The Changing Face of Youth Services in China

Article excerpt

AN AMERICAN DELEGATION ASSESSES HOW KIDS ARE FARING AS LIBRARIES ADAPT TO THE CONTRADICTIONS OF A SOCIALIST MARKET ECONOMY

Classes have ended for the day. Two uniformed students with short-handled brooms are happily sweeping around their desks. Others are wiping the blackboard with a damp cloth. A teenaged boy cheerfully carries in a pail of water and starts mopping the classroom floor.

No, it's not a scene from some hokey 1950s television show; it's October 21, 1998, at Beijing No. 5 High School in the eastern district of China's capital, where a People to People delegation of American librarians is spending the afternoon.

The librarians enter the classroom and within minutes the students have eagerly engaged them in conversations. Only two of the 38 American delegates speak any Chinese; all of the students speak some English, and shyly at first, tentatively, and then excitedly they relish the opportunity to practice, many for the first time, with native speakers.

The students are orderly and respectful in the library, says Ann Yue-Ming, the school librarian. "Students like this place," she says of the unadorned room that seats "sometimes up to 350 people. It is often difficult to get a seat." What about discipline problems? "Basically none," she says, and there are no missing books at the end of the school year.

Presenting a gift of books, delegation leader Ann Carlson Weeks apologizes for the fact that they are all in English, but school principal Wu Chang Shun observes slyly that it's okay, since "more of my staff read English than your staff read Chinese." Although he is speaking through a translator, his point of pride is well taken. English is becoming the second language of China, and in airports and city streets much signage is bilingual.

Not only is English widely understood in China, so is the American dollar. There is little on the streets that it cannot buy. "One dollar, one dollar, one dollar," vendors shout up at the bus windows, offering colorful strings of applique butter-flies each time the delegation makes its way through tourist stops in Beijing, Xi'an, Guilin, and Guangzhou on a two-week jaunt that includes nine professional meetings.

Communism is just a word

The effects of China's 20-year march toward capitalism are evident in a building boom that is sweeping the country. "Communism is just a word now," says a guide. "China is 50% capitalism and 50% communism," he boasts, asserting that the government-enforced "4-2-1" birth-control policy has changed the nation. With four grandparents and two parents doting on one child, "he can get anything he wants." Children are in charge, he says.

Nestled in a ramshackle neighborhood, the ultra-modern, five-story West District Juvenile and Children's Library opened June 1. Director Ji Xiao Ping proudly shows off the library's play area (which resembles those at some McDonald's restaurants) and language lab (with fees charged by time used) and its 280-seat cinema, where Hollywood movies are shown, with proceeds used to support the library. The director says the library will offer computers to users soon and already does for staff use.

There are three such libraries, devoted to young people under 18, in the Chinese capital.

"The biggest difference I saw in the youth library was that it had a whole floor for play and exercise. Some libraries in the U.S. are trying this, but not many," said delegate Jane New, youth services librarian at the new Weingart City Heights branch of San Diego Public Library, "and I have yet to see a commercial movie theater in a library in the United States."

Of the youth library's 42 "librarians," only 10 have library degrees. The average age of staff members is 20. All the staff look remarkably young, until one realizes that retirement age in China is 60 for most people.

At Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, Huang Xiaobin, associate professor in the department of library and information science, explains that the biggest difference between library education in the United States and China is that it is an undergraduate degree in China. …