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Features: From Tortoise Shells to Terabytes: The National Library of China's Digital Library Project
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From Tortoise Shells to Terabytes: The National Library of China's Digital Library Project

Established in a Beijing temple in 1909, during the Qing Dynasty, the National Library of China has become the fifth largest national library in the world. Its earliest holdings include 4,000-year-old inscription-bearing animal bones and tortoise shells from China's first dynasty. But with the Digital Library Project and its associated 80,000-square-meter new building both under construction, the NLC's sights are firmly set on the future. The NLC serves over 15,000 customers in-person each day, and when the DLP opens in 2008, many thousands more will be able to access its collections remotely. Sharon Ruwart, the managing director of Elsevier's operations in China, and Michael Zhou, an Elsevier account manager in China, recently met with NLC Digital Library Project Director Ms. Fu Ping and NLC Department of Serials, E-resources and Audio-visual Materials Director Mr. Wang Zhigeng, the two NLC directors guiding the ambitious Digital Library Project.

Sharon Ruwart: Please can you introduce yourselves to our readers?

Sharon Ruwart, Ms. Fu Ping & Mr. Wang

(L to R) Sharon Ruwart, Ms. Fu Ping & Mr. Wang
Zhigeng speak at the National Library of China in Beijing

Ms. Fu Ping: Since earning my degree in library science from Beijing University, I have spent 31 years at the NLC. During my tenure, I’ve headed up construction of the main building, completed in 1987 after four years. The DLP will be my biggest project, and my last, before retiring in 2008.

Mr. Wang Zhigeng: My academic background is in Japanese studies. In my 12 years at the NLC, I have held various roles while managing acquisition of serials and monographs as well as technical initiatives. Currently I coordinate a working group on library automation.


Michael Zhou: What are the aims of the DLP?

Fu: The NLC's mission is to serve as the complete and perpetual archive of all Chinese publications. The goals of the DLP are twofold: first, to preserve in digital form manuscripts and books, many ancient and priceless, embodying China's history and cultural heritage; and second, to capture and preserve more ephemeral forms of today's dynamic Chinese culture — Web pages, e-journals, blogs and so on — that appear only electronically.

Zhou: What kind of difference will the DLP make, as the NLC seeks to offer more electronic resources?

Wang: Only 20% of the NLC's vast holdings are currently available to the public in digital form. I've been working to increase that percentage, but we face several hurdles. The budget provided by the government for the DLP covers only the cost of the building; there is nothing for acquiring content. We along with the public and the research community must shift from print to “e,” but resource constraints pose a huge challenge. All that said though, when it opens in 2008, the DLP will offer an estimated 120 terabytes of data to users, rising to 340 terabytes by 2010.

Ruwart: Funding is a significant challenge that information professionals worldwide no doubt appreciate. But I can see that, as elsewhere in China, the NLC's response to insufficient funding is to plunge ahead instead of waiting around for more money to materialize. It's apparent that for projects designated as national priorities, like the DLP, the momentum is unstoppable. Just look at the drills and cranes outside at this very moment! Given your intention to overcome funding challenges and vastly increase the e-resources held by the NLC, how will you make these resources easily accessible to users?

Fu: That's a good question and one that brings up several issues. Today, we have a print-based workflow for acquiring subscriptions, housing publications and providing services to users. An issue we're examining is whether to integrate digital materials into our standard workflow or create a new workflow.

Construction site of NLC’s new eight story digital library
The construction site of NLC’s new eight story digital library a massive & modern design by German architects Engel und Zimmermann shows girders swinging through the air & signs identifying the construction company & exhorting safety

Wang: Metadata management is also involved in this discussion. We have print bibliographic data, and in digital materials this is embedded so there are two different formats. How do we get both sets of metadata into one system for good discovery and retrieval? A lot of work remains ahead of us.

Zhou: How are roles and responsibilities of NLC librarians changing, as you move further into an e-centric world?

Fu:Although we have provided our staff some training, it's still not enough, and with the new systems we're designing or acquiring, we'll need much more. I've set up a new department to focus on training, but must still find resources and determine what the department should prioritize. Training our librarians and preparing them to train users on new e-systems, and other operational questions, are occupying much time for Mr. Wang and me, along with other NLC colleagues. Our ability to come up with creative solutions within resources available will be key to realizing the full potential of our Digital Library Project.

Ruwart: Last year, you went on a fact-finding mission, visiting libraries in Australia and the United States. Which libraries did you visit and what made the biggest impression on you?

Wang: We visited the National Library of Australia, the libraries of the University of and Sydney the Australian National University, the Library of Congress and several libraries in California including ones at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. Service made the biggest impression. These libraries really know how to serve their customers. Also, the libraries use many intermediaries that help libraries very well — like subscription agencies and systems developers. There is good cooperation between these intermediaries and libraries; we don't have such organizations in China. As you know, the library service sector is still in its infancy here.

Ruwart: Could foreign companies fill the gap until China's support systems develop?

Wang: Language is a big barrier to adapting foreign systems. We use Chinese characters, which foreign technologies cannot support. We even have to use older Chinese characters such as found in ancient documents. These wavy, elongated characters, which resemble modern written Chinese only slightly, pose a further challenge to Roman-character platforms.

However, the NLC is seeking cooperative relationships with overseas libraries and organizations to help come up with approaches meeting our specific needs, particularly for archiving. For example, the British Library has collaborated with the NLC on the International Dunhuang Project to digitize ancient manuscripts found in a grotto on the ancient Silk Road. Scholars in China and abroad can access the manuscripts for further study.

Zhou: I understand the NLC's mission as the nation's comprehensive archive means the library's cultural and social science holdings are more extensive than its STM resources. Can you talk about the importance of STM resources to your library?

Wang: The NLC offers a full range of STM databases, of which ScienceDirect is the most widely used resource from a foreign publisher. We must pay attention to science and technology, and we have identified content gaps we must fill. For example, we need to collect more books and series. We are considering purchases of ScienceDirect Backfiles, and we're looking to Elsevier for advice on transforming print into permanent digital archives.

Ruwart: We're honored you're turning to us for advice. Although Elsevier's oldest document now on ScienceDirect dates back less than 200 years (I'm referring to The Lancet's first issue, published in 1823) rather than 4,000, the principles of digital preservation and modern-day access are the same. And, we're honored to have had the opportunity to meet with you two. Thank you.

Fu: We thank you both. end bullet

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