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

A Chinese Art Library towards the 21st century: An overview of the development of the Reference Library of the Chinese Academy of Arts



I. Introduction

The Reference Library of the Chinese Academy of Arts (RLCAA) falls within the category of art libraries and has different functions compared to a public library. As an important part of the Chinese Academy of Arts (CAA) it is a specialised library in the field of arts sciences. Its professional development goes in tandem with the development and prosperity of scientific research within the CAA and its service orientation must be in line with the aims and objectives of the CAA.

Among all the arts and research activities of the Academy, the RLCAA is responsible for the provision of all kinds of documents and information in various subjects relevant to research projects undertaken by researchers in the CAA. The RLCAA is also responsible for reference work, teaching guidance for the teaching staff, as well as the introduction of bibliographic systems and reference materia ls in the library. As regards staff training, the RLCAA is responsible for the provision of books and art works of high quality in order to enrich the lives of staff and improve their cultural development. Above all, its primary duty is to collect books, periodicals, pictures and audiovisual materials relevant to the various fields of art subjects pursued in the Academy. To achieve this goal t he RLCAA should on the one hand collect, classify, catalogue, process and maintain all kinds of documents scientifically and systematically; on the other hand, it should by all possible means publicise its collection in order to promote information transfer and provide quality services for its borrowers.

Under general circumstances reference departments are regarded to have achieved their aims and objectives if they have successfully undertaken their professional duties, provided quality services for teaching and/or research and, finally, provided for the needs of their users. Nevertheless this has changed with the coming of the Information Age. How should the RLCAA improve its ability for self -development and self-perfection in response to the needs of the Academy and the general public? This is what I would like to discuss in this paper.

II. Historical background

There are large numbers of sophisticated arts produced by Chinese people in China. Some examples can be listed as follows: well-known sculpture in the Tang dynasty, Chinese paintings in the Song dynasty, poetic dramas in the Jin and Yuan dynasties, dramas in the south region during Song and Yuan dynasties, legends in the Ming dynasty, Peking dramas created in the Qing dynasty, as well as the lan dscape design of the Qing dynasty. All these sophisticated forms of arts and related documents form a precious tradition of cultural heritage in China which has been collected and maintained by arts libraries in China.

Arts and culture in China, in terms of historical developments, can be divided into three groups:

  1. traditional arts such as opera, quyi (a Chinese folk art), ethnic folk music, folk dance, Chinese painting and Chinese sculpture.
  2. arts developed during the last few centuries such as drama, singing opera, dance opera, ballet, film, television plays and oil painting.
  3. modern arts and cultural activities such as art galleries, cinemas, musical halls, dance halls,

Karaoke’s, sports competitions, musical saloons and fashion shows.

A researcher cannot do without arts libraries if he/she wants to conduct research on such aspects as the formation, development, characteristics or accumulated experiences of any form of Chinese art and culture. As a matter of fact most researchers in China use art library collections to find relevant materials for their research.

At present, the development of research in the field of art is relatively slower than that in the fields of natural sciences and technology. Nevertheless there has been a huge accumulation of documents in the field of traditional arts and the number of documents in newly-emerging or interdisciplinary art subjects is increasing apace. Examples of interdisciplinary art subjects include:

  1. music therapy, which is a comprehensive interdisciplinary subject, and which has formed several schools of thought internationally

  2. dance ecology, another newly-emerging interdisciplinary subject, compared to the past when there was a lot of research in the areas of stage design, dance language, dance movement and the history of dance

  3. oriental body culture research, which is a new subject involving dance, opera, acrobatics, martial arts, and so on.

Since art libraries are responsible for maintaining the cultural heritage they should be sensitive to development and change in all fields of the arts in order to identify, collect, accumulate and store relevant new materials and information.

III. Current conditions and characteristics

The RLCAA pays great attention to the collecting, arrangement, maintenance and making available of all kinds of art documents or materials. It regards the collecting of documents as the first priority because that is the foundation for making art documents available. Apart from purchasing we should also take other measures to collect art materials according to the individual formats of differen t kinds of art materials. For example, some traditional Chinese arts like opera or folk music may be preserved in written forms such as sheet music or monographs. Nevertheless they may also be preserved amongst folk artists in some unwritten form, e.g. orally, including melodies, performing techniques, body gestures, dance movements and story-telling techniques. These will be lost if we do not collect them in time. In this respect a lot of work has been done by the RLCAA including investigations, interviews, collecting and recording.

The Music Institute started recording Er Quan Ying Yue, a famous piece of music created by a distinguished folk musician, A Bing, and so preserved it until today. Over the past couple of decades they have collected quite a number of music pieces from the 1920s and 1930s including early music recordings by the Chinese musician Nie Er. They have found some precious rare books on music and ancient musical instruments, undertaking specialised research among more than thirty ethnic minorities in China. The resource centre of the Music Institute has a large collection of music books or periodicals on folk music, vocal music, dance music, instrumental music, music scores, etc. Among them there are 120,000 volumes of books, 17,000 pictures or photographs, more than 37,000 records and about 7 ,000 cassettes. A lot of original documents, photographs, audiovisual materials, historical manuscripts and objects by famous Chinese musicians are stocked in the resource centre.

In the Reference Library there is a recording room which has been used for the recording and production of traditional Chinese dramas for more than ten years. Library staff and technicians have been to most parts of the country, including remote areas, to collect materials first-hand. They have recorded more than 3,000 hours of musical materials which have preserved nearly one hundred kinds of drama and several hundred plays. A local drama recorded in Hunan province, “Mulian saves his mother”, impressed drama researchers and lovers of drama, both at home and abroad, very much. It was acclaimed as a ‘living fossil’ of Chinese drama. The play reveals a detailed sacrificial ceremony in ancient China, praising a dutiful son who went down through eighteen layers of hell and all kinds of torture and hardship in order to save his mother. The leading player goes off the stage to walk among the audience, kowtowing to raise money. The actors use different gestures, actions and dance movements in their performance. This kind of interactive communication between actors and audience is a unique case in the world. It takes seven days to finish the performance. An American researcher once said every act of“Mulian saves his mother is worth studying. Once a group of Chinese drama experts attending a conference in the United States was allowed, as an exception, to show a 30-minute videotape of the play. It was regarded as an eye-opener, winning sustained applause from the conference delegates 1. Collecting this kind of material and making it available helps the art of stage performance to be better preserved.

The resource centre of the Drama Institute stocks a comprehensive range of drama documents and materials. For example, rare books kept by opera artists Mei Lanfang and Cheng Yangqiu, books donated by famous collectors such as Fu Xihua and Qi Rushan. There are more than 30,000 records and 4,000 cassettes. We can say that it is the best resource centre for drama materials in the country.

The resource centre of the Fine Art Institute has a collection of about 150,000 volumes, including rare books, folk paintings and stone rubbings. There are also original masterpieces by famous Chinese artists such as Chen Shizeng, Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong, Zhang Daqian, Wu Changshoul and Huang Binhong. All these materials have at least three reference values:

  1. 1. for investigating the history and current conditions of various Chinese arts such as painting, sculpture, folk painting, calligraphy, seal cutting and architectural art
  2. 2. for finding out the rules of development and trends of the fine arts
  3. 3. for undertaking research and evaluation of both classical fine arts and modern fine arts in different countries2.

Apart from all the specialized resource centres the RLCAA also keeps a large number of books, periodicals, pictures, photographs and audiovisual materials pertaining to dance, cinematography and telecinematography. All of the above-mentioned facilities confirmed that the RLCAA had established its own specialised characteristics of collection and it was therefore reasonable for the Ministry of Cu lture in China to suggest the foundation of an information centre of Chinese art materials at a national planning meeting in Changsha about ten years ago.

IV. The establishment of new concepts of library services

First of all we should move away from the old concept of ‘book orientation’ to the new concept of ‘service orientation’. We should provide active reader services instead of passive ones. The extent of the services needs to be broadened to include information references and to provide professional books and periodicals and specialised information services pertaining to special themes of research . Moreover, specialised professional documents can be retrieved, especially from secondary and tertiary sources, to provide for the cultural market, helping the library to survive and develop in the competitive culture and art information market.

In addition the concept of sharing work and co-operating between libraries should also be established. This is because the service content in the new era is becoming more and more comprehensive and complicated, not to mention the large amounts of information we are handling. One library/resource centre cannot accomplish its tasks single-handed and efficiently. Division and sharing are the natu ral products of the socialization of production in society. At the moment individual libraries/resource centres are very much separate from each other and this lack of communication and co-operation can only harm their development. Therefore to establish the concepts of division of work and resource sharing is a prerequisite for the unification and networking of services of books, information a nd other materials by art libraries.

V. Reforms of system and management

Apart from having a collection with its own characteristics and establishing new concepts of library services, art libraries should reconstruct not only their systems but also their professional management. At the moment a new resource centre building is being built by the CAA which will become the centre of national art information exchange and library services and it has become a pressing need for the RLCAA to reconstruct itself.

As far as the reform of its management system is concerned, I would like to state my points of view as follows.

  1. To establish a supervisory body like the collection construction committee to be responsible for the overall management of books, documents, materials, periodicals and audiovisual materials. Such a body can improve communication along the resource centres of individual institutes and make resource sharing in the Academy possible by implementing a reasonable plan for collection development based on adjusted structures of collecting in each resource centre.

  2. To merge overlapping departments and units and to establish specialized departments in response to practical needs. For example, a Department of Modern Technology Management and a Department of Audiovisual Materials should be established in the future. All departments in the Library should co-operate with one another to create better working morale.

  3. In respect of overall management, we should pay attention to standardization and normalization of library services. Rules and regulations should be drawn up for better management of each department. Research activity on document management should be organised and if feasible the findings implemented in practice. Secondary and tertiary documents should be produced such as specialised bibli ographies, indexes and abstracts for different fields of the arts. Some of these have already been produced in order to provide relevant information for the CAA.

  4. In respect of personnel management we should maximize incentives for library staff and put the right person in the right position. Staff training is also important for the Library. At the moment more than sixty research projects are in progress in the CAA. Library staff should involve themselves in these projects and provide specialised information services. The professional qualities o f library staff can be improved in this process. Other forms of training activities are also useful, such as professional training sessions, further studies, professional conferences and visits. In a word, we should train our library staff as the experts who specialise in the management of art documentation which may be beneficial for the mobility and availability of library staff.

    VI. The compilation of the Thesaurus of Art Sciences

    In the search for a new finding tool the library staff at RLCAA have undertaken a series of research projects on various themes of subject classification. As “the thesaurus method has become the most convenient finding tool all over the world”3, RLCAA saw the compilation of a Thesaurus of Art Sciences as an important project in the CAA. With the help and guidance of library and informati on science specialists, library staff finished its compilation in 1991. Having passed evaluation by the Ministry of Culture it was officially published in 1992 as one of the first thesauri of art sciences in the country. It won the Award of Scientific and Technological Advancement from the Ministry of Culture and an Award of Scientific Research Achievement.

    The Thesaurus of Art Sciences is a tool for the control of nomenclature in subject indexing and retrieval. Based on the theory of subject classification it is a dictionary of the controlled vocabulary of art sciences. The words and expressions selected for the dictionary can be matched with one another, showing their relationships and dynamic properties. Because of this characteristic it can be regarded as a unified language for retrieval in the arts field suitable for the needs of indexers and borrowers, as well as computers and so be beneficial to the development of document management and retrieval in an automation and networking environment.

    In the future we will be focussing on the work of subject indexing art documents. On the one hand this will directly test the quality of the chosen vocabulary; on the other hand the quality of library staff may be improved during the process of subject indexing since subject indexing holds special requirements for library staff. These are firstly, a wide general knowledge and sound professional skills necessary for the accurate choice and evaluation of various subjects in art documentation; and secondly, knowledge of different languages of computer retrieval and various rules of subject indexing.

    According to an incomplete statistic in 1993 RLCAA has a collection of more than 700,000 volumes of books, 50,000 volumes of periodicals, 75,000 musical records, 13,000 cassettes, 40,000 pictures and 3,000 historical objects. This partly reflects the size of the collection at the RLCAA. As it is a huge project for us to index large amounts of art documents on a large scale we need a lot of time , money and competent staff. A special committee should be set up to make a comprehensive overall plan for its successful completion.

    VII. The establishment of specialized document databases

    Considering the research directions and characteristics of the CAA we think it would be best for the RLCAA to establish various specialized databases relevant to different art subjects with their own characteristics. Since the Thesaurus of Art Sciences has been compiled we think that it would be much easier for us to undertake the work of subject indexing of various art documents.

    At the moment the first priority of the RLCAA is to establish a Document Database of Various Artists and their Works. There are two major reasons for its development:

    1. artists and their works are the basis for art science research. Whether the research is relevant to the theory, history or current situation of various art sciences it cannot be done without investigating various artists and their works

    2. documents relevant to various artists and their works make up a considerable proportion of the collection in RLCAA. Nevertheless, the various media they are on and different retrieval methods used by each department have become obstacles to resource sharing within RLCAA. It is only through subject indexing that we can adopt a unified retrieval method using an automated management system, w hich would make what borrowers need more accessible no matter how scattered the documents are and what kind of medium they are on.

    The Document Database of Various Artists and their Work can be established according to different subjects. At the moment we are conducting a trial by establishing such a Database. RLCAA together with the Resource Centre of the Fine Arts Institute will undertake this project, having established a research group and a database committee. It was found that there are about 6,000 titles of documen ts relevant to various Chinese painters and their works among more than 12,000 titles of documents relevant to various fine artists and their works in the stock. Subject indexing was done according to four kinds of work-sheet. More than 20,000 work-sheets have been completed since last year. A software programme has also been designed for the database ready for the input of data from these wor k-sheets. The database will reflect the comprehensive collection of documents relating to various Chinese painters and their works in the resource centre. By means of the database a convenient and efficient retrieval service can be provided for art researchers.

    With the rapid development of information technologies and the increasing funding of the CAA more money will be invested in the development of RLCAA. The application of multimedia would make our dreams come true. For example, by means of the Fine Art Database we could view original works of fine art on computer screens as well as retrieving relevant documents; by means of the Music Database we could enjoy the performance of music pieces as well as retrieving their musical scores. The establishment of the Document Database of Various Chinese Painters and their Works is only a pilot scheme for future development of this area. If an online network of the above-mentioned seven databases can be established with the hard work and co-operation of all library staff at RLCAA the services it p rovides would very much respond to the needs of the development of the Chinese economy, both in culture and in art. No doubt this would be a new contribution made by RLCAA to the development of Chinese art and culture.

    VIII. Conclusion

    By the year 2000 RLCAA will have a comprehensive collection of documents relevant to art sciences and a standardized, normalized and automated operating system of library services. Moreover, it will implement its functions of education and information provision in response to the needs of the communities involved in scientific research and education in the art field. In a word, it will become a n information centre for cultural and art documentation with an open system on many levels, many functions and high efficiency, which will be helpful to the construction of both material and spiritual civilisation in China. The new century awaits the development of RLCAA as well.


    1. Liu Yingnan (ed.), Cultural market and art research, Beijing: Culture and Art Publishing House, 1994.

    2. Zhang Shuhua (ed.), The history of all kinds of libraries in Beijing, Beijing: Yanshan Publishing House, 1993.

    3. Liu Xiangsheng, The theory of self-classification and subject indexing, Beijing: Bibliography and Documentation Publishing House, 1985.

    4. Dai Shujuan (ed.), The Thesaurus of art sciences, Beijing: Culture and Art Publishing House, 1992.