US librarian urges deeper engagement with China

Updated: 2012-08-04 10:11

By Tan Yingzi in Washington (China Daily)

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At age 80, Chi Wang, the former head of the Library of Congress' Chinese section in Washington, still has a dream - to open an office in China to enhance the country's cultural interaction with the United States.

US librarian urges deeper engagement with China

Chi Wang visits the China Daily studio in New York. [Photo by Cai Chunying / China Daily]

Wang helped turn the Chinese section into one of the best library collections of its kind outside Asia, with about 1 million books, newspapers, magazines and films.

The Library of Congress had only 300,000 volumes in its China collection when Wang began working there in 1957.

"It is my dream to set up a library field office in China. It would be just a small center with two or three American librarians to work directly with local Chinese counterparts," Wang said, while discussing his new book, Building A Better Chinese Collection for the Library of Congress.

The office, he said, could buy books directly from publishers in China and help US scholars conduct research there.

Officially a research site for the US Congress, the library is the biggest in the world and since 1962, has maintained offices abroad that acquire, catalog and preserve archival and research materials. The library has offices in New Delhi, Cairo, Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta, Nairobi and Islamabad.

"But why not in China?" Wang said, repeating a question he asked the library's leadership many times during his tenure.

From the 1970s until his retirement in 2004, Wang traveled to China twice a year to buy books for the library. But no one has taken up the task since his retirement, leaving the responsibility solely in the hands of book dealers.

"Nowadays, it's easier to get books from China, but it's difficult to tell the book dealers what kind of books we want to have," he said.

Wang, who emigrated to the US at age 17, started his career at the library with the goal of building a better Chinese collection.

He recalled that in 1968, when diplomatic ties between the US and China had not been re-established, Wang was asked to write to then-premier Zhou Enlai on the library's behalf, hoping to establish book exchanges with China.

"We got permission from the State Department, and they hoped we could get results," Wang said.

While Beijing did not respond to the request, Wang sensed that Washington had begun to soften its policy toward China.

"Otherwise, they wouldn't have allowed me to write a letter to China," he said. "I thought that very soon something would happen in bilateral relations."

In 1972, Wang was invited by the Chinese government to visit. Shortly after former US president Richard Nixon's historic trip, Wang traveled to the capital to re-establish a publication exchange between the Library of Congress and the National Library of China, Fudan University and Sun Yat-Sen University.

A year later, Wang organized the first US visit by a delegation of Chinese librarians, who were greeted by Nixon at the White House. In 1979, he helped arrange the first trip to China by American librarians, led by William Welsh, the deputy librarian of Congress.

"These exchanges had a major impact on Americans' understanding of China," he said. "At that time, Americans had a huge interest in China. No matter how different the political and social conditions in China were, the US wanted to work with China."

Today, Wang says, the Library of Congress' interest in China seems to have waned.

In 2005 the library's new Asia division chief abolished the Japanese, Chinese, Korean and South Asia sections, a move Wang finds troubling.

He suggests that the library should rebuild the Chinese section to better serve US citizens' interest in China, which has not waned.

Chengzhi Wang, head of the Chinese section at Columbia University's CV Starr East Asian Library in New York, said the demand for Chinese materials in the US is huge, given the language's popularity among students.

"Most of the libraries in the US, including public ones, have paid great attention to their Chinese collections. But imports from the Chinese mainland can't meet demand here," he said.