Library expert urges deeper US engagement in China

Updated: 2012-08-03 11:29

By Tan Yingzi in Washington (China Daily)

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Library expert urges deeper US engagement in China

Chi Wang has a goal of opening a Chinese field office of the Library of Congress, from which he retired in 2004. Cai Chunying / China Daily

At age 80, Chi Wang has a dream.

The former head of its Chinese section is still pushing the Library of Congress in Washington to open an office in China to enhance the country's cultural interaction with the United States.

Wang's leadership - the veteran librarian retired in 2004 - 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 told China Daily 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 American scholars conduct research there.

Officially a research site for the US Congress, the institution where Wang spent 47 years is the biggest library in the world and since 1962 has maintained offices abroad that acquire, catalog and preserve archival and research materials. The Library's offices are 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 Library retirement, Wang traveled to China twice a year to buy books for the Library. (Wang remains a co-chairman of the US-China Policy Foundation, which he helped found in 1995, and is on the faculty at Georgetown University.) But no one has taken up that task since he left eight years ago, leaving the Library's purchases of Chinese materials 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.

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 the need here," he said.

Chi Wang, who immigrated to the United States at age 17, started his career at the Library with the goal of building a better Chinese collection. His book offers recommendations on further improvements as well as Wang's recollection of working with counterparts from libraries in China.

He recalled that during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), it was very difficult for foreigners to get any books from China.

So in 1968, with no diplomatic ties between the US and China, then-Librarian of Congress Lawrence Mumford asked Wang to write to Premier Zhou Enlai on the Library's behalf asking to establish book exchanges with China.

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

As expected, there was no response from Beijing. But 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 be happening in bilateral relations."

In 1972, while working as the librarian at Chinese University of Hong Kong, Wang was invited by the central government in Beijing to visit. Shortly after US President Richard Nixon's historic trip, Wang traveled to the capital in April to re-establish a publication exchange between the Library of Congress and the National Library of China, as well as with Fudan and Sun Yat-Sen universities.

A year later, Wang organized the first US visit by a delegation of Chinese librarians; Nixon greeted them 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 in his book that the Library revert to its previous model and rebuild the Chinese section to better serve the growing interest in China among Americans.

Library expert urges deeper US engagement in China