Chinese and Hong Kong Libraries in Transition: Sketches of Libraries in Hong and China

Pat Bassinger
Zehao Zhou

York College of Pennsylvania

This past summer, we went to Shanghai, China to present our paper on Library resource sharing at the "International Symposium on Development of Libraries in the 21st Century" hosted by Shanghai Jiaotong University. Prior to the Shanghai conference, we also attended IFLA in Beijing and a pre-IFLA conference "The Hong Kong Library and Information Network: a Virtual Gateway to China" organized and hosted by Hong Kong Library Association. The whole trip was a memorable experience and we would like to share some impressions with you.

Hong Kong

We started our trip in Hong Kong. From the idyllic rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, our eyes met more than we could see. Hong Kong has transformed itself into the center of Asia's financial world and its impressive economic success has a tremendously positive impact on Hong Hong's 763 libraries. Within the last ten years, there has been significant development in library services. Mergers, reorganization and automation have taken place in major institutions and expansion is seen in almost every category of Library. Ariel and DHL courier services are used for document delivery among academic institutions. Cooperative resource sharing is in place with reciprocal borrowing privileges offered to faculty, graduate students and final year undergraduate students. Uncover is used widely to locate information for interlibrary loan.

Nearly all libraries in Hong Kong are automated. Various U.S. automated library systems are used such as DRA, but many academic libraries have migrated to INNOPAC as it provides much needed CJK (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) language capability. This is important because so many collections are in the Chinese language. CD-ROM products are also widely used. Hong Kong University alone subscribes to 185 titles of CD-ROM bibliographic databases! Academic libraries are using or experimenting with the world wide web, and electronic journals are also finding their way to libraries. Digital library projects are underway and the first electronic library (with 1,000 electronic databases) for distance learning will be open in 1998. Because of its proximity to China, many library projects are linked to resources and events in China. In so many ways, Hong Kong libraries are serving as a role model for libraries in mainland China.

The conference included several library tours. Hong Kong Polytechnic University makes available on their OPACs as open access some highly expensive electronic databases such as Lexis-Nexis, FirstSearch and DIALOG, a luxury not many libraries in the United tates can afford. Its Audio-Visual Division has nearly one hundred multimedia workstations. Lignon College Library provides acquisition suggestions for patrons on the library web page. Public libraries are also well funded. Tuen Mun Central Library subscribes to over 500 newspapers. The amount of funding the Hong Kong government has provided for libraries is truly impressive.

It is worth noting that Hong Kong librarians are in a very enviable position when it comes to terms of employment. They are often paid at an associate level, much higher than their fellow professionals in the U.S. Since there is no library school in Hong Kong, most of the librarians were educated overseas. Many worked for American academic institutions before they were lured to Hong Kong. Despite all their huge successes, however, the librarians there are obviously concerned. With only a short time to go before China retakes Hong Kong, there is a steady exodus of librarians to North America, Singapore, Australia and Europe. This is certainly a challenge that current and future leaders in Hong Kong will have to face. Once we arrived in Beijing for IFLA from Hong Kong, we soon realized that the concerns of Hong Kong librarians are well-founded. The contrast between the two places are sharp and real. Compared with the rocky islands turned economic miracle Hong Kong, Beijing is still a centuries old city trying to catch up with the rest of the world. You can see on Beijing streets billboards of western name brands as well as mule-pulled carts. Libraries in China are not doing nearly as well as Hong Kong libraries despite the double digit growth rate in China for nearly a decade. Unlike the Hong Kong government, which has passed the benefit of economic growth to its cultural and academic institutions, the Chinese libraries don't seem to be well funded. Many library buildings have given way to business buildings, and many libraries have zero funding for their book budget. Some public libraries simply disappeared. The cost of periodicals and books has soared in China, often times over 30% annually, making it all the more difficult for Chinese libraries to provide much needed services. There are some show case libraries, but the majority of libraries have not been given the necessary funding and care they deserve. Funding support is a critical issue for the future of Chinese libraries. Chinese librarians welcomed IFLA in Beijing because they were able to hear open discussions about major issues facing libraries today. During the IFLA conference itself, there were general sessions devoted to discussions on sensitive topics such as access to information, freedom of expression as a basic human right, and the right to criticize and challenge the government.

The IFLA conference in Beijing was an enormous undertaking. The Chinese government spent a few years preparing for this international conference. Like all such conferences, it was taken as a political task and the government there made every effort to ensure that it went well. Delegates were given opportunities to visit churches, temples and mosques. Cultural entertainment and large-scale receptions were provided.

Delegates from 110 countries attended IFLA. The programs seemed well organized. However, we both felt the actual programs covered were either very broad or concerned with very specific interests, such as map librarianship. The poster sessions contained very few displays considering the size of the conference and number of attendees. Our Chinese host enlisted the support of many college students who provided hours of support. The Chinese host also had a computer company providing some workstations for Internet. Since the bandwidth was not large enough, it was difficult to send a message without a long wait.

The Chinese libraries are behind Hong Kong libraries in technology as well. They are starting their own automation systems, their own BIP, and their own OCLC. Foreign businesses are trying to have their share in the Chinese market as well. OCLC offered Qinghua University in Beijing free use of FirstSearch for three months in hopes that they will subscribe thereafter. The success of a project such as this depends on continual monetary and technological support.

Library tours in Beijing enabled us to see progress as well as problems in Chinese libraries. We saw highly automated libraries such as the one at Qinghua University, but we also saw students ho waited long periods for books from closed stacks. Reference titles from other countries are old. Qinghua University, for instance, has 1990's BIP and 1985 Ulrich's. Overall, China has started to enter the information age, but many issues remain to be addressed.


Our last stop was Shanghai, the fastest growing and most westernized city in China with special economic zones reminiscent of Hong Kong. The whole city is like a huge construction site with new high-rises going up every day. Among the city's top ten construction projects, the new Shanghai municipal library is on the top of the list and near completion. Shanghai seems to have a most promising future compared with other cities in China.

We were hosted by Shanghai Jiaotong University. The theme of the conference concerned the challenges faced by academic libraries in the next century. The conference included speakers from several countries who discussed a wide range of issues. The broad areas for discussion were services to the academic community, information technology, professional development, and library space and facilities. The smaller conference size enabled participants to get to know each other and exchange ideas and views. The hosts were incredibly hospitable and gracious. The library and cultural tours and ethnic dinners were wonderful additions to a well organized and thoughtfully prepared conference.

The trip was our first foray into the world of international conferences. We encountered some difficulties, such as translation problems or poor spoken English in presentations. We observed the lack of audience participation from Chinese colleagues, but we understood this to have more to do with the culture than with a lack of interest.

Our trip was a memorable experience that was professionally rewarding and personally enriching. We encourage our colleagues to be on the lookout for professional opportunities to travel, network and thereby broaden horizons.

Copyright © 1997 Pat Bassinger & Zehao Zhou
Submitted to CALA E-J on June 26, 1997.