Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 20, August 6 - 12

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A library that Makes one Smile
By-Brent Beisher

The newly renovated Beijing Public Library proffers hope for the information-starved

No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.
-Samuel Johnson

Standing in the cavernous halls of the Beijing Library, I feel a little differently: as I become aware of the sheer volume of uncensored and unrestricted information available here, a joyful feeling of belief in the future of this land arises as I try to figure out what to read first.

Sprawling over two city blocks, the Beijing Library (Beijing Tushuguan) easily wins the title of biggest library in Asia. Although named after the capital city, this is China's national library, serving the whole country, containing more than 20 million books and dozens of reading rooms in which to peruse them.

I am expertly guided through the maze of halls of the west building by resident librarian Zhang Han. Zhang, 48, has been working in the foreign periodical section for more than a decade. She is an avid reader of Chinese literature, and an expert in Chinese literary history.

"The Beijing Library was founded in 1909 with a grant from the Qing Dynasty's imperial library," Zhang explains at the start of our tour.
She looks around to make sure no one is within earshot, and then adds quietly, "I guess they knew the end of the dynasty was upon them." The library continued to grow in popularity and size throughout the first half of this century, moving in 1945 to a courtyard location near Beihai (now known as the Ancient Library, closed for construction until 2001). The library closed its doors during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when Mao's Little Red Book and a few other ideological texts were the only books anyone could read without fear of persecution.

"Premier Zhou Enlai saved the library," Zhang says with a nostalgic sigh.
He was a frequent visitor to the rare books section, and closed off most of the library in 1966 so the Red Guards could not enter and ransack it.

The massive collection of books was saved from the total destruction met by so many other libraries and their books at that time.

The library stayed intact, but the librarians were not as fortunate. "Our staff, along with other librarians from throughout Beijing were all sent to Hubei Province, to 'learn from the peasants,'" Zhang recounts. Here the bibliophiles learned a different repertoire of skills than those used in most libraries: weeding, digging, and harvesting.

Today, both the library and its staff are back in the business of keeping Beijing well-read. Located in Haidian District in the west of the city, they occupy a colossal modern building on Baishiqiao Road, just west of the Beijing zoo.

Navigating the inside of the building requires some concentration. Once inside the front door, walk up the stairs and you will find yourself in the main building. The people in the information booth will be happy to tell you how to get where you want to go. Before you escape into the realm of fiction, go to the third floor and purchase a day pass for RMB1. Foreigners are forbidden to take books out, but a day pass allows you to use the reading rooms.

A good starting point on your exploration is the foreign periodicals reading section (north building, rooms 406/409). This section houses more than a million periodicals, ranging from The New Yorker to National Geographic to something called Armor: The Journal of Mobile Warfare that sits incongruously next to Boy's Life.

If books are your passion, go to the card catalog system in the main lobby, labeled in both English and Chinese. There is a large selection of western literature offered in Chinese, if you feel the need to recommend Catcher in the Rye to any disaffected Chinese youth of your acquaintance. However, if you want to browse, head over to the new foreign books reading room (north building, room 214). This has high ceilings and full-volume windows. The combination of natural light and open space makes for a relaxing space to search through literature inEnglish and a myriad other languages. The large Russian and Japanese collections are in room 323 (west building), separated because of the large number of publications in this collection.

The Beijing Library houses some of the oldest books and writings in the world. One hall contains inscribed bones and tortoise shells dating from the Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 BC). The rare books section (west building, room 221) also houses most of the titles once stored in the imperial libraries of the Song, Yjuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

The library also boasts an impressive computer arsenal (east building, room 202). Besides being a very cheap place to access the Internet (RMB 5 per hour), the computer room has scanners and other computer peripherals for use at reasonable rates. The audio-visual room (north building, 3rd floor, room 415) allows you to watch Chinese and western films (RMB 6 per film), listen to Chinese pop music (RMB2 per disk) and brainwash yourself with language-learning tapes.

Beijing Library
39 Baishiqiao Lu, Haidian District
Tel: 6841-5566, 6841-9272, 6841-9260
Hours: 9 am-5 pm

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