Rural libraries juggle multiple roles to enrich lives

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A resident reads at the local library in Dahongqi, a village in Anshan, Liaoning Province in northeast China, on April 22, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

In Xiaolongba, a small village with a population of about 400 in Tianjin, north China, the new local library has quickly become part of people's daily lives.

Qiao Defu, a 70-year-old, told the press he feels something is missing if he doesn't go to the library every day. Another resident, Zhang Chunyang, said the library, though small, has opened a window of knowledge.

The books in the collection, though a modest 2,000 in number, still cover a wide range of areas, from science and technology to culture, politics and economy. For those interested in literature, there are readings on Chinese classics.

Xiaolongba is a farming village growing persimmon and walnut and the library also hosts reading sessions on agricultural technology.

Children are frequent visitors. Children's books account for nearly a quarter of the collection. Because of the library's extended opening hours on weekends and during holidays, they can study there.

"They can either read the books in the library or do their homework," Zhang said. "Some parents told me that their children used to either watch TV or play video games when the library had not opened. Now they are studying more in the new library."

Zhang Rui, a 10-year-old, has read all the four great Chinese classics—Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber—at the library. Among them, her favorite is Journey to the West, which depicts a monk's travels to the "Western Regions" with his three disciples to obtain sacred Buddhist texts. Despite the antiquity, the book is especially appealing to the young because one disciple is the king of the monkeys.

"I spend at least one hour at the library on Saturdays and Sundays," Zhang Rui said.

In 2005, to enrich the lives of people living in the countryside, the government launched the pilot of the Rural Library Project, which went full scale two years later. The goal was to build libraries in all rural areas by 2015. There are 587,000 rural libraries across China, according to a Xinhua News Agency report in October 2020.

The National Press and Publication Administration releases catalogs of recommended content for rural libraries, which includes books, audio and video products, e-publications, newspapers and periodicals.

One notable item is publications in ethnic minority languages, which ensures their propagation. Also, the rural libraries are encouraged to hold reading sessions and add new book titles every year.

Innovative offerings

In Chunteng, a village in provincial capital Haikou in Hainan Province, south China, the Volcano Library is a big draw by virtue of its name alone. The name comes from the crater of a nearby extinct volcano, which is a scenic spot today. In addition to reading books, people, especially youngsters, can ride their bikes and play games nearby, which attracts more children to the library. The Volcano Library is a partner of a publishing company, Hainan Phoenix Xinhua Publishing, which provides free books for it.

Dingan, a county in Hainan, has combined rural libraries with postal services. Its 108 rural libraries provide postal services as well. In addition, people can also pay for their utilities at these libraries, which have become convenience service centers.

Last November, a new library opened in Biandu, a village in Wanning, Hainan. The Sun River Library, jointly established by Hainan Phoenix Xinhua Publishing and a private company, celebrated its opening with a talk by Yan Chongnian, a renowned historian specializing in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) study. Yan spoke on the Forbidden City, the landmark in Beijing that served as the imperial palace in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties.

In the past, it would have been unimaginable for a rural library to get hold of such a renowned expert. However, due to the collaboration, its members can now enjoy more presentations by such experts as well as other cultural activities. Ou Kaiwei, curator of the library, said the future agenda includes opera performances, film screenings and symposiums on farming technology to attract more visitors.

In Yapo, a village in Qiongzhong Li and Miao Autonomous County, Hainan, where the people are mostly from the Li ethnic minority, rural libraries have been combined with tourism. In 2017, five box-shaped reading rooms were built, which can serve as hotel rooms at night.

Chen Ying, Deputy Director of the Publicity Department of the Hainan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, told Guangming Daily that beautiful rural libraries like the one in Yapo are an upgraded version. They have been built mostly in villages with a scenic natural environment so that in addition to serving as libraries, they also perform the functions of tourism and leisure facilities.

Besides, the library offers free lessons to local children. There are lessons on a different subject every week, such as drawing, music and kite making. The teachers are mostly volunteer university students.

Feng Lilan, curator of the library, said the remote village has very limited educational resources. There are no extracurricular training institutions for young people. Most parents have left to work in cities, and are therefore hardly able to help their children develop hobbies or skills. The free lessons have widened the horizon of the children.

Digital transformation

With digitalization becoming part of life nationwide, rural libraries are also developing digital reading platforms. By 2019, around 125,000 rural libraries had adopted digitalized reading means, using broadband and mobile Internet as well as social media platforms.

In Zhejiang Province in east China, rural libraries use smart technology. In Zhongdai, a village in the city of Pinghu, villagers swipe their identity card to enter the local library and self-checkout using machines that scan the barcodes on the borrowed books. They can also download digital books onto their phones by scanning a QR code. The library has a digital reading area.

Pinghu had built 20 such libraries by the end of 2020 and plans to have 30 more in three years. 

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