Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Digital Libraries in China

Liz Lyon reports on the International Digital Library Conference held in Beijing in July 2002.

I was indeed fortunate to be invited to China to speak at the International Digital Library Conference [1] in Beijing in July 2002. The 3-day event was held at the Friendship Hotel, a large and splendid establishment built in traditional garden style and which retained some of the architectural character of times past. The conference was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture with support from other government departments and organized by the National Library of China NLC [2]. There were a number of arranged visits including the National Library, to local university libraries and to a major IT exhibition. The latter was held at a luxury hotel with an ultra-modern exterior, in marked contrast to the conference venue.

The trip was quite memorable with some unexpected surprises (all of them pleasant!) and I hope I can convey some of the flavour in this short report.

China Digital Library Conference

The Conference was preceded by a day of invited parallel two-hour tutorials/panels ranging from the session I presented on "Building digital libraries for the future - a UK perspective" (which gave a high level overview of a broad range of activities in education, cultural heritage and e-government) to more specific themes such as knowledge management systems (Prof. Hsinchun Chen, University of Arizona), evaluating usability (Prof. Christine Borgman, UCLA) and technical challenges of multimedia content (Howard Wactlar, Vice Provost, Carnegie-Mellon). These were all very well attended with approximately 100 delegates at each presentation. All tutorial sessions were conducted with simultaneous translation and moderated by senior staff from the National Library.

The first day of the conference began with a formal Opening Ceremony with short speeches given by the Vice-Ministers for Culture and Education, and the Deputy Director of the National Library. There was much flash photography by members of the local and national media which included shots of the invited speakers in the first three rows of the audience; I did wonder fleetingly if I would be appearing on Chinese TV at a later stage.

The pattern of the day was for a morning of plenary sessions followed by parallels in the afternoon and the opening plenary was chaired by Prof. Ching-Chih Chen, Simmons College, USA. About 350 delegates listened to the keynote presentation given by Hu Quiheng who was Chief Advisor of the China Digital Library Project. This major national initiative began in 2000 with a 5-year timeframe, building content and infrastructure based on global standards. There is also provision for staff training with the aim of having full internet coverage in China (penetration is currently 25%). The consortium project has 21 participating institutes with the NLC as the major implementer. Various familiar challenges were described such as intellectual property rights and the role of commercial and public information.

In later papers, overviews of some of the associated projects were presented including Zhiang Xiaolin from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who described the Chinese National Science Digital Library. CNSDL is being developed by 90 research institutes in 20 cities in a collaborative initiative which is learning from the experience of our own Resource Discovery Network and the National Science Digital Library in the US. CNSDL includes both research data and tools and is based on an open framework, open services, open description and open wrapping using a web services approach. It is still at the design stage but a 3-layer architecture was described with service registries containing descriptions in WSDL forming the core of the system.

Another interesting presentation was given by Gao Wen, also from the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the China-US Million Book Project. The aim is to provide digitized content (50% Chinese, 50% English) from special collections and rare books and also on relevant cultural topics such as silk, tea, Ming dynasty etc. US partners include MIT, Carnegie-Mellon and Simmonds College. The platform being implemented is iMedia providing multi-lingual processing, news video analysis and image-based retrieval.

International speakers included Prof. Ed Fox (Virgina Tech, US) who described the NSDL and particularly CITIDEL [3] which is a repository of computing science materials and provides a content submission mechanism for authors and teachers called VIADUCT [4] and which uses the focused crawling / crawlifier [5] approach to resource discovery.

Winston Tabb (Associate Librarian, Library of Congress) spoke of the strategic role of national libraries and the digital opportunities in the 21st century. He described a number of initiatives and referred in particular, to the need to harvest web sites selected by curators for archival purposes (implemented in a partnership agreement with the Internet Archive). LC has focused recently on sites related to the US presidential campaign in 2000. In a related initiative, the MINERVA [6] web capture program is designed to assist librarians and information professionals in acquiring and managing virtual collections. In a different work area, LC in a partnership with OCLC has created Questionpoint [7], a new collaborative 24/7 online reference service ("the mortal behind the portal").

The UK was represented by Vanessa Marshall (Director, National Preservation Office) who talked about the challenges facing the British Library in order to balance the requirements for access, management and preservation of collections ("challenging dragons"), and by myself presenting a view of information architectures and emerging technologies including web services, in the final plenary session before the closing ceremony.

Visit to the National Library of China

The visit to the NLC in Beijing covered a range of library activities and materials based on both print and digital technology. The NLC is the largest national library in Asia and one of the largest in the world. It was founded in 1909 as the Capital Library of the Qing dynasty, started to receive legal deposit items in 1916 and was renamed the National Library of China in 1998. The tour highlight for me (as part of a small interested group), was an opportunity to see some of the original manuscripts from the caves of Dunhuang which are being studied and preserved in the International Dunhuang Project [8]. IDP partners include the British Library and the Bibliotheque nationale de France and the project is aiming to digitize the manuscript collection so that a complete virtual collection (both front and back of the manuscripts), is available online to scholars.


A few impressions to summarise the visit: China is clearly taking great steps to become a major player, not only in the digital library arena, but also in the wider world of IT. They are very keen to collaborate with western partners and have some wonderful cultural materials and artifacts to share. They are very aware of western trends towards a knowledge-based economy, of (e-)business developments such web services and also of emerging grid technologies, which will combine to influence our future design of digital library systems and services. It will be certainly be interesting to watch developments in China over the coming years.

Finally on a more social note, it was a pleasure to experience the friendly hospitality in Beijing and to learn more about both the country (past and present), and its people.


[1] Digital Library : IT Challenges and Opportunities in the New Millennium <http://www.nlc.gov.cn/dloc/index_en.htm>
[2] National Library of China <http://www.nlc.gov.cn/english.htm>
[3] CITIDEL <http://www.citidel.org/>
[4] VIADUCT <http://citidel-dev.dlib.vt.edu/viaduct/app_user/>
[5] Contains link to Crawlifier Research Report <http://elaine.dlib.vt.edu/>
[6] MINERVA <http://www.loc.gov/minerva/>
[7] Questionpoint <http://www.questionpoint.org/web/news/release.htm>
[8] International Dunhuang Project <http://idp.bl.uk/>

Author details

Liz Lyon
University of Bath