The Beijing Library, formerly known as the Metropolitan Library, is the oldest and largest library in China. An important part of the library’s holdings is the Wenyuange (Pavilion of Literary Profundity) collection of the Ming emperors which includes rare Southern Song editions from the 13th century. In 1949, the library contained about 1.4 million books and the rapidly increasing collection now numbers nearly 10 million. They include rare books such as handwritten Buddhist scriptures from Dunhuang dating from the Tang Dynasty, Song and Yuan woodblock editions, early Ming volumes of the Yongle Encyclopedia and a set of the Qing Dynasty Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature (Siku Quanshu). The library had books in 80 different languages, including more than one million books in Russian, Japanese, English, French and German. There is also a collection of books in 20 different Chinese national minority languages. The serials section contains 2,000 journals published in China since 1949 and 10,000 foreign newspapers and journals.
The library’s collection spans a wide spectrum of Chinese history. Binding range from the ancient “butterfly” style which originated in the Tang Dynasty and the so-called “wrapped spine” (baobei) binding developed in the Yuan, to modern cloth and paper bindings. The collection also contains specimens of Karl Marx’s letters and the original manuscripts, hand-written volumes and proof copies of the works of many distinguished scholars. Of particular interest are 110 such manuscripts and hand-written volumes by Lu Xun, totaling over 5,000 pages. In addition, there are examples of the design models of the Qing architect Yang Zilei.
The founding of the Beijing Library was first officially proposed by Zhang Zhidong, a scholar of the Ground Secretariat in charge of a Qing Dynasty forerunner of the Ministry of Education. In 1908 Zhang commissioned the governor-general of the Jiangsu, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang areas, Duan Fang, to buy up two wealthy scholars’ private libraries. After being brought to Beijing, the collections were stored in the Guanghan Temple and were later placed together with the surviving Song and Yuan woodblock editions from the library of the grand Secretariat, the remaining volumes of the Yongle Encyclopedia from the Imperial Academy, and over 8,000 hand-written scrolls from Dunhuang. The following year, the Metropolitan Library was formally established at the Gaunghua Temple.
From early times, China’s rulers attached great importance to the storage of books and records in libraries The Han Dynasty imperial family kept a sizeable library known as the Tianlu Pavilion, and by the Song Dynasty, classical academies throughout the country housed collections of books for scholarly use. It was not until the end of the Qing Dynasty, however, that public libraries appeared in China. Under the influence of the Reform Movement of 1898, Zhang Zhidong presented a memorial to the throne citing recommended the famous bibliographers and epigraphers Miao Quansun and Xu Fangren to act as supervisor and deputy supervisor. After the Revolution of 1911, the Metropolitan Library was formally opened to the public on October 7, 1912, with its reading rooms located in the side halls of the Guanghua Temple. The temple, however, was in an inaccessible part of the city and its rooms were small and damp. Readers were so few in number that it closed to the public in October 1913. In June 1915, the library was moved to the Imperial Academy (Guozijian), and in 1917, the facility was reopened to the public with a ceremony attended by Cai Yuanpei and Lu Xun. At the time, Lu Xun was section chief of the Social Education Section of the Ministry of Education, and the management of the library fell under his jurisdiction.
At the end of 1928 the library was moved to the Juren Hall on the banks of the Central Lake (Zhonghai) and its name was changed to the National Library of Beiping. The following year the library was amalgamated with the Beiping Beihai Library and, under the direction of Cai Yuanpei, plans were made to construct a new building to alleviate the shortage of storage space. The main building was completed in 1931. After the founding of the People’ s Republic in 1949, it became the Beijing Library, and in 1954 a six-story building with a capacity of 1.2 million volumes was constructed behind it. As a result, the majority of materials in storage became available for readers’ use. In the summer of 1982, work was completed on the East Building, a thoroughly modern addition to the library. The new building’s facilities include reference and periodical reading rooms, microfilm equipment, a computer-cataloging center and extensive open stacks. Because the library contains the Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature bought from the Wenjin Pavilion in the summer palaces at Chengdu, the street in front of the library’s main gate was named Wenjin Road.
In 1987 the library moved to new buildings on Baishiqiao Road, next to the Purple Bamboo Park. The library on the Wenjin Road has become a branch. In a total, the library covers an area of 170,000 square meters. Designed to hold 20 million volumes (the count was 13,778,124 as of 1986), the new library has 30-odd reading-rooms with 3,000 seats, receiving 7,000 to 8,000 readers a day.
A total of 13 buildings in the new library, roofed with blue glazed tiles, have been built to withstand earthquakes registering eight on the Richter scale.“A”frame skylights have been installed, which ease the effect of rain and increase natural light.
Computers, book transportation equipment, communication, microcopy and reading machines in various languages complete the facilities.