creating and maintaining enough physical space.