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

Rescue And Reproduction Of Chinese Precious Documents

Pei Zhaoyun
China National Microfilming Centre for Library Resources


When you have an opportunity to visit anyone of the big libraries in China, your attention will be drawn by so many ancient books and valuable documents reserved there. It is a pity to see, however, that quite a number of these documents with a history of hundred years or far longer are found to be worn-out, moulded or worm-eaten; some of them are even not usable. This indeed makes one feel te rribly sorry. Although for years, these libraries have adopted various measures to prolong the life of these materials, unfortunately their effort cannot help reverse the worsening situation. How to prolong the life of these perishing yet valuable materials for younger generations and by what means to make use of them constitute a pressing subject for broad discussion. On this matter, the writ er would like to present the development of the gigantic project -"Rescue of Chinese Cultural Heritage launched in China ten years ago.



China, a venerable nation of old civilization, boasts a rich heritage of ancient books and documents stored in libraries throughout the country. According to incomplete estimate, public libraries on the mainland alone reserve more than 2,200,000 ancient rare books and 26,450,000 ordinary old books; approximately 110,000 kinds of paper-cover books are listed on the "General Catalogue for the Re publican Period". As indicated by incomplete statistics of the " Combined Catalogue for Periodical Publications in Chinese Language" as well as the "combined Catalogue for Newspapers in Chinese Language", there are more than 29,000 varieties of periodicals and over 7,800 newspapers which were published before 1949,the year when the People’s Republic of China was founded. Of the se periodicals and newspapers, about 2,000 varieties are in the main kept intact. It is however difficult to obtain accurate statistical data on other historical materials such as maps, manuscripts, stone tablet inscriptions, scriptures and local collections. (1) These materials are preserved under very poor conditions. China has a vast territory, in the north it is often dry and windy with heavy dust, whereas in the south it has more rainy and cloudy days with humidity. The environment is not favorable for book preservation, so they are easy to get moldy, crispy and worm-eaten. On top of that, building up an air-conditioning system for major libraries still remain an empty talk, though efforts have been made for years. That is why these historical documents are being damaged year aft er year and some of them have to be sealed up on the shelves.

In 1982 Mr. Hu Qiaomu, the then leading officer in charge of Chinese culture, read a report on "How to properly preserve and make full use of the archives of the Confucius’s Mansion" submitted by Mr. Ren Jiyu, now Curator of the National Library of China, and then pointed out: "Nobody has cared for such matters; losses shall be inevitable if they are further neglected. Archives microfor m concerns preservation of Chinese cultural heritage, so it is of far-reaching significance. Please convey my ideas to the office of the library, the cultural relics department and the house of the archives for immediate steps." In this regard, appeals had also been repeated a few times by the deputies of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congres s and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Financial support was also given by the Ministry of Finance. The Library Department under the Ministry of Culture, after consideration and discussion with other parties concerned, decided to set up a nationwide unified coordinating organization to use microform reproduction to rescue ancient books and records being on the verge of to tal damage. Seizing this favourable opportunity, people involved launched a large scale rescue campaign nationwide.


In order to effectively carry out the rescue work the China National Microfilming Centre for Library Resources (Microfilming Center below) was established in 1985, which ensures the nationwide rescue work. The Microform Center subordinates itself to the Library department under the Ministry of Culture and assumes the responsibility to organize all public libraries in the mainland to implement th e rescue program. The Microfilming Center performs the following major functions:

  1. To establish a nationwide microfilming network including the National Library of China in Beijing. Being equipped with a complete set of microform reproduction sets, it has the capability to make microforms. In 1985 soon after the birth of the Microfilming Center, the government provided equipment to the National Library of China, Shanghai Library and others in many provinces and cities suc h as Jilin, Liaoning, Shandong, Shanxi, Hunan, Guangdong, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Chongqing, and later to Zhejinag, Hubei, Tianjin and Gansu. To keep up with the developing situation, the provincial libraries of Henan, Anhui and Guizhou have also joined the rescue campaign in recent years. After constant technical training and business guiding for years, all the libraries have brought up a batch o f skilled workers. According to the Microfilming Center’s overall arrangement, they are not only liable for document-microfilming at their own libraries but should take the responsibility to reproduce for other libraries that have neither equipment nor such technical workers. Through overall planning and arrangement, the equipment can be fully utilized, making microfilming available locally or n earby.The most important of all is the timely rescue of historical documents.

  2. To exercise unified planning and coordination for microfilming and reproduction of the nation’s historical documents. According to the book-preserving conditions of libraries, the Microfilming Center will assign microfilming tasks. Through overall planning and unified management, the libraries can complement each other so as to ensure as far as possible the completeness of the documents. Take old newspapers as an example, many are found missing. The Shanghai Library formerly a big library located in China’s publication center, had collected several thousand kinds of old newspapers, but only ten-plus of them are kept intact or basically complete. To make up the shortage, the Library conducted negotiations and made an overall arrangement with its counterparts or other department s involved. Consequently, some 100,000 pages of newspapers were reproduced for the libraries of some provinces and cities which in turn supplied the Shanghai Library with more than 700,000 pages, thus remarkably enhancing the quality of its newspaper collection. Overall planning and arrangement can also avoid repetition of labor. Otherwise, each library acts for its own account. What was done by one library is also being done by another or what was neglected by one is overlooked by another, too. Such blind practice would result in the waste of resources and in the omission of some important materials.

  3. To formulate rules for making entries of various microform documents and set technical standards for testifying their quality. For long preservation and utilization, the quality of microform is extremely important. Microform is a unique medium for documents, so its entry requirements are quite different from those applied to printed books. There are strict technical standards for reproduct ion, utilization and preservation. Since the establishment of the Microfilming Center ten years ago, standards for scores of items have been set up and improved through practice so that the quality of microform is ensured in every case.

  4. To build up and control a national master film base. The rescue brings about master films which should be properly preserved as state treasures. The Microfilming Center has therefore built up a state master film base with up-to-date equipment.


There are two ways for document rescue. One is to protect the books and documents by prolonging their life, and the other is to alter their medium by reproduction. In the former case, measures such as deacidification, plastication and pest-elimination are taken to improve the preserving conditions for the originals so as to prolong their life. At present, this is the main way to rescue and prot ect historical books and documents. As to the latter process, the purpose is to protect the originals so that they can be kept for ever. Reproductions are therefore introduced to substitute the originals.In view of the grave conditions of the Chinese books and documents, a microform reproduction system is therefore adopted at the same time of prolonging their life. Facts have proven that microf orm reproduction is fairly a right choice for the following reasons:


1. Following figures indicate some of the results in the rescue work. By the end of 1994, documents reconditioned and microfilmed were over 31,000,000 frames in 51,050 rolls, among which old newspapers accounted for 2,143 kinds in 19,720 volumes, ancient books for 20,737 kinds in 15,216 volumes and old periodicals 6,229 kinds in 16,114 copies. (2) At the beginning of rescue work, effort was focused on old newspapers, because most of them were found either torn or worn out owing to their immense acid content. After microfilm processing and through making up deficiency, their condition is greatly improved. Examples are the reserved collections of "Shanghai News" and "News" published in Shanghai in 1861 and 1893 respectively, the "Guowen Bao " and "Chuanwen B ao" published in Tianjin in 1897; "Beijing Daily" and "Shuntian Daily" published in Beijing in 1904 and 1905 respectively. Although there are still damage and shortage left on these newspapers, they have been restored to the best or a more satisfactory condition so far as possible. It can therefore be said that after special treatment, repair and addition, among the 7,800 kin ds of old damaged and incomplete newspapers now being preserved in China’s mainland, the most important materials of historical value have been microfilmed. Microfilming ancient rare books and old periodicals is also nearing to the end. According to a rough estimate, by the end of 1996, "Rescue" for all significant books and documents published before 1949 will have been finished; then t he focus will be shifted to those valuable ones published after 1949.

2. In the process of microfilming and reproduction, those perishing materials became revived, and the dilapidated images of a large amount of ancient documents have been refined by repair and addition.

3. Promoted by the rescue work, modernization of the public libraries has been advancing efficiently. Ten years ago, except Beijing, Shanghai and Liaoning libraries, all the others were unable to make and use microform. Nevertheless, after a decade’s efforts, half of the libraries at the provincial level have possessed the capacity of making microform and all provincial, regional and municipal libraries have conditions to use microform.


1. Regarding ownership right of document resources When rescuing these valuable materials, especially at the initial stage, some libraries worried about that "Rescue" would result in losing their unique features for special collections or leading to confiscation. This is a thinking merely for "hoarding of rare commodities". Such worries are groundless and unnecessary. As a matter of fact, 10-year rescue work did not upset the norm al order of the libraries in book collection, and all their special reservations remain intact. For the sake of safety, of course, it is provided that rare books are not allowed to be taken out of the library for microfilming. If necessary, however, they should be sent to the borrower by a designated staff.A piece of microform may include preservations by several libraries. In order to specify its ownership, names of the microfilming library and the owner of the microform should be shown on the indicating plate. If any microform is distributed, the earnings shall be proportionally shared by the owner and the issuer according to the regulations formulated by the Microfilming Center. Therefore, no loss would be caused to the owner.

2. Legal status of the microformFor the purpose of utilization, a microform can perfectly substitute the original. But for the purpose of collection, especially for valuable archives, it cannot replace the originals for the time being, the reason is that the legal status of such substitutes has not yet been solved in China, though it is no longer a problem in other countries. Our current pract ice is therefore to preserve the originals on one hand and to microfilm some on the other, a double-track collection which will operate until the solution to this problem and the change of people’s mind.

3. Co-existence of micrography and other new technologies, especially laser disc technology. Laser disc technology was dynamically developing in the early 1980s. Disc used as a message storing medium offers great attraction. Thus, some people doubt whether the role of micrography in document rescue is out of date. Virtually, both micrography and disc technology are important means for docume nt preservation. Generally speaking, they have similar basic functions, such as recording, storing, retrieving and reproduction. Recording imitated image features micrography while message-storing with high density is characterized by disc technology. For valuable documents requiring long preservation in the original script, microform is more adequate than the disc technology which is suitabl e for preservation like digest, catalogue and scientific and technical documents used in high frequency. Obviously, both technologies with different features can not substitute each other . Displaying their respective advantages for different purposes, they will develop in co-existence in the days to come. As one of the members all along participating in the document rescue work, the writer is aware of the significance of his work but feels what a tough job it is to mobilize so many Chinese libraries to engage in such work! A large number of issues concerning ideology, technology and resources need to be tackled. Fortunately, we have won support and understanding from people of all walks of life so that difficulties have been surmounted one by one. We believe the work will continue to a complete success.


(1) Reference: Rescue of Old Documents in Chinese Libraries and Micrographic process written by Li Jing and published in "Micrography" Issue No.1,1989.

(2) Reference: Annual Statistical Report of the National Library Documents Microform Reproduction Center.