The National Library of China: A Secular Temple of Learning


Last week, I went to the National Library of China in order to check out a very rare book series that contains reproductions of old Tibetan manuscripts that may (or may not!) be important for my dissertation. Originally it seemed that I was going to be able to see the original manuscripts, which are over 1,000 years old (you can check out similar manuscripts held at the British Library here), but, lucky me, they are renovating the building that holds the manuscripts, so I was only able to see black and white reproductions (see images below).

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised with the new National Library of China. I had already seen the building from the main road, since it is very close to our apartment, and it has a very cool, slick, beautiful design. I was even more impressed with the interior, with open and luminous spaces. It is a modern, secular temple of learning. I have been in a few libraries  in which you can almost breath knowledge (Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library and the Library of the Universidad de Barcelona en Plaza Universidad, for example) and the National Library of China has that same feeling. There are some issues with ringing cellphones (let’s also say that Chinese people have very different taste regarding ringtones than I do, although, granted, they’re more subtle than Indian ones), but I think this is an issue everywhere and not just here.

I think that it says a lot about a country that is willing to spend millions of dollars in order to preserve and promote its cultural patrimony. And China, as we all know, has cultural patrimony in spades. You can see in the gallery below a couple of pictures of the vaults where they store some of the most important documents (as you can imagine, I was not actually able to see those either – the pictures are from their catalog).

Additionally, China has not only spent incredible amounts of money on a beautiful building, but also on a very modern IT system in which, after getting a free Reader Card, you can have access to pretty much anything in their catalog with almost no hassle.

A few interesting differences between this library and some of the libraries I know: here they have guards on every floor watching for any possible disturbance; there are cameras all over the place (we are used to this now – there are even two sets of cameras in every single classroom at Minzu University); and most of the stacks are close, so I kind of miss the charm of wandering around and getting lost surrounded by books. I was also impressed with the fact that people go out to take a break (sometimes for more than an hour) and leave their computers unattended. There is a general feeling that your things are going to be safe here, that no one will steal them.

I guess what I want to say is that I will be spending a lot of my time in the next few months reading, translating, and writing at the National Library of China…



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