John Hickok

Summer Travel Journal: China
John Hickok

May, 2006

Greetings colleagues,

April is now concluded, and with it, my visit to China.

China is an enormous country, and even though I allotted more time for it than any of my previous countries, it still was not enough. There are hundreds of universities throughout China, ranging from internationally prestigious (e.g., Peking University in Beijing) to extremely inadequate (like some rural “universities” in Central/Western China). Trying to see all of them was obviously impossible, so I attempted to see a sampling instead.

Unfortunately, my sampling was too heavy on the eastern side of China. Starting in the southeast, I followed the eastern coast of China northward: Guangzhou, Xiamen, Shanghai, Nanjing and Beijing. This east coast route is heavy with universities, thus the choice for traveling this direction. However, these are also the most developed and highest-funded universities in China — far different from the poorer university conditions in Central and Western China.  I saw the outskirts of these less developed areas and interviewed librarians and students who grew up there. It confirmed an increasingly evident fact: a widening divide between resource-rich and resource-poor universities in China (and reflective of the similar gap between rural poor and urban rich).

Because of this gap, it is difficult to identify common trends/conditions. The conditions are so vastly different between a million-dollar funded university like Shanghai, and a struggling provincial “university” in the west — essentially, a tiny rural community college. Thus, in looking for commonalties, I had to acknowledge the economic extremes, then look for trends that transcended the financial gap. Here are some of those observations.

Some strengths:
Eastern urban universities:

  • Massive facility improvements/construction!  Some of the newly constructed libraries I visited were colossal structures — akin to large performing arts centers you would find in major cities.  Construction cranes were everywhere. Likewise, heavy funding toward technology was also everywhere — computer labs, library automation, wireless networks, and so on.
  • A strong commitment to cataloguing and automation. The majority of China’s libraries use the home-grown Chinese classification system (a character/letter code, like LC), and the cataloging operations get high attention. Likewise, online catalogs exist at every location (though not with common software; each library has developed its own catalog software).

Western/rural universities:

  • Although lacking modern facilities and technology, these universities nevertheless shared a common strength: a strong commitment/tradition to behind-the-scenes service (i.e., cataloging, classification, collection management, etc.) Even in manual-only catalog situations, the attention to detail was impressive.

Some challenges/weaknesses:
For both types of universities:

  • A lack of — the tradition of — visible reference service. Providing assistance for questions in the form of a separate reference desk is not common in many China libraries. Far more common are “librarians” (explained more, below) at the circulation desk or reading room desks — only helping with basic “look-up” questions. For advanced questions that may arise, librarians at these desks routinely send students to a back office (too frequently unmarked) where more senior/trained librarians are working (such as answering email/telephone/bbs reference questions).
  • A lack of differentiation between professionally degreed librarians and support staff. All library staff are generically called “librarians,” whether degreed/trained or just having worked there for many years. This creates a problem. If less trained staff are answering reference questions at the circulation desk — and not providing as high of quality responses — then the stereotype that “all librarians are merely just low-level clerks” persists.
  • A lack of continual library training (user education). Nearly every library I visited offered the typical “one-shot new student library orientation” (PowerPoint lecture and tour), but beyond that, continuing forms of training — such as workshops, sessions for instructors’ classes, online tutorials — were not so common. In several libraries, there was no proactive stance. That is, librarians would help students if approached, but didn’t have initiatives to reach out, unsolicited.
  • An institutional distraction/drain on reference librarians. In China, a badge of honor for a university is for the library to be designated by the Ministry of Education as a “Novelty Research Center.” That is, capable to start “checking” research/grants/proposals from faculty — checking if the research has already been done, chasing references, confirming patent/copyright clearances, etc. While this honor may be praiseworthy, in reality, it drains incredible time from reference librarians — often up to 60 percent of their daily duties — time away from students, who should be the priority clientele.


  • Despite these challenges, China is at the crossroads for many exciting opportunities. Librarians can ride the wave of technology to begin more proactive outreaches. The old thinking of “just wait for students to ask” can be replaced with new thinking of “let’s offer and advertise library training sessions.”
  • As more librarians enter libraries with degrees in library science training, the opportunity exists to maximize these talented individuals. Rather than assignments of merely monitoring a reading room, skilled librarians can organize into creative teams for Web design, teaching library sessions, producing subject brochures and more.

In all, China has the opportunity to develop some of the same dynamic characteristics that many U.S. academic libraries enjoy (proactive outreach, etc.). But it will need to make the commitment to move beyond some longtime habits/traditions.

That is all for April. I send my warm wishes to all of you.

From Asia,

Giving a lecture to Beijing librarians, organized by the U.S. Embassy. Rather than the traditional podium-and-PowerPoint approach, I made it interactive and wandered among the audience — a new experience for them!

Lecture in Beijing

An example of a massive library, newly built in China. This one is at the Nanjing Finance & Economics University.

Library in China

Visiting the library at Fudan University, where Cal State Fullerton has its annual summer delegation.

Hickok at Fudan University

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