Monday, September 11, 2006

Chinese Libraries

I mentioned in an earlier post (7/15/06) that I had a couple of opportunities to travel to China in recent years. In 2002, while I was Library Director at Augustana College, I spent a month or more as a guest of the Department of Library and Information Management at Central China Normal University (CCNU) in Wuhan. I gave a number of presentations on library consortia, digital reference, and information literacy. Then in 2004, while working at the University of Pittsburgh, I returned to Wuhan, again for more than a month, this time as the guest of Wuhan University Library.

Both trips were amazing opportunities. Frankly, the first was a bit overwhelming. Everyone was very kind but things were so foreign, my Chinese was virtually non-existent, and I tended to withdraw into my room. CCNU grew from a teacher training college, but is now a large university of 20,000 students. I suppose a local US equivalent would be something like UCF, in the sense that an institution with a limited mission has grown with the local economy into something much larger.

The most impressive thing about China is how quickly it is growing and changing. I was able to revisit CCNU when I returned to Wuhan and in just two years the campus had changed significantly. Chinese librarians are also very impressive. I certainly did not feel as though I was the foreign expert bringing enlightenment to the backward Chinese librarians. They are struggling with exactly the same problems that librarians face in America: how to negotiate this hybrid infoWorld of print and digital information, how to teach students, who are facile with information technology, to be information literate, how to maximize a library's and the wider society's investment in information resources, and how to preserve the best of the past and embrace the promise of the future. The difference is that they are doing it on a much bigger scale, with far fewer resources, forcing them to react far more quickly, and without the same (at least modern) history of a cadre of professional librarians and a culture of open information access.

But I would never bet against the Chinese. I heard a story when I was in Wuhan about the first bridge across the Chang Jiang built in the 1950's. They brought in a series of foreign engineers and each group told they it could not be done, so they decided to do it themselves. The second time I flew back from China my flight was full of American engineers. They stood around in small groups with shell shocked expressions on their faces as they discussed the prospect of trying to compete with Chinese businesses that could now, or would be able to soon, do what their American companies could do but for a fraction of the cost. Like their Indian counterparts, Chinese business people and academics are very polite and do not seek to scare their foreign guests, but I think it is clear they are not aiming to be a second class economy or system of higher education that happily services the US. Their standard is pre-modern, when China was the center of the intellectual and economy world, even if we in Europe were only dimly aware of it. There have been studies recently that have downgraded the quality of Chinese engineering graduates, but as I say, I am not going to bet against the Chinese.

My second trip to China was far more enjoyable on a personal level than the first. Wuhan University is very highly rated and the librarians I worked with there were even better than the ones I worked with at CCNU. I worked with people I would hire in a minute if I had the opportunity. It is also renowned as a a beautiful campus (remind you of anywhere?) But it is even bigger than CCNU with 45,000 students. The scale of operations in China is breathtaking. Wuhan itself has about 7.2 million residents and I had never heard of it! I am reasonably geographically literate. How can there be a city of 7.2 million people I have never heard of? The really mind blowing thing is that there are lots of multi-million resident cities in China that I have, or had, never heard of and they are growing rapidly as the population moves from rural to urban.

Chinese libraries don't have the history of high quality, proactive public services that is the great gift of American librarians to the world, but they are keen to learn and discriminating in what they adopt and what they do not. They are interested in information literacy and in digital reference services. In the latter case, most are convinced, unlike US librarians, that digital reference can grow into sophisticated knowledge management and expert systems that can reuse the content and form of a response to a previous query to assist a future user. Most American librarians would say that the interaction between user and librarian is individual and so ephemeral that once stored the value is lost. But, as I say, I wouldn't bet against the Chinese.

One of my goals when I finish the PhD is to learn Pu tung hua, the Chinese common tongue.

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