An Overview of Collection Development in the Beijing University Library

Lisheng Song *


AbstractThis article gives an overview of the collection development of Peking University Library. Beginning from its historical background, the article describes the current situation of the librarys collection development including its coverage of subjects and the level of collection, its organizational model and acquisitions practices.





The exchange program between Beijing University Library and Harvard-Yenching Library provided me with an opportunity to see this famous East-Asian Library and visit other Harvard Libraries. From my one-year experience at Harvard, I realized that the development of the library undertaking is so different in the U.S. from that in China. Compared with American library development, the development of Chinese libraries is not so balanced. In some developed areas like Beijing and Shanghai, libraries have already begun the digital construction, but in less-developed areas, many libraries cannot even afford books, only subscribing a few newspapers and magazines; many libraries have splendid buildings with modern equipment and hardware, but the administration, services and the materials available have not kept pace with the development of the hard facilities; many libraries have introduced integrated automation systems, but move slowly in improving management. Library developments in the US and China have followed different routes because of different systems, backgrounds and histories. The objective of this talk is to introduce Beijing University Library to my Harvard library colleagues, mainly in the area of collection development. First I will give an introduction to the historical background of the librarys collection, focusing particularly on the post-1950 period, followed by defining the collection development, organization, acquisition practices and problems. Then I will comment on the background of professional librarians. Finally, there will be a brief conclusion.


1.     Historical Background


The pattern and structure of the collection of Beijing University Library were mainly formed in the early 1950s with the nationwide readjustment of colleges and universities.


From the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China until about 1952,

Chinese institutions of higher learning that existed before 1949 underwent a big readjustment in its organizational system and the setting up of the institutions schools and departments. This readjustment followed or imitated mainly the Soviet Unions model of its system of higher education. The main purposes of this readjustment were to meet the need for personnel for industrial construction after the establishment of state power. In addition to maintaining some comprehensive universities, the main changes of this readjustment were: increasing the number of higher institutions of technology and Normal Colleges, and establishing independent colleges of engineering. In addition to specialized engineering colleges or institutes, additional institutes for the study of geology, aeronautics, mining industry, the iron and steel industries, and hydraulic engineering were subsequently established.


Before the readjustment, Beijing University consisted of 6 schools, i.e. liberal arts, science, law, medicine, engineering and agriculture. During the readjustment, the schools of medicine, engineering and agriculture and some of the specialties either changed into an independent college or merged into other universities. The schools of liberal arts, science and law of Tsinghua University and Yenching University and some related departments of other universities were merged into Beijing University. After the readjustment, Tsinghua University actually became an institute of technology. Adjacent to Beijing University and along the Chengfu Road and Xueyuan Road in Haidian District of Beijing, there appeared 8 independent colleges including the College of Geology, Mining Industry, Iron and Steel, Medicine, Petroleum Industry, Aeronautics, Politics and Law, and Post and Telecommunications. While Beijing University became an institution that emphasized liberal arts and the sciences of teaching and research, composed of 12 departments and 33 specialties at the time, the comprehensive university changed into a university which was literally comprehensive but actually was much more similar to the faculty of arts and sciences in the American and European sense. Along with the readjustment of the Chinese colleges and universities, great changes took place in the collection of Beijing University Library. The original collection for schools of engineering, medicine and agriculture was transferred to other colleges along with the transfer of the school, while Beijing University Library inherited some collections from Yenching University, Tsinghua University, Fu Jen University, Zhongshan University, and some gift materials from organizations and societies such as the Sino-German Association, the Chinese French University and so on. The library formed a core collection with a focus on literature, history, philosophy, etc. After 1952s readjustment, 95% of the Librarys collection fell into the subjects of the humanities and social sciences.


Between the 1950s and 1960s, politics was very influential in every aspect of China, including the librarys collection development. Because of the strained relations between China and western countries at that time, very few Western- language materials were purchased by Beijing University Library. It was also difficult to find channels through which to buy Western language books. At the time, the Soviet Union was very influential in all aspects of Chinas development. The Russian- language materials purchased by Beijing University Library were much more than the Western language materials. The themes of the purchased materials were mainly science and technology, since economic construction was emphasized during the early days of the Peoples Republic. Especially sought were the new Soviet publications on modern technology to aid Chinas economic development. From 1950 to 1966, the books in humanities and social sciences purchased by the Library were generally fewer than those in science and technology; there were even fewer in 1950s.


However, during the 1960s relations between the Soviet Union and China waned, there was a downward trend of the numbers of Russian -language books purchased and an upward trend in the acquisition of Western-language books. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the purchase of foreign-language materials was almost zero; only Chinese- language materials that primarily reflected mostly the political environment were acquired.


The 1980s was a period of rapid collection development. Since the government put a strong emphasis on economic reform, the collection of Western-language materials on economics was enhanced. And because universities began to enroll students at the end of 1970s after the Culture Revolution, the shortage of foreign literature seriously hindered the progress of teaching and research. In response to a letter signed by a number of professors mainly from Beijing University, the State Council set up a special fund of 2 million US$ per year for social sciences and humanities books. The fund was divided among about 100 universities in proportion. And government also used World Bank loans to acquire foreign science titles. But, apart from these ad hoc funds, libraries have never got any decent grants on regular basis. Beginning from 1987, when the economic climate changed and the Chinese currency the Yuan was devalued, and the price for foreign language materials rose, the librarys collection development was greatly affected. The library adopted the policy of reducing foreign materials but keeping Chinese materials; reducing monographs but keeping periodicals. Foreign language science books were not purchased for many years. The main source for acquiring foreign language books was donations. The situation did not change until the late 1990s. Since the budget for foreign language books was very limited, the collection development of foreign books was largely through donations during the last decade. The donated foreign books consisted of 50-70% of the foreign books collection. For example, some American foundations have been coordinating with the State Education Ministry and donating books to Chinese institutions of higher learning for more than 10 years. Other donations were from foreign governments, publishers and individuals. Up until 2002, the year of the librarys centennial, the library had collected 5.3 million volumes, including 1.3 million volumes in foreign language, of which 890 thousand volumes were in the humanities and social sciences and 410 thousand volumes in science and technology. Nowadays, 25 thousand Chinese titles are purchased and 10 thousand foreign language titles are collected by the library each year.


2.     Defining Collection Development


Beijing University Library is a comprehensive university library. The library collects materials in the diverse subjects of humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and technology. The library is responsible for acquiring and collecting the materials needed by all faculties, departments and specialties of Beijing University. The materials collected are generally academic, equal to or superior to the level of those required for undergraduate education. Generally, for Chinese-language books, 3-5 copies are acquired, with one copy put on reserve and the others shelved in the open stacks. There are usually no duplicate copies of foreign language books, which, except for reference books, are shelved in the open stacks.


Since the 1950s, the organizational model of Beijing University Library has followed a centralized style with one library. The one library provides services for all the universitys students and faculty members with different academic levels, diverse specialties and multiple subjects, which leads to the difficulty of defining of the librarys collection development: teaching vs. research; textbooks vs. monographs; social sciences vs. natural sciences; undergraduates vs. graduates, students vs. professors. The system leads to shortcomings in every aspect of collection development and services. Since the 1950s readjustment, Beijing University has developed into a contemporary and comprehensive university that comprises pure and applied science, information science, environmental studies; humanities, social sciences, sciences of management, education and language, with about 14000 undergraduates, 8500 M.A. students, 4200 Ph D. candidates, 4500 faculty members, and a lot of non-teaching technical professionals. The librarys collection is expected to cover all those subjects and meet the needs of all its users. In fact, it is hardly possible to fulfill this gigantic task. But for the time being, the librarys collection has been developed around the needs of the patrons and reflecting the subjects taught in the University. Having realized the problem, the Beijing University Library has started the construction of branch libraries and attempts to separate the different levels of patrons so as to solve the problems of collection levels. The construction of branch libraries is designed to change the reading rooms in the different colleges, departments, research institutes and research centers into branches of the main library with their collections emphasizing research-level collections in specific areas.


Compared to the Beijing University Library, the decentralized system of the Harvard University Library is very specialized. Harvard College Library has 11 libraries, their collections are so specialized that each library has different themes and face different levels of patrons and include undergraduate collections, research collections, humanities and social sciences collections, science collections, and, more narrowly, earth sciences, fine arts, archeology, government archives, rare books , East Asia, etc, plus many separate school libraries: law, education, theology, etc. Each library is relatively independent with sufficient budget, supporting different levels and subjects of teaching and research.


3.     Organization of Collection Development


Collection Development in Beijing University Library is organized first by format of the materials and secondly by languages and finally by subjects, as follows:


      Formats: Monographs, Periodicals, E-materials, audio-visual materials;

      Languages: Chinese monographs, foreign language monographs, Chinese periodicals, Foreign language periodicals;

      Subject: Chinese monographs in humanities and social sciences, foreign language monographs in sciences and technology.


The Acquisitions Department is responsible for the collection of monographs, the Cataloging Department for periodicals (formerly the responsibility of the Periodicals Department), the Reference Department for E-materials, and the Audio-Visual Department for A-V materials. Since 1952, although two of the departments among the departments of Periodicals, Acquisition and Cataloging were sometimes combined and sometimes separated, the structure of the organization of the Collection Development has not changed.


At Harvard, there is no single organization model for collection development. The libraries of the professional schools are subject-oriented. Widener Librarys Collection Development Department is organized by language and country of publication; the Harvard-Yenching Library is also organized by languages.


The organizational model of Beijing University Librarys collection development is suitable to the situation of a poor budget, limited languages collected, and an insufficient number of subject librarians or bibliographers. While the organization model of the Harvard University Library is applicable to its own situation, that is not consistent with the situation of Beijing University Library.


4.     Acquisition Practices and Problems


Beijing University Library has followed a routine and regular procedures in its selection and acquisition practices, which for many years have been very much like those at most of other Chinese universities.


4a. Chinese Books


Subscribing via bookstores catalogs used to be the main method of acquiring Chinese books in the past. Catalogs issued by Xin Hua Shu Dian (New China Bookstore), such as Sci-Tech New Books Bulletin, Bulletin of New Books on Humanity and Social Sciences, Shanghai New Books Bulletin, Provincial Sci-Tech Book Bulletin were widely used for selection. As the only supplier for library, Xin Hua Shu Dian collected all orders. Publishers decided how many copies should be issued mainly according to the numbers of orders from Xin Hua Shu Dian.

Xin Hua Shu Dian was established in 1938 in Yanan, which is a famous site in Chinas revolutionary history. The four Chinese characters 新华书店 (Xin Hua Shu Dian ), in the hand of Mao Zedong has been hanging as a sign in the Xin Hua main and branch stores and is very familiar to many Chinese people. People have been impressed by the sign so much because the Xin Hua bookstores used to be the only place for people to buy books for almost half a century. Since 1949, Xin Hua Shu Dian had been the main channel for selling and distributing books in China. The branch stores were distributed all over China, including Tibet. The organization was similar to the government administrative units. Because of the historical background of its establishment, the store played primarily a distribution role in its early stage. In the present environment of a market-oriented economy, a bookstore run by the government has become more and more inapplicable to the developments and changes in the book market. The disadvantages to the libraries include low probability of supply, partial fulfillment of orders, long delays in order fulfillment, and all these lead to complaints from patrons.


In view of this situation, the Beijing Gao Xiao Tu Gong Wei (Beijing Sterring Committee for University and College Library) established the Beijing Tu Lian Company (北京图联文献信息咨询公司Beijing United Library Company for Consultation) in 1993. A similar unit in Shanghai is the Shen Lian Company. The company depends on university libraries and provides services to them. It has a joint acquisitions program for university libraries. Beijing University Library joined the companys program for the acquisition of Chinese books and gives catalogs with marked selections to the Tu Lian Company. Tu Lian took quite a share of market from Xin Hua Shu Dian. But Tu Lian did not improve on the shortcomings presented earlier by Xin Hua Shu Dian. The earlier problems still exist.


In 2000, Beijing University Library made an investigation and evaluation on the book distributing and selling market in Beijing. During the period of the late 1980s through the early 1990s, the reform of the book distribution system in China broke the hold by which Xin Hua Shu Dian allowed to be

the main channel. There appeared several kinds of book distribution systems and diverse bookstores, including private bookstores, large-stock bookstores and publisher-owned bookstores. As a result of the investigation and evaluation, the library chose Tu Shu Da Sha and Ren Tian Shu Dian as the main sources for purchasing Chinese books, and other publishers and bookstores as the supplementary sources. The methods to buy books already in stock from Tu Shu Da Sha and to order non-stock books through Ren Tian Shu Dian were also defined. Tu Shu Da Sha is a stock company reformed from Xin Hua Shu Dian. It is mainly a retail bookstore and has the biggest retail house in Xidan, Beijing. Its catalogs come to the library weekly and cover all subjects on different educational levels. The books in their catalog are kept in stock. On the contrary, Ren Tian Shu Dian has no retail store and almost no stock. Ren Tian Shu Dian boasts of being the largest individual owned book company in the country and strives to provide professional service to both public and academic libraries. The information in its catalogs is collected from various publishers catalogs and newspapers. The catalogs used to come monthly but are now biweekly and include all subjects for various educational levels. Ren Tian Shu Dian acquires and supplies books according to the librarys orders. At present, Beijing University Library purchases books published in Beijing mainly from Tu Shu Da Sha and those published elsewhere from Ren Tian Shu Dian.


Currently, there are some problems along with Chinese Acquisitions. Firstly, motivated by the profit, publishers do not follow their original subject division, and they intend to publish best-selling books and hot topic books. Academic publishers also publish popular things. The book news is sometimes not realistic. The content of book is sometimes boasted much more. It is more often to make mistakes for librarians to select books. Secondly, bookstores, either government owned or individuals owned, have been short in specializing. They have been emphasizing in wholesale and retail book selling. There have been no bookstores or companies which specialize in providing services for academic libraries. Although Ren Tian Shu Dian has aimed to provide services for academic libraries, it is very short of professional staff, its service is not specialized, and its catalogs are similar to that from Tu Shu Da Sha, which include different levels of various subjects. The higher education for publishing and distributing in China started late in 1983 when the first specialty for this career was set up in Wuhan University, but the limited number of the graduated students can not meet the requirements of the huge book market. There were only secondary educations for this profession before 1983. This situation brought difficulties for university libraries to make selections. Librarians have to encounter a huge book market from where to select materials which are suitable in subjects and levels to the Beijing University Library.


Comparatively, publishers and book dealers in America and western countries are more standardized and professional. Early in the 1970s, academic libraries in America and other Western countries had already begun to use the special services such as the approval plans provided by booksellers for maintaining and developing libraries collection. It might take many years for Chinese booksellers to come up to this standard.


4b. Foreign Books


Since 1949, the state has had regulations and restrictions for the import and export of foreign materials. The business had been centralized and managed by Guo Ji Shu Dian, the International Bookstore. Guo Ji Shu Dian was later divided into two units: one was responsible for export and was still called Guo Ji Shu Dian, another was responsible for import called Zhong Tu Gong Si (Zhong Tu for short). Since 1976, Zhong Tu has been acting as a state corporation that distributes foreign materials within China. Zhong Tu issues two kinds of catalogs of new foreign books to academic libraries throughout China: one for science and technology books and the other for humanities and social sciences. The books in Zhong Tus catalogs are selected by the cataloging unit of Zhong Tu, which selects the titles from the catalogs of foreign booksellers and then puts them into Zhong Tus catalogs. The catalogs come monthly.


Beijing University Library uses Zhong Tus catalogs and also some catalogs from foreign booksellers as the main source for foreign book selection. The Acquisitions Department of the Library distributes the catalogs to the Universitys colleges and departments. After the faculty have made selections, the catalogs are returned to the Acquisitions Department, which orders the selected items through Zhong Tu. Generally, requests from faculty members are not rejected, except for those that are considered to be not suitable to the core collection of the library and also do not correspond with the facultys subjects. For the big sets and expensive books, the Acquisitions Department usually consults with the faculty on the necessity of acquisition.


Zhong Tu had monopolized the import book market for many years in China. Before the reforming and opening policy was put into practice, Zhong Tu was the only state import corporation and controlled the foreign currency distribution for foreign books. It used to be poor in providing services and keeping customers. The price of foreign books had been kept high for many years and the books ordered usually arrived late, which led to complaints from faculty. In the late 1980s, along with the governments easing of restrictions on the import and export of books, there appeared several publication import and export corporations that were established by the State Education Ministry, the State Economy and Trade Committee, The Chinese Academy of Sciences, and so on. This mechanism of competition improved the quality of service and reduced the cost of books, but the traditional operation method did not change. The information contained in some of the catalogs issued by these corporations is limited to publishers, subjects and book numbers. Realizing this problem, Zhong Tu Gong Si, in cooperation with a software company, developed an online foreign books acquisition and selection system and tried to deliver more book information using a networked environment. This system is still in the trial stage.


Currently, problems in the acquisition of foreign-language books are: first, the rising cost of materials and the lack of financial resources, especially for science and technology; secondly, faculty are less enthusiastic than previously in recommending books for the library. Those problems are extremely serious in regard to foreign science and technology books. Since the acquisitions budget is very limited, the books presently in the collection are far from meeting facultys need, which influences their dependence on the library and their enthusiasm for selecting books for the library.


Talking about the lack of financial resources, there are mainly two kinds of funding for foreign language acquisitions: the regular budget and special acquisitions fund. The regular budget has been used mainly for science and technology books for many years. It comes from the university. The amount in 2001 was about 1 million yuan, and was not increased after 2001. But in 2004, it was reduced to half that amount. The collection of foreign language science and technology books has almost become a symbolic thing. Furthermore, there were two periods in the history of the librarys collection during which almost no foreign language science and technology books were acquired. One was the 10-year Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976; another was the decade from 1987 to 1997, a period when the economic climate changed. The acquisition of foreign social sciences and humanities books is mostly supported by the special acquisition fund allocated by the State Education Ministry. The amount for Beijing University Library used to be 100 thousand dollars or so, and it has risen up to about 200 thousand dollars in recent years.


5. Background of the Professional Staff


For many years selecting for the librarys collection has been managed in a way that librarians select Chinese books and faculty members recommend foreign-language ones. It is generally considered that the librarians are capable of identifying Chinese books suitable to the librarys collection. Foreign language selections and acquisitions are organized into two categories: subjects in humanities and social sciences; and subjects in science and technology. Because of the limited number of books purchased, there is only one librarian responsible for foreign science and technology books and two librarians for foreign humanities and social sciences books; they cover very broad subjects. Furthermore, there are still other shortcomings of the librarians language, culture and subject backgrounds, and the users of foreign language books are mostly at the graduate level and above. Therefore, the foreign language book selections are very much dependent on faculty members, which is totally different from the practices at Harvard and other American academic libraries. The organization of collection development at Widener Library is by language and publishing area and in Yenching also by language. The bibliographers usually thoroughly understand the target language, have a very good knowledge of local culture, and also have some subject background. Therefore generally the bibliographers make the selection decisions. Some bibliographers even think the library would not have good collections if selection is made by professors whose research areas are very limited and narrow. In the MIT library, which is more centralized than Harvard, the selections in specific subject areas are usually made by the subject librarians who are very specialized in their areas. For example, the chemistry librarian is only responsible for publications about chemistry. The subject librarians at MIT also provide instruction and do some reference. Because of the very limited budget for foreign books and the limited number purchased by Beijing University Library, the subjects spanned by the selectors are usually very broad. Thus selection by faculty members is a very appropriate model.


The educational background of professional librarians in Chinese academic libraries is very different from those in American academic libraries. In America, professional librarians usually have a specific subject degree and a MLS degree, and Master of Library Science in America is the first library science degree. But in China, professional librarians either have a specific subject degree or a library science degree, and the latter degree is offered as bachelors, masters or PhD degrees, which means that institutions for library science education are not only graduate schools but start from the undergraduate level. While in America, only those with a B.A. can apply for a library science degree. This education system results in American professional librarians having not only subject knowledge but also a library science background. Having realized these shortcomings of professional librarians education background, the Chinese university libraries have been introducing more professional staff with subject degrees in recent years. Those staff are engaging in reference, cataloging, and collection development. But there is still a long way to go to catch up with the professional librarians levels in America with both subject education and library science education.




Beijing University Library is one of the most prominent university libraries in China and has a hundred years accumulation of collections. But the library needs more financial assistance to maintain the collection and thus to maintain its leading role in China. Several concerns are as follows:


      First, foreign materials are necessary for teaching and research, particularly those materials in the sciences and technology. But the resources have been inadequate for many years, even for a basic level of collecting. The library has been seeking sources of donations from foundations, foreign governments, gifts from publishers, individuals, and so on.

      Second, branch libraries are very important to separate library users with different levels of needs and subject requirements. So, both funding and professional staff are of vital importance for branch libraries.

      Thirdly, to obtain better collection, the quality of the professional staff needs to be enhanced by ways of training, continuing education, participation in conferences, international experience, and so on.


This talk has investigated the collection development situation at Beijing University library. I hope that this will give my Harvard library colleagues a general idea about our library collection in order to help us to find more opportunities for collaboration and communication.




*作者简介:Lisheng Song, Ph.D, visiting librarian of Peking University Library, stayed at Harvard-Yenching Library from Dec.1st 2003 to Nov.30th 2004. She is responsible for the collection development of science and technology books of Peking University Library.宋力生,博士,北京大学图书馆图书馆员,负责北大图书馆科技图书的馆藏发展,曾于2003121日至20041130日在哈佛燕京图书馆做访问馆员。