Indian professor in China explains how public libraries are benefiting Chinese society

They not only serve as 'knowledge depositories' for research, but also as centres for spreading knowledge.

 |  4-minute read |   27-09-2017
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What could be the best way to construct a better society? Imparting free education and opening the gates of learning centres to all. Libraries are repositories of knowledge, and as was argued by Francis Bacon centuries ago, knowledge is power.

The rise of China is not only about asserting its political and economic might, but more precisely in investing in knowledge-building. China's growing influence in the world has been marked by the spectacular performance of its universities in global rankings, a growing numbers of patents, and scientific research that has challenged hitherto Western-dominated domains of knowledge and social sciences by providing alternative concepts and theories.

Public libraries in China are serving not only as "knowledge depositories" for research, but also as centres for spreading knowledge across segments of society. Access to libraries is free and requires only an identity proof - passport for foreigners. A smart library card makes the reader's experiences convenient and hassle-free while enjoying the library's facilities. Membership is free and for life. For borrowing books, users need to deposit a security amount, which is refundable.

Compare this to any public library in India, where administrative hurdles seem designed to restrict the access to knowledge, historically a privilege for a few. For instance, to get a membership of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial and Library, commonly known as Teen Murti Library, in New Delhi, you need identity cards (PAN card, Aadhaar card, official id, student id) and a reference letter from your institute, or prove that you are an independent researcher. You also need to pay for packaged membership options. To put it differently, common citizens are discouraged from accessing public libraries.

China has invested generously in its libraries, also taking care of the buildings' aesthetics - not just Chinese, but even reputable international architects are brought in to design library buildings.

Recently, the Shanghai Library announced the construction of its east branch in the Pudong Area of Shanghai, the newly developed hub of financial and business activities. The bid to design the building was won by Denmark's Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects.

The National Library of China, Beijing, acts as a repository for all publications in China and has a rich collection of foreign publications too. With five-star amenities, books, newspapers and journals in both the hard and electronic format, and audio and visuals resources including TV dramas and movies, libraries in China are not only centres of learning, but also serve as destinations for public discussion and gathering.

inside-library_092717024413.jpgThe National Library of China, Beijing. Courtsey Wikimedia commons

Hundreds of computers with internet and connected to digital resources, such as a plethora of recordings of interviews and lectures, are freely available for any individual for a maximum of four hours in a day.

More importantly, prompt Chinese translation of books across genres published in English and other languages are available in libraries and shops, keeping the common Chinese fully aware of developments in different parts of the world.

Imagine a whole family spending a day in a library. While it sounds unusual, the practice is fairly common in Chinese public libraries, which have specially designed children's corners so that the habit of reading can be inculcated early. Libraries in China are not dull or boring, but have become engaging and cater to different needs.

Automated borrowing and returning services in some big libraries, 24*7 returning services, and e-journal databases (a paid service sometimes) ensure that the public enjoys readings. A library was built in Shandong University, Qingdao Campus, from public funds, and therefore it's open to all city dwellers. The idea is to ensure knowledge is open and inclusive.

Libraries have also made sure that they do not lag behind in the digital age. Websites are regularly updated with all sorts of information and activities. Anybody within reach of mobile phones or Internet can browse through library catalogues, read free e-books and magazines, access digital documents or get notified about activities and arrivals of new books.

Also read: Why PM Modi reconstituting Economic Advisory Council may not be of much help


Rajiv Ranjan Rajiv Ranjan @mrajivranjan

Dr. Rajiv Ranjan is an Assistant Professor at College of Liberal Arts, Shanghai University, China.

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