Collective history of China's libraries

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Tianyige, in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, is believed to be the country's oldest surviving library. (Photo provided to China Daily) 

After seven years' preparation, the first comprehensive history of the nation's libraries was published by the National Library of China earlier this month.

The 2-million-character-long A History of Chinese Libraries travels back more than 3,000 years to discover the origins of Chinese book collections and follows the development of libraries throughout the centuries right up until 2009.

The new book comes in four volumes covering the ancient, modern and contemporary eras, and an additional appendix.

"Uniquely, the book guides readers from ancient times through the ages to the present day using an abundance of references," Han Yongjin, director of the NLC and editor-in-chief of the book, said at its launch at the Beijing institution earlier this month. "It aims to present a fair and panoramic record of how libraries developed in China."

Han says the reason why studies of Chinese libraries in ancient and modern times remained separate for so long was because many scholars considered the notion of a library Western, and ancient Chinese institutions housing books should not be included in the term.

The major argument for this supposition is that while modern libraries have mainly been established to serve the public, ancient Chinese cangshulou (which literally means a building to store books) functioned instead as private study rooms, with their doors firmly closed to the outside.

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