Past Features

November 17, 2008 (Vol. 8, No. 7)

Chief Librarian Reports on Visit to China

Kenneth Schlesinger
Kenneth Schlesinger
In October, Lehman Chief Librarian Kenneth Schlesinger traveled to China for ten days as part of a Visiting Delegation of Archivists. The group was sponsored by People to People Citizen Ambassador Programs, which organizes international cultural exchanges in a variety of subject disciplines. Here, Mr. Schlesinger talks about his experiences.

The Delegation divided its time between Beijing and Shanghai on a rigorous (to put it mildly) schedule of professional visits and cultural activities. First stop was a meeting with our professional counterparts at Chinese Archives Society, which has over 7400 members. It was significant to initiate discussion about how our international professional organizations could cooperate more closely. As part of our formal gift giving (important in Asian cultures), we presented them with an institutional membership to the Society of American Archivists.

Paper preservation lab, Beijing City Archives
Paper preservation lab, Beijing City Archives (photo by Dianne Brown)

The Beijing City Archives occupies fifteen floors of a building equipped for both onsite storage and public access. Since Beijing serves as an administrative province with over thirty-three million people in the metropolitan area, the archives functions more on a municipal level. We toured paper and audiovisual preservation labs, as well as a digital scanning area with a staff of sixteen. The Chinese are committed to aggressively digitizing their collections and have a recent mandate to make them publicly accessible in attractive reading rooms.

One of the high points of our excursion was meeting with faculty and students at the School of Information Resource Management of Renmin University (considered the Harvard of China). An estimated 150 students and faculty were there to welcome us, and we had an intriguing facilitated conversation about library training in the U.S. vs. China, current trends in research, and the challenges of digital preservation. We were particularly impressed by the students, who asked thoughtful, sophisticated questions in English, clearly informed by library and archival literature.

School of Information Resource Management, Renmin University
School of Information Resource Management, Renmin University (photo by Elizabeth Adkins)

All too quickly we were off to lively, cosmopolitan Shanghai, considered the New York of China. We had fewer professional visits, but spent an interesting morning at the Shanghai Municipal Archives, located on the historic Bund in a beautiful Art Deco building. Our knowledgeable hosts queried us about cataloging archival materials, making finding aids accessible on the World Wide Web, as well as operational procedures of our National Archives. We toured an excellent multimedia exhibition on the colorful history of Shanghai. The afternoon was spent at the Shanghai Museum, one of the finest in the world, chronicling the aesthetic history of Imperial China through its artifacts: bronze, scrolls, ceramics, porcelain, and ethnic costumes.

Most professional visits lasted two hours, and the conversation merely scratched the surface. Some delegates were frustrated by the limited time and inability to go into more depth. From my own experience, however, the fact of our meeting was more significant than the actual content. This was, hopefully, a prelude to more dialogue and exchange in the future.

Professional visit, Shanghai Municipal Archives
Professional visit, Shanghai Municipal Archives (photo by Dianne Brown)

We made some startling discoveries. For example, it was compelling what a central government could do by marshalling its resources—both financial and human—toward archival processing and digitization. We were impressed by this major thrust towards digitization, but realized that long-term issues of digital preservation and data migration were not necessarily being addressed. The strategy appears to be: Digitize Now—Preserve Later. Rather than using archival storage boxes, we observed that documents are mounted in individual folders. Due to language differences, at times we had difficulty establishing a common vocabulary and grasping concepts: informationization. After a few sessions, we began to understand that in China they do not differentiate between archives, records management, and information issues.

The cultural component was equally important. In this brief span we visited massive Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, attended the Peking Opera, and marveled at the Shanghai Acrobats. Climbing the Great Wall was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

Needless to say, we learned as much from our wonderful hosts as they hopefully learned from us. Further, I benefited from the knowledge and expertise of my fellow delegates and established new collegial friendships.