I’m not sure which one we found out about first: the book bars or the children’s libraries. Either way, ‘upper floor’ businesses were one feature of this trip to China that was new to me, and it’s a phenomenon that I continue to ponder now that I am back in the land of single-use buildings. This is something I think we would have figured out eventually on our own, but it would have taken longer and we never would have found the hidden children’s libraries without our Chinese (and ABC) friends.
In China, pretty soon after our arrival, I began to figure out that some of the tall, apparently single-use buildings were not single-use at all. Ostensibly, these are apartment blocks, but through circumstances and a creative re-mixing of space, it turns out that China is filled with multi-use high rises. Visually, there’s not much to see. The average building has few exterior markers.
An apartment building with visible upper-floor businesses.
After a while, we were told that a lot of the buildings that are supposed to be apartment blocks are also filled with businesses, both formal and informal. We got to visit a number of them. One type in particular is sticking with me: the children’s libraries, or 儿童图书馆。We got to visit two, and talk with the founder of several others. Combining these visits with the discussions I have had about children’s librarianship (and librarianship in general—which was what this whole trip was about, wasn’t it?) with Eric, I came home inspired.
Let me start by saying that I know next-to-nothing about children’s librarianship. But after Eric’s visit and the discussions that ensued, I was pretty inspired by the idea that there is an infrastructure required to maintain literacy. There are strategies that parents and society use to make sure people acquire language at an early age. And those who acquire literacy early hold advantages later in life. I assume this is well measured, but I haven’t done the database search. The Harlem Children’s Zone is an intervention with associated scholarship that has crept its way into the popular press. Part of this experiment in Harlem concentrates on making sure parents encourage skills in their children that they may not necessarily have themselves. Although it seems like the program considers the parents to be lost causes, it is in fact trying to change behavior in order to break a multi-generaltional cycle of poverty. It concentrates on teaching a style of parenting that puts priorities on things that are a little different from the default settings of this at-risk population. One of these priorities is reading aloud to children and encouraging independent recreational reading at as early an age as possible.
Visitors and librarians at Neighbors Reading Picture Books.
A number of friends really helped me to gather this information and get some idea of what is happening in Chinese society. Another American librarian colleague came along to the 儿童图书馆. Tricia over at Cultural Bytes blew into town shortly after Eric left, with a wave of energy and amazing contacts. Chen Weiru (Pheona), one of a handful of rockstar students I encountered, became a sort of simultaneous translator for me—which was far beyond the call of duty. And Zhang Li, who recently co-authored the first book about children’s librarianship to be published on the Mainland in something like 30 years continues to provide perspective on all my interactions with China. At one point on this trip she even went to meet a stranger on my behalf.
This whole foray into private children’s libraries came about because of one person telling me that he was struck dumb when he learned that American parents read out loud to their children. Wu Gang, who hopes to open 200 libraries in the next two years, realized (and please dear reader, realize that this is via a couple different people translating for me) that if Chinese parents did this, especially poor parents, the entire society would change and prosper.
Wu Dong, who wants to open a large chain of children’s libraries nationwide.
Not all my friends agreed that this is something lacking in Chinese society. Chinese parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles do read to children. For some of my students, it was their grandparents. While mom and dad were off at their jobs, Ye Ye taught Monkey King folk tales and Grandpa sang revolutionary songs. The morals from these stories: sublimation of self for the good of the state, filial piety, obligation to tradition. These themes are then reinforced by mass market cartoons and television dramas on the same themes. Not to mention the 500 year old poetry that gets memorized for the gao kao. Hence I had students who could argue Confucian philosophy, used manga screenshots as profile pictures, site read four part choral music.
However, a number of people told me that their parents discouraged them from ‘being too smart.’ Pheona tells the story of her father starting to teach her to read, but her mother put a stop to it because if she knew too many characters before school started, Pheona would stand out too much from her classmates. (Turns out it didn’t work. Pheona reports that from that point forward, she realized she could read a lot of street signs and could guess the meanings of many more characters. In the end, she graduated from one of Wuhan’s best high schools –hence her presence at WuDa.)
We heard stories like this over and over—descriptions of some stigma attached to recreational reading. And most agree that this stigma begins at home. As it was explained to me, there are two reasons why reading for pleasure has not been encouraged for many years in many households: first, there remains a lingering distrust of books and intellectualism after the horrors of the Cultural Revolution; second, pleasure reading takes away from test preparation.
The effects of the Cultural Revolution are still felt strongly in China. Older professors and the parents of my own age group have first hand recollections of when having a book was equated with being criminally subversive. People were literally beaten for being literate. While many people will wax nostalgically about their time in the countryside (many met their spouses while interred / being reeducated etc.), no one will deny the anti-intellectualism that accompanied it.
The second factor working against recreational reading is an intense pressure to perform well on standardized tests. This is super obvious after about three weeks of dealing with adolescents and young adults. The national high school and college entrance exams are a major part of daily life for just about every single person in China. Many Chinese children, from the age of eight or nine, spend hours a day drilling with practice tests and taking training courses. The tests emphasize the memorization of classic and socialist texts, deductive logic puzzles, and math—not the sort of thing you would pick up from Harry Potter or Judy Blume. Admission to a good college is seen as the road to a good job and lucrative career: and the only path into a good college is a high score on the Gao Kao (高考, literally, the ‘high test’)—the national college entrance exam. Reading for pleasure, whether it is novels or manga, is seen as frivolous and a distraction from test preparation.
Yunnan Provincial Library self-study room during the New Year vacation.
Every parent I met despises this high-stakes Gao Kao system—but every one demands the same of their child. One commonly given reason is that parents fear growing old with only one child to take care of them. But in conversation, there is a genuine desire for the child to do well. Perhaps the only genuine fear is that this crop of children won’t be as lucky as their parents because so many current young parents have benefited greatly from living at a moment of high upward mobility. People in their mid-forties in China have lived their entire adult lives in the midst of a huge economic boom. When economic reforms began in 1979, the Cultural Revolution had been raging for 20 years. But it’s been over for more than 30 years now. Today’s college students know of food shortages only as stories that their grandparents tell. And in a country where the college entrance exam is 1500 years old, the Cultural Revolution can be considered a hiccup (and I think the Party encourages young people to think so). Almost every Chinese person I know has brought it up spontaneously—even those who, in the same breath, strongly criticize the current system. Go to China and you will hear this a lot: while a lot of criticism can be leveled at the Party, no one disputes that almost everyone is better off now than they were 30 years ago.
But there remains something lacking, and some of the people that I met think it is a lack of a ‘reading culture.’ Whether it is shunned as frivolous or dangerous (or, more likely a combination of these and a whole bunch of other contributing factors), a number of people I met lamented this lack of reading culture in China. This even came up at an official dinner. Chen Chuanfu, the dean of WuDa’s iSchool, told us that he is struck by the difference in public reading between the US and China. He says that one of the things he likes about the US is that you will see people reading on public transit, in cafes, in parks. China,– not so much. He tried a little experiment once to take at least one photograph each day of people reading, but said he simply couldn’t find them in China. I played devil’s advocate and suggested that maybe many of the people looking a their phones were reading novels, but he shrugged that off, saying that recreational reading was simply something that was missing from contemporary China. I certainly couldn’t refute it at the time, but many individuals have confirmed his point: person after person told me that there is some sort of latent taboo towards having books and being bookish.
This all adds up to a society that is in the middle of building a reading infrastructure. The bookstores of Wuhan are just as active as the ones I saw in Beijing in 2007. This year, oOn a holiday afternoon, 崇文书城 (the stunningly named mega-bookstore ‘High Culture Book City’ or perhaps ‘Worship the Culture of Books City’) was filled to the gills. The classics are actively read (the gaokao is good for something) and contemporary re-tellings are common. College students use characters from literature as screen names on social networking sites like renren and douban while simultaneously using Japanese manga (manhua in Chinese) jpegs as profile pictures.
Children’s section of Wuhan High Culture Book City.
Even with all this colloquial enthusiasm, there seems to be something genuinely lacking.
Which leads us to the people I met who want to build, or revive, a reading culture. These included a recent iSchool graduate, a budding entrepreneur, and a Beijinger in exile whose husband supports her efforts. These new friends are trying to build private libraries. That’s right: membership libraries not unlike those started in England and Spain at the dawn of the age of printing and evolved directly into the American public library of today (see Lerner chapter 10 for a discussion), except that these are generally children’s libraries. Some people really want to make a business out of these ventures, but others are simply investing their surplus into building a place where people can gain access to a variety of literature and other like-minded people. In the case of the children’s libraries, there is a realization that libraries are an extremely efficient way to transfer literacy. There are a number of factors at play: a parent only needs these sorts of books for a few years; it’s a specific enough genre that it takes some amount of expertise to build a current collection; and let’s face it: children’s books are short, so kids go through them quickly. Moreover, there’s no sense in holding on to these books for subsequent siblings: there generally aren’t subsequent siblings. It’s possible though that the main reason is economic: the average parent may not have the money to keep a voracious young reader well fed.
图书馆： The libraries
I got to visit two private children’s libraries in Wuhan, and a ‘book bar’ for mothers that was just about to open. Four librarians were among my guides, all introduced to me via Tricia, my fellow Fulbrighter. The three libraries were all below the 10th floor of 30-ish story apartment buildings of the sort that are springing up by the tens-of-thousands all across China.
The three in particular that I visited:
- 果壳森林书坊 (Nutshell in the Forest Book Place)
- 梧桐若语亲子图书馆 (Wutong Language Tree Parent and Child Library)
- 比邻而居绘本悦读 (Neighbors Reading Picture Books) http://blog.sina.com.cn/bilinerju
Other businesses were also present in these buildings: import/export offices, test-preparation academies, chess and mahjong clubs, sales offices of factories, yoga studios. We also heard tell of dance clubs and brothels. Part of the reason why these spaces exist is because there is such a huge building boom in China right now. Ex-pat apartment dwellers informed us there are huge numbers of vacant apartments that have been purchased as investments or as wedding gifts for sons and daughters—a sort of modern-day non-gender specific dowery. This might be especially true of the emerging college-educated middle class, whose parents’ are preparing for old age with only one child. In many cases, the child has migrated to a different city—hence the local apartment stays empty. Some are rented, but many are vacant.
All three libraries were decorated to a certain upper-middle class standard. And they were large: probably about a thousand square feet. The children’s libraries both had well-drawn murals, kid- and adult-sized furniture, at least some kitchen facilities, and obviously well-thought out delineations between readings spaces and activity spaces. Nutshell in the Forest, targeted towards young mothers, was naturally furnished to a more adult standard. It is my understanding that other informal libraries follow this same general pattern. Being a comfortable space was a common theme as we talked with people, and the other upper-floor book bar and movie club we visited bear this out.
A comfortable corner at Nutshell in the Forest
This is apparently a pretty widespread phenomenon. Zhang Li in Beijing asked around a bit, and apparently this has been happening there for at least 10 years and even volunteered at the ’The 4 Mothers’ library for a while. We know that there are individuals with multiple locations or connections to multiple libraries through partnerships. Wu Dong, who has the ambitious plan to start 200 children’s libraries in the next two years, already has five libraries established in Hangzhou.
We heard rumors of another sort of informal library: private collections that are now starting to be shared. Professors / rich people / intellectuals who have not only run out of room, but also have a motivation to share their collections. A Peking LIS professor organized a meeting in late April or May in an attempt to form a federation of private libraries. We were excited to hear that in Wuhan, but didn’t encounter anyone who attended. We do know that Lao Meng started a QQ discussion group about a year ago, and the children’s libraries are a very active portion of that group. All the people we met in Wuhan were already connected to each other (perhaps obviously, since Lao Meng was the nexus of introductions), but I can’t escape the feeling that we only just scratched the surface of this movement. If Wu Dong is trying to expand his libraries into a national conglomerate of kid’s libraries and Zhang Li knows of at least a handful of private children’s libraries in Beijing, how many more must there be?
A child-sized reading nook at Wutong Language Tree.
Wu Dong’s libraries and the Wuhan children’s libraries we visited operate as membership businesses. A family (and remember, 90% of the time that’s 3 people) pays a modest fee (approximately $65 per year—less than a week’s wages for an office worker, but this would be quite expensive for a laborer). In exchange for their 365RMB, the family receives unlimited access to the space and collections. They all lend books, and it seems like there are opportunities for purchasing and giveaways.
Nutshell in the Forest was still working on its basic model, but they were starting off having families (or maybe individuals—remember its target audience is pregnant women and young mothers) pre-pay a tab of 500 kuai (just under a hundred dollars). Drinks, snacks, books, and the light fixtures and furniture are all available for purchase off of this tab. I asked them if they thought they would make any money, as our conversation with Lao Meng and his business partners came after hearding that neither of the children’s libraries we visited are financially self-sufficient. Our friends at Nutshell in the Forest admitted that they had no idea if they could make any money, or even sustain the space, using this model. But they were game for trying. (Visiting their web page on September 1st, I see that they are now selling levels of membership cards—from 50RMB to attend a single event up to 1280RMB which includes a two hour birthday part.
It’s not completely clear how families are recruited. Wu Dong was able to provide the clearest explanation of how new users come to his library. He buys multiple copies of a book and sends his workers to nearby schools to give away the copies. Each is clearly marked as coming from a library and curious readers and their parents come by. I think (remember–translators) people pretty regularly try to bring back the books that he has given away—which offers the staff an opportunity to explain the business and attempt to sell a new membership.
We do know that the libraries use online tools to advertise their services and communicate with their users. Sina blogs and QQ are default online methods of communication, but it must be pointed out: these are adequate ways to communicate with users once the user knows about you. Douban, an online social network that functions somewhere between an alternative weekly newspaper and meetup.com in the US, is starting to become a force to reckon with for finding RL activities in the city, but it seems to target a hipster, college-aged audience rather than parents. What seems clear is that these are word of mouth small-scale businesses—either by default or design—even if they do have an online presence.
Once users stumble across the libraries, they have access to somewhere between a thousand and five thousand titles, storytimes, craft-making parties, and a comfortable place to hang out. This last point seems to really resonate with my Chinese friends. The librarians explain that they are trying to make a third place that people can choose for themselves. It was an interesting point in the conversation. I asked Pheona to clarify at the time –asking ‘did they literally say Third Place?’ “第三空间” (dì sān kōngjīan) is the phrase they used. ‘Space’ is a better translation for 空间, but we defined it together: 第三空间 –a place that’s not work and not home.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. As a geographer and a map librarian I have more than a passing knowledge of sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s concept of a “great good place” that is neither home nor work. In his construction, America has been steadily dismantling spaces that are conducive to becoming Third Places for members of many communities. Moreover, because I have a special interest in place formation and am fascinated with the intense use of public space in China, I was a little shocked to hear that people felt like Third Place is something lacking in urban China.
I explained that the idea of Third Place was from a book, but nobody claimed any knowledge of where the term came from, but it remains kind of a creepy moment in my memory. If my new Chinese friends feel that they lack a Third Place even with all of the dancing in the park, visiting in the tea house, and playing mah jong in the restaurant after dinner, what is it they are looking for in a Third Place?
Do other upper floor businesses aspire to Third Place status? I did get a chance to visit two other upper floor businesses. Eric and I drank coffee in a movie bar run by a trio of partners who happened to have a giant DVD collection, and I peeked into a book bar that was a source of endless gossip, as everyone kept trying to figure out how they made enough money to pay their rent.
The libraries though, exist in a separate category. Whether for children or adults, everyone I spoke to about this subject agrees that China has a need for more than just a place to hang out and play chess. They need places that support an infrastructure for reading.
This is the first of my longer post-China posts. You can consider this part 1 of 2 about informal libraries. In Part 2, I’ll put together some additional thoughts about the librarians involved with these efforts and the ways that the ‘formal library’ community might help them. In future installments, I’d like to make some additional comments about the Chinese higher education system in general; Chinese academic libraries in particular; and some observations on the use of mobile technologies.
Feedback and suggestions are always welcome.