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    Q & A

    Does China Still Need Libraries?

    To stay relevant in contemporary China, libraries must do more than provide the same staid services and instead be spaces for genuine learning and community-building, says professor Yang Suqiu.

    In 2020, literature professor Yang Suqiu chanced upon an opportunity of a lifetime after taking up a temporary position as the deputy chief of a district culture and tourism bureau in the historical northwestern city of Xi’an: establishing a new district library.

    Tasked with leading the project, Yang had to oversee every aspect of the library, from its physical construction to the content within. But this also meant stepping into the role of a “sesame official” — a Chinese term for low-ranking public servant — which required her to navigate the unspoken rules of government and manage the many different parties involved.

    Things got off to an uneasy start when cultural relics were unearthed at the original construction site for the new library, which forced Yang to move the library to a temporary basement instead. She was given a tight budget of 1.8 million yuan ($248,500) to renovate this 3,000-square-meter space and 2.8 million yuan for purchasing 80,000 books, or 35 yuan per book.

    The most politically expedient thing to do was to maximize returns on a tight budget — the returns on paper, at least — by stocking up on bargain but uninteresting books such as “chicken soup for the soul”-style self-help manuals and test preparation materials. But Yang was determined to build a good library, one that not only met quotas for the number of books but also had books people would want to read.

    In her newly published book, “Why the World Needs Libraries,” Yang describes how she selected which books to purchase and the main challenges she faced building the library. The story is ostensibly about the birth of a small local library, but it also sheds light on key aspects of Chinese society today, from the role of education to the allocation of resources.

    Yang has since returned to working at the Shaanxi University of Science and Technology but still pays regular visits to the library. In the following interview with Sixth Tone conducted by phone, Yang discusses changing perceptions of the library in China, the rural-urban library divide, and the future of the library in Chinese society. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Sixth Tone: Many libraries and bookstores have become popular wanghong spots, where people go to take photos to share on social media. What do you make of this phenomenon? How have Chinese people’s use and perceptions of libraries changed over the years?

    Yang Suqiu: I’m actually pretty optimistic. I was born in the 1980s and grew up in a small city in the southern part of the northwestern Shaanxi province. I remember there was only one very small library in the city then. Very few people used it; the number of books and genres was quite limited. Later, I moved to Xi’an, this big city, where I walked into the library of Shaanxi Normal University and discovered that libraries could have this many books!

    When I was preparing to establish this library, I visited some low-income families to see what they were reading. Apart from books their schools required them to read, it seemed like these kids didn’t have any other books at home. Their parents would wake up early and work until late. They didn’t know what books to buy for their kids. They would only buy them cell phones, which got the kids addicted as soon as they began watching short videos.

    At the time, I thought to myself: A good, free library in these families’ communities where kids can go as soon as school finishes would surely decrease the amount of time they spend watching videos online. So even though many people have been asking me recently whether libraries are still worth governments investing in, especially as more and more become wanghong spots, I think that they are still very important, especially to low-income families.

    Sixth Tone: Yes, many children start using devices at an early age nowadays, especially in rural areas. But this also ties into the fact that the ways in which people receive information have changed massively. In the digital age, do physical libraries still have a role to play in society?

    Yang: While short videos, especially repetitive ones, can change the way our cerebral cortex responds to stimuli, longer videos can also make learning more vivid and interesting. Libraries can have activities that incorporate videos, like documentary showings. They can also foster offline and deeper connections between people at a time when we’re becoming more polarized and estranged from one another.

    When I was in Seattle in the United States, I visited a small community library where you could find books in Chinese, Spanish, and other languages. The quality of books was very good and they also held a lot of free activities. In the U.S., a country of immigrants, many do not have good language skills upon arrival and libraries are a place where they and their children can gradually adapt to their new environment.

    At our library’s in-person events, we often see young kids from completely different family backgrounds. Here, they can flip through books too expensive for them to own, freely and without restraint. And as the library is located in Xi’an’s central Beilin District, famous for its stele tablets, we often have older folks coming here to view our many stone inscription rubbings on display, do calligraphy, and bond with other enthusiasts. You can’t do this online.

    Although there are many online platforms and communities that share knowledge, one of the biggest differences is that public libraries will always be free so they are accessible to people from all social backgrounds. Online communities often have fees and social barriers — you need to be invited in, for example. Just like schools and courts, free public libraries are institutions that are necessities of modern civil society.

    Sixth Tone: Compared to provincial and municipal-level libraries, district-level libraries like yours, and even lower-level community libraries, haven’t received as much funding. What kind of existence do libraries that are more closely tied to local communities lead in China?

    Yang: In general, the number and quality of libraries in China are on the rise, but there are huge regional differences. For instance, Shanghai has more than 200 public libraries, and they run very smoothly, but in Shaanxi province, it wasn’t until the end of 2020 that we pledged to have a public library in every county. After my book came out, a library director in Nanjing was shocked and asked me whether the books that booksellers offered me were really as bad as I had described.

    There are also huge differences between libraries of the same administrative level. For example, a remote village library in Shaanxi province I visited had 1,000 to 2,000 books, but all of them were locked in metal cabinets and about how to breed freshwater fish or how to use chemical fertilizer. I asked the librarian there if the local farmers actually read these books. He replied no, they don’t, and neither do the village’s left-behind children.

    So, this local library does not meet the needs of its community, but I’ve also seen libraries that do. Another library I visited in the same province didn’t even have formal library staff, but one of the township officials loved reading and would read to the children in the village every week at the library.

    This disparity is first and foremost determined by how much importance the local government attaches to their libraries, and it’s also related to different levels of economic development and funds available across the country. But sometimes it’s also about luck: whether the head of the library really loves their job. Some local officials think the only reason for building libraries is to fulfill quotas ordered from above. Whether these libraries actually have good books is not as important, as long as it does not affect their political prospects.

    Sixth Tone: China’s top anti-graft watchdog recently identified rural libraries as a potential waste of local public resources. What’s your suggestion to prevent lower-level and rural libraries from turning into “image projects” — projects that are merely box-ticking exercises?

    Yang: I’ve visited some rural village libraries with good collections of books, but no one borrows them. Locals would go inside and be at a total loss about what to do. Libraries should not just be places that collect books; they should also guide and educate readers by holding regular reading events and having staff members recommend good books, for example. This is especially true for regions with less educational resources in general.

    For example, our library had set up a foreign language reading area but the rate of borrowing wasn’t high. The reason was that parents aren’t aware that these books can help with their children’s education and many parents are also not capable of reading English books to their children. This shows that having libraries alone are not enough — people must know how to use them for them to be impactful.

    Sixth Tone: After you returned to work at your university, what happened to the library? What kind of feedback have you received?

    Yang: The library is acquiring more and more books — there are more than 100,000 now. Recently, the head of the library told me that the cultural relics found at the original construction site have now all been excavated and they’re getting ready to go back to the original site. They already have a new building built, the space is larger, and the lighting and ventilation are better than what they have currently.

    An elderly volunteer at the library told me that when the library had just been built and there were many media reports about it, many people visited, but this tapered off. Since the publication of my book, however, there have once again been many people checking out the library. Of course, this may be temporary, but hopefully my book can make the library more well-known.

    Translator: Marianne Gunnarsson; editor: Vincent Chow.

    (Header image: Readers at Zikawei Library in Shanghai, 2023. VCG)