In recent years, China’s cultural infrastructure has developed rapidly alongside strong economic growth.
In 2011, there were 3,589 museums in China; last year, this number jumped by 72% to 6,183. In 2010, there were 2,000 cinemas across China; last year, the number reached 14,480. Theatres and science and technology museums have also mushroomed — in 2012, there were 118 science and technology museums throughout China, but last year there were 408, with another 115 under construction.
Art museums have also flourished in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, with numbers increasing by 90 in two years to reach 618 in 2020.
Many cities have also built or are building space observatories — Shanghai has invested around 600 million RMB (US$89 million) to build the world’s largest planetarium, while “the Roof of the World” Lhasa is also constructing an observatory. Such aggressive growth is no doubt in line with China’s push for cultural development in recent years.
Given that China has around 2,800 county-level administrative areas, this breaks down to just an average of more than one public library per county. The shortfall is shocking.
Lag in library growth
Despite these developments, there is an obvious shortcoming — the lack of public libraries. Over the years, China has seen disappointing growth in the number of public libraries.
Based on 2021 figures, there are only 3,217 public libraries in China. This is an increase of just 160 or 8.8% compared with ten years ago. Given that China has around 2,800 county-level administrative areas, this breaks down to just an average of more than one public library per county. The shortfall is shocking.
Looking at the number of public libraries in major countries at the start of the 21st century, Japan had 2,735 public libraries, France had 2,893, the UK had 4,170, Italy had 6,000, the US had 9,256, Germany had 10,584, and Russia had an astounding 48,767.
At the time, only Japan had slightly fewer public libraries than China, which had 2,769. However, China’s population and landmass are ten and 25 times larger than Japan’s respectively.
Given the vast differences in population among the countries, comparing the number of public libraries per 100,000 people would be a more appropriate international yardstick. By that standard, Japan had 2.1 public libraries per 100,000 people; France had 4.8, the UK had 7.0, Italy had 10.5, the US had 3.2, Germany had 12.9, Russia had 33.9 — and China had just 0.2!
As of 2021, the number of public libraries in Japan has surpassed China’s to reach 3,316. The number of libraries in the US also grew to 17,000 in 2010, more than the number of McDonald’s outlets in the country.
... only 0.5% of the population in China have library memberships — that is an average of one library card for every 200 people.
Abysmal numbers in big cities
With so few public libraries in China, the number of people they can serve is also limited. For example, only 0.5% of the population in China have library memberships — that is an average of one library card for every 200 people. Meanwhile, 11% of the population in France has a library membership, 33.5% in Japan, 47.8% in Italy, 50% in the US (but more than 60% in smaller cities and towns) and 53% in Canada.
Last year, China’s population reached 1.412 billion, which averages to one public library for every 439,000 people. This is a slight improvement from one public library for every 500,000 people at the start of the century, but it is still a sluggish growth.
In general, the development of cultural infrastructure in big cities — especially megacities — would be far more advanced than the national average, but libraries are an anomaly.
For example, Shanghai has about 240 public libraries (including street libraries) serving its population of 24.87 million (as of 2021). This is no match to other cities, such as London, which has 383 public libraries serving a 9 million population; Tokyo, which has 377 for a 14 million population; and New York City, which has 224 for an 8 million population.
In 2014, the Urban Culture Studies Centre at the Shanghai Normal University revealed more worrisome statistics: among 21 international cities, Shanghai had the lowest number of public libraries per 100,000 people.
In contrast, Shanghai ranked on top for the number of theatre performances, with 84,900 annually, far ahead of Sao Paulo, which had 66,700. Shanghai also boasts the second highest number of cinemas, with 230, right behind Paris, which had 302. And in terms of the number of people in creative industries, Shanghai counted 1.29 million people, behind only Mumbai with 1.38 million.
China’s average readership is low — according to the 16th national reading survey, in 2018 the average Chinese person reads 4.67 books a year; this figure was 9 in the US and as high as 40 in Japan.
Improved access to encourage reading
Last year, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism revealed encouraging developments; as of December 2020, the public libraries in 2,397 counties have set up over 20,000 branches, to total 23,000 locations, an increase to 1.63 public libraries per 100,000 people.
While this still pales in comparison with other major countries, if county-level or local library branches can be built on the streets of all towns and cities in China, the number of public libraries in China could climb to over 40,000.
Books are the stairway to human improvement, and public libraries protect the people’s basic cultural rights and raise the calibre of scientific culture and social civilisation; they pass on human civilisation and consolidate cultural confidence, which is crucial for building a cultural power.
As a result of the shortage of public libraries, China’s average readership is low — according to the 16th national reading survey, in 2018 the average Chinese person reads 4.67 books a year; this figure was 9 in the US and as high as 40 in Japan.
However, we cannot even begin to discuss encouraging people to read, as accessibility is lacking due to the low number of public libraries. Even with the setting up of new branches of county-level public libraries, there is still just one public library in every 417 square kilometres, with each one serving a radius of more than 11 kilometres.
Unless the public library is within 20 minutes’ distance by foot or by bicycle, residents or villagers would have no desire to visit it. If the location is too far, they would find it too time-consuming to go to the library and back.
According to the Law on Public Libraries passed in November 2017, public libraries must provide free lending services, thus limiting the funding for building public libraries to government investment. With China’s rapid economic growth, local governments should have the financial ability to build public libraries. The government is responsible for education, healthcare and social security, and it also has a duty to drive infrastructure.
... funding is not the issue; the obstacle is the lack of recognition of the importance of public libraries.
Many places are investing large amounts of resources into building public squares, green spaces and scenic boulevards, but less so for building libraries. For libraries in rural towns and on the streets, just 500 square metres would be sufficient — the space for a one-kilometre scenic boulevard is more than enough to build ten county-level libraries. Hence, funding is not the issue; the obstacle is the lack of recognition of the importance of public libraries.
Habit of reading has not caught up
As for why there are so few libraries in China, the reasons are multi-faceted. The word “library” first appeared in China in the early 20th century, when libraries in Europe were already centuries old. While there were private book collections in China such as the Tianyi Chamber (天一阁, Tianyi Ge) in Ningbo, few outsiders were allowed access to them.
Despite improved living standards and education levels after the reform and opening up, the habit of reading did not catch up.
Before modern China was established, reading was not a norm as China’s literacy rate was low. While the literacy rate improved thereafter, living standards prior to China’s reform and opening up were very low, and the people were more concerned with putting food on the table than reading. Despite improved living standards and education levels after the reform and opening up, the habit of reading did not catch up.
Elderly men in the city play mahjong or cards as their only pastimes, while the women never tire of square dancing. Meanwhile, the better-educated youths spend their spare time on computer games and their mobile phones. People do not have the habit of reading books or newspapers, so of course, it does not cross their minds to visit the library.
The Chinese government has long been aware and has taken measures to tackle this problem. In January 1997, nine agencies including the Central Propaganda Department, the former Ministry of Culture and the State Education Commission released a document on implementing a nationwide “knowledge project” to encourage people to read and build a reading society.
Based on developing libraries, this sociocultural project aims to spread knowledge, promote reading and improve social civilisation. But after its launch, the project’s impact was limited as library construction did not keep up. Calls to establish a reading festival in China also did not amount to anything.
The crux of the matter is that the reach and convenience of county-level public libraries are limited as they did not expand into branches; and where there are such branches, they are small in size and it is difficult for them to become a local attraction.
The lack of awareness of the importance of libraries and the local government leaders’ lack of support for the construction of libraries are major reasons for this peculiar shortage of public libraries. Currently, many public libraries in China’s first-tier provinces and cities are housed in either newly constructed or renovated grand buildings, for example, the remarkable Tianjin Binhai New Area Library.
Fundamental change in mindset needed
The crux of the matter is that the reach and convenience of county-level public libraries are limited as they did not expand into branches; and where there are such branches, they are small in size and it is difficult for them to become a local attraction. Hence, they would not gain the attention of the local governments, whose energy is mostly focused on attracting foreign investments, creating development zones, handling big projects and driving economic growth.
Every year, there are hardly any calls by members of the country’s Two Sessions (两会, Lianghui) to establish more public libraries, while the central and local governments’ work reports also never mention such matters. All these reasons have led to the shortage of public libraries.
While museums, science and technology museums and art museums are important, there is no doubt that public libraries are more so. China’s local governments should have a strong sense of mission and duty when it comes to building public libraries. Only when the building of public libraries is given the same importance as other infrastructure, can there be the hope of fundamentally changing the current backward state of China’s public libraries.
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