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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

The current situation and prospects of ancient books work in Chinese libraries

by the Ancient Collection Division
Fudan University


I. Ancient books work faces new challenges

China has a long history of civilisation. All kinds of invaluable literature generated over 5000 years still exist thanks to the traditional Chinese techniques of paper and ink, writing, binding, engraving and printing, as used by our ancestors. All of these have been passed on as part of the precious legacy of mankind and are carefully preserved and studied today.

Since the late Qing Dynasty, Chinese holdings of ancient books have gradually moved from private to public ownership. Since the foundation of New China in 1949, ancient book collections have been nationalized step by step. At present, apart from a few private and overseas collections, most ancient books are held in national and local public libraries, and academic libraries. Some are held in n ational and local research institutes, museums, cultural centres and relic-protection units.

In the process of modernizing China, the preservation of heritage and the development of traditional culture play an important part. Much depends on the handling and study of ancient books, and the work must be based on the collection and storage efforts of libraries. All the work involved, including acquisition and cataloguing, classification, preservation, repair, circulation, reference and c onsultation involve special knowledge and techniques. Special managerial departments have been formed and professional personnel have emerged. As time progresses, people working with ancient books in Chinese libraries have faced new challenges, such as the implementation of `Chinese Ancient Books Entry Rules’, issued by the state; union catalogues both at national and local levels; the research and exploitation of rare books; the introduction of computerized cataloguing; and the training of professionals with managerial as well as research ability.

In welcoming the IFLA 1996 Conference to China, the updating of `Chinese Ancient Books Entry Rules’ and editing of the `General Bibliography of Chinese Ancient Books’, Fudan University Library sponsored a symposium on ancient books work in June 1994, under the support of the China Library Association, National Academic Libraries Working Committee, and the National Ancient Books Research and Press Planning Group. More than 40 delegates from both public and academic libraries and the ancient books research institutes attended the meeting and discussed these issues. Thanks to support from our colleagues, we received replies from 22 public and 38 academic libraries of various sizes. Through the analysis of the data, we have gained further understanding of ancient books matters in Chinese libraries, including their collection, staffing, bibliograpies, service arrangements, preservation and storage facilities, and research. The data may be used to evaluate the whole situation of Chinese ancient books and will be useful for decision-making departments and colleagues overseas. The results of our investigation, and our opinions, follow.

II. Library ancient books collections

How many ancient books do we have? Scholars at home and abroad have been very interested in this question for a long time. Ancient books collections can be looked at in two ways, the number of titles and the number of copies. Before the completion of the `General Bibliography of Chinese Ancient Books’, we can only estimate the totals. It is difficult to be accurate, because the number of anci ent books collecting centres is not certain. Traditionally, we use the number of copies as the unit for counting the ancient books. The number of titles can only be estimated from the number of copies. Here are some rough figures for total collections:

  1. Libraries with collections in excess of 1,000,000 copies are the famous National Library, Shanghai Library, Nanjing Library, Beijing University Library;
  2. Public libraries at provincial level usually have collections between 200,000 and 600,000 copies (Liaoning 600,000, Jiling 330,000, Jiangxi 550,000);
  3. Public libraries at municipal level: as far as provincial capital cities in the economically and culturally developed districts are concerned, collections range from 50,000 to 200,000 copies (for instance, Wuhan has 210,000, Suzhou 270,000, Taizhou 55,000). The collections of medium to small cities range from 2,000 to 50,000 copies.
  4. Collections in academic libraries vary too. Small or newly established ones may have collections of between 5,000 and 50,000 copies (e.g. Neijang Vocational Normal School in Sichuan Province, 2,000; Xiantan University, 20,000; Xuzhou Normal College, 58,000). General integrated universities range from 50,000 to 400,000 copies (for instance, Hebei Normal University 60,000, Hubei University 70 ,000, Shanxi Normal University 230,000, China People’s University 400,000).

The ancient books collections in 22 public and 38 academic libraries covered by this investigation exceed 14 million copies. These libraries constitute less than one tenth of the total number of libraries participating in the `General Bibliography of Chinese Rare Books’ project. This suggests that the total number of copies of ancient books in China may be of the order of 50 million.

Ancient books are divided into rare books and general books. Guided by the coverage standards of the `General Bibliography’, the above mentioned 22 public libraries have about 77,800 titles in 900,000 copies, the 38 academic libraries have 37,500 titles in 420,000 copies. The aggregated total then becomes 110,000 titles and 1,400,000 copies.

Ancient books collections are built up by acquisition, donation, and allocation by the state. Early collections can be traced to the Qing Dynasty and the period from 1911 to 1949. In modern times, China underwent social upheavals, with private collections transferred to the libraries, through open markets and other channels, resulting in great accumulations. After 1949, ancient books markets w ere still active. In the period 1950-66, various libraries developed their collections through acquisition, private donation, and state allocation. Since 1978, public and academic libraries have been exerting their efforts to extend their collections. Meanwhile, supplies of original ancient books are exhausted, and the number of facsimiles being produced increases every year.

III. Organisation and staff structure of ancient books departments in libraries

The names given to units handling ancient books varies, and they have slightly different functions according to the different institutions they belong to. We found that the sections in charge of such books may be called Ancient Books Division/Office, Special Collections Department/Office, Seed Books Department/Office, Reference Department/Office, Reading Department/Office, Ancient Books Research Institute. The names Special Collections, Seed Books Collection show that the libraries pay these books special attention. They are separately stored, whereas the names Reading/Reference show that these ancient books are mainly for the reading or reference of particular readers.

In the early stages of library formation, most of the books would be ancient books. Early printed books and journals used the same formats as ancient books, and there was no need to differentiate ancient books from others in daily use. It is only with the increase of modern publications, which become the main part of library collections, that ancient books have gained their special positions. As readers’ needs for ancient books tend to be more professional, so their acquisition, cataloguing and servicing must become more professional too. The following points came out of our investigation:

  1. In libraries with small numbers of ancient books, no special unit is established, and the care of ancient books is attached to the circulation or reading departments, with perhaps a special reading room.

  2. The coverage of units called Historical Literature Departments or Special Collections is not limited to ancient books. Some relatively old paperback books, papers and magazines are also included. As ancient books work is more professional, more libraries tend to create separate ancient books departments. For example, the Ancient Books Department of Shanghai Library was established in 1991 . Previously, it was the Rare Books Group attached to the Special Collections Department (1952), or the Ancient Books Group attached to the Protection Department (1971).

  3. Along with the establishment of independent departments for ancient books, their functions have been greatly enhanced. 50% of academic and 80% of public libraries reported that their ancient book units take over all responsibilities for acquisition, cataloguing, preservation, circulation, reading, reference and research. In the 90s, libraries with big collections of ancient books like Suzh ou and Nanjing Library have even changed their Ancient Books Departments into Ancient Books Libraries, as physically separate entities. Practice shows that the more a library is modernised, the more appropriate it is to separate the work with ancient books from that with modern ones. Since the 80s scores of universities have established ancient books research institutes. At present, Fujian Nor mal University and China People’s University have established ancient books research institutes within their libraries.

As part of the trend to greater professionalism and independence, people working in ancient books departments are required to become more professional. The modern educational system is somewhat different from the traditional one. Ancient books staff need to be equipped with both older and more up-to-date knowledge in order to do their work.

There are 224 staff working with ancient books in the 22 public libraries, and 168 staff in the 38 academic libraries. The figure for all the libraries of China is estimated at more than 1000. The survey of staff ages, education and titles reveals the following:

  1. The age of staff working with ancient books tends to be younger. In public libraries, 25% are below 30, 30% are aged 30-39, 20% are aged 40-49 and 20% above 50. In academic libraries, the figures are 22%, 37%, 20% and 22% respectively. Thanks to the fact that more gratuates and undergraduates serve in the academic libraries, the average age in that sector is younger than in the public lib raries. It is beneficial for us to cultivate qualified professionals, to improve handling techniques and to enhance the quality of the working staff.

  2. In public library ancient book departments, 76% of the staff have received higher education (graduates 2%, undergraduates 23%, vocational 41%). In academic libraries, the figure is 90% (graduates 10%, undergraduates 40%, vocational 34%).

  3. 87% of the staff in public library ancient book departments attain the title of librarian assistant or higher (research librarians 10%, librarians 35%, assistant librarians 29%, librarian assistants 12.1%). In academic libraries the figure goes up to 90% (research librarians 21%, librarians 42%, assistant librarians 20%, librarian assistants 7%). Both the education received and the titles of the posts are above average for the library world as a whole.

High requirements and difficult tasks call for young people with higher education. As veterans are retiring, a shortage of experienced personnel will become a problem if the younger generation do not receive appropriate training.

IV. Bibliography of ancient books

Bibliography is the basis of routine work in the library. Ancient book bibliographies are important tools; the quality of those tools reflect the level of a library’s ancient books work. The editing of ancient books bibliographies requires a knowledge of bibliography, collation, and bibliology. Traditional ancient books cataloguing emphasises scholarship in checking and rechecking to ensure th at titles are correctly described. Serious academic attitudes towards ancient books, their bibliography, classification and editing, are important.

A catalogue of a library collection on cards takes shape through the painstaking work of several generations of cataloguers. Such catalogues provide valuable sources for editing huge union catalogues. They must be updated according to uniform standards.

1987 saw the establishment of `China Ancient Book Entry Rules’, written by the National Bibliography Standardization Technique Committee and published by the National Standards Bureau. It was revised in 1992 to make it compatible with machine-readable cataloguing overseas. Since 1993, the project for a General Bibliography of Chinese Ancient Books has been in progress and is scheduled to be fini shed at the end of the century.

The current status of ancient books cataloguing is as follows:

  1. Cataloguing work is about half done. Of the 22 public libraries, 50% have not finished their catalogue entries. Of the 38 academic libraries, only 15% remain to be finished. Most of those who have completed their cataloguing have two types of catalogue, the service catalogue and the readers’ catalogue. Libraries are held back from completing their catalogues by the size of their collecti ons, and the shortage of qualified cataloguing staff.

  2. While some people are working on building collection catalogues, others are reforming existing ones. Older catalogues were completed at different times using different classification rules, and they were affected by changing personnel. Their standards and quality vary. Reforming existing catalogues to bring them up to date with new standards is harder than starting anew. 65% of academic and 70% of public libraries have professional cataloguing staff. It is imperative to train more.

  3. Standardisation and automation is taking place. Since the publication of the China Ancient Books Entry Rules, some libraries like Fudan University and Zheijang Normal have begun reforming their catalogues, for the sake of standardisation and resource sharing. China People’s University Library Ancient Book Research Institute is reforming over a period of years and plans to complete the upda ting work by the end of the century. As far as machine readable bibliography is concerned, the National Library Rare Books Department started its catalogue of Song and Yuan Dynasty ancient books in machine readable form in 1990. Several libraries have joined the International Union Catalog of Chinese Rare Books run by the Research Libraries Group; these include Beijing University Library, Hubei Library, China Science Academy Library, Liaoning Library, and Fudan University Library.

To quicken the pace of ancient books cataloguing, the project for a general Bibliography of Chinese Ancient Books is under way. Books are entered by titles, with coverage of major versions. When it is finished, it can be used as a national union catalogue. It is now in its first stage, and later on more libraries will join the project and people can make full use of it when improving their own collection catalogues.

V. Preservation and Reader Services

Readers of ancient books are chiefly researchers at various levels from state institutions, faculty members and graduates of universities and colleges. Besides other types of readers, overseas researchers also make use of ancient books. Services provided include reference, searching, reading and copying. Many achievements in the fields of humanities and social sciences rely on ancient books co llections and services. According to the statistics of Hubei University Library Ancient Books Office, about 50 of the recently published works written by their faculty members have utilised their ancient books collections one way or another. Scholars and graduates from Asia, Europe, and North America also use Chinese ancient books, and ancient books departments receive more foreign visitors tha n other library departments.

The opening times of reading rooms in public libraries ranges from 20 hours per week (Zhangzhou City Library) to 52 hours per week (Zhongsan Library). On average anywhere between 10 and 400 books may be used. In academic libraries, reading hours vary from 30 to 40 hours per week. The longest is 70 hours (Yunnan University Library). Average reader statistics range from 2 to 150. The average number of books used per day varies from 10 to 160.

Because of declining reader numbers, the use rates for ancient books are not ideal. A direct reason for this is the increasing use of facsimiles. Some library ancient book departments include facsimile or re-printed copies of books. As the publishing business develops, hundreds and thousands of ancient books come back into circulation in facsimile form. Therefore, some ancient books collectio ns may appear to lose their value. However, as a relic, each ancient book is invaluable, and should be properly preserved.

The current state of preservation of ancient books in Chinese libraries is as folllows:

Every library has a special stack for ancient books. General ancient books are kept on iron or wood shelves. Rare books are usually kept in boxes or cases. Newly built libraries own rare book stacks which have steady temperature, humidity and fire alarm systems. The older ones tend to have less well controlled environments.

Damage is often apparent in ancient books which have been stored for many years. In the south, books are damaged by worm and mildew due to the hot and wet weather. In the north, dirt and paper fragility become the main problems because of the dry weather. The repair of ancient books still relies on traditional methods, and modern techniques are not widely used. Traditional repair techniques h ave a long history. 90% of public libraries and 43% of academic ones have professional repair staff. However, with so many ancient books, neither manpower nor expediture is adequate.

VI. Ancient books research and development

The purpose of acquiring ancient books is to study and use them. In ancient times, books were edited and stored by official academic institutions. Later, as collections of books became popular, private collectors could become scholars or experts. Thus collectors of ancient books are also researchers. As modern libraries came into being, the study of book management and service methods became a specific subject. Librarians were educated in library and information science. Staff working in ancient books departments need not only managerial abilities but also research skills to meet the special requirements of today. Librarians with modern library and information science knowledge may not be trained for ancient books work. Ancient books personnel need to be experts in their field. They should not only handle them, but also study them.

In recent years, Chinese library ancient book personnel have played an important part in the research and development of ancient books. They form part of the national team in creating bibliographies, making catalogues and reference tools, discovering rare books and publishing the results. Some of their achievements include:

  1. Union catalogues of ancient books. There is an urgent need for standardisation and computerization. Cataloguers need to be familiar with traditional catalogues as well as modern cataloguing techniques. Typical huge catalogues are the China Series Books General Bibliography (1959), Union Catalogues of Chinese Local Chronicles (1985), and Chinese Rare Books Bibliography (1985). These are a dmired for their completeness, their compactness and their extensive references. Those who have joined in the work of union cataloguing have gained a lot in clarifying their own collections and enhancing the quality of their personnel. National union cataloguing activities also help to promote regional ones. 60 or so libraries in the north-eastern provinces of Liaoning, Jiling and Heilongjiang are in the process of compiling a Union Catalogue of Ancient Books in the Northeast Region, and are achieveing results in stages.

  2. Subject ancient books catalogues and reference tools. These include rare books catalogues, local chronicles catalogues, family tree catalogues, annual album catalogues, catalogues of rubbings from stone inscriptions, etc. Some topical catalogues reflect the collections of several libraries (e.g. Shanghai Academic Library Ci Collection Catalogue, by East China Normal University). These cat alogues form a base for compiling regional or national catalogues. Other topical catalogues like Storytelling and Balladsinging catalogues reflect the characteristics of a library’s collections. Reference tools include indexes, bibliographies, annuals and thesauri.

  3. Research and development. Thanks to modern printing techniques, facsimile copies of ancient books have tremendously augmented library collections both at home and abroad. To name a few: Chinese Local Chronicles Collection; Old Version of Traditional Opera Serials; Old Versions of Novels Collections. At present Xu Xiu Si Ku Quan Shu and Si Ku Cun Mu Cong Shu are under way. These were all done from the basis of library collections.

Besides providing books to be photocopied, libraries endeavour to discover rare and precious books, such as unpublished scripts, handwritten books, and last remaining copies of books, so that these may be copied or reprinted. Libraries like the National Library in Beijing, Tsinghua and Fudan University have provided series of reprints of rare and precious books. The staff of ancient books depar tments play an important role in selecting, collating and annotating such series.

VII The prospects for ancient books work

Although many advances have been made, we are still confronted by challenges. Here are our opinions and suggestions:

  1. Emphasis must be placed on registration, the keeping of statistics, storage and circulation, etc. Everything must be taken care of. Responsible people must be designated for each task which has to be done, and work must be properly supervised. More investment of money and manpower are needed.

  2. The collecting of ancient books must continue. Though sources are declining, private collections still exist, as does the market for ancient books. Besides the allocations through official channels, attention should be paid to collecting through private channels. The donation or deposit of ancient books should be encouraged, to protect our national legacy from vanishing. The exchange of ancient books may be an effective way of augmenting collections. Departments should plan and co-ordinate their activities. Copies should be sought of books held overseas and not available at home.

  3. The standardisation of catalogues should continue. The times of different libraries using their own rules should come to an end. Authorities should make more effort to issue uniform rules for entry and classification. The compiling of the General Bibliography of Chinese Ancent Books should set new standards. In the building of ancient books databases, duplication of effort should be avoi ded. International co-operation should not be neglected.

  4. More ancient books should be copied on microforms. Experience shows that microfilm and microfiche have advantages for preservation and storage. The National Library Document Microform Centre has started microfilming public library ancient rare books and has achieved tremendous results. It is necessary to uphld this initiative.

  5. More co-ordination is needed regarding the publication of facsimile editions, in order to benefit from collective efforts. Libraries should be kept informed of publishing plans.

  6. Small and medium size libraries should develop their special documents collections. Recently, local libraries have laid emphasis on developing local collections and have achieved great success. They face many difficulties due to shortage of funds and lack of co-operation. Special local collections play an important role in promoting local cultural and economic development. Big libraries should provide support.

  7. There is an urgent need to train more library personnel for ancient books work. As the working ages of staff become younger, although professional requirements increase, we must encourage off duty enhanced training. We should learn here from the experience of foreign colleagues. In Japan, seminars and symposia are held for low, medium and high level staff. Big libraries with strong profe ssional teams could help to train others. The USA and Japan have sent librarians to China on exchange programmes.

  8. What really matters is the co-operation and guidance of ancient books work in libraries all across the country. This should be further strengthened. The Cultural Ministry and State Education Committee should strengthen their leadership, to regulate and control various types of libraries. Short and medium term plans should be made and fulfilled.

In welcoming the new century, humanity faces many challenges and choices. Oriental traditional thoughts and cultures will contribute more to the civilisation of mankind. Chinese librarians, shouldering the responsibility of inheriting and utilising ancient books, expect more understanding and co-operation from their colleagues all over the world.


  1. Editing Committee of General Bibliography of Ancient Chinese Books: Coverage and entry rules of General Bibliography of Ancient Chinese Books. Ancient Books Publications Letters no.273, 1993.

  2. Working Committee and Compiling Committee of Xu Xiu Si Ku Quan Shu: Reasons for compiling Xiu Si Ku Quan Shu. Shanghai Gu Ji Press, 1995.

  3. Si Ku Mu Cong Shu is expected to be published. Ancient Books Publications Letters no.268, 1993.

  4. Han Xiduo: Ancient Books Union Catalogue in the Northeast Region is under way. Ancient Books Publications Letters no.285, 1994.

  5. Ke Dan: Progress of US-Sino Co-edited Machine Readable Catalogs of Chinese Ancient Books. Ancient Books Publications Letters no.268, 1993.