Magazine article American Libraries

The Chinese Disconnection: An American in China Finds His Students Severed from the Library Books They Need

Magazine article American Libraries

The Chinese Disconnection: An American in China Finds His Students Severed from the Library Books They Need

Article excerpt

WHEN I WAS A graduate student in Wales, I lived in a small village overlooking the Irish Sea, a place frequented in the 19th century by Gladstone when on holiday. Everything was small there--the bakery, the school, the clinic, the library. The library--Welsh granite on the outside, and stuffy Welsh air inside, furnished with sturdy wooden tables, two of them, immovable as the walls. It was not a place to lounge with a newspaper. The very shelves seemed to frown at you, and each gave you a stern rebuke in a voice like Dylan Thomas's if you ignored it. But I couldn't stay away from the quirky place, and the librarian got used to my peculiar Ohio accent after a few weeks.

When I left Wales i moved to a town in Vermont. The library there was a modern, two-story affair with plenty of big windows, soft blue carpet, clearly labeled shelves, and the latest records in plastic covers. You could sit in cushiony easy chairs and browse through papers from Boston or New York, or read about local town meetings while keeping an eye on who was walking by outside. Served in every conceivable way

Libraries. From the stolid cathedrals of the big cities of the East with the inevitable bum asleep in a corner chair, to the breezy, multimedia places in prosperous towns, bustling with teenagers doing their homework, to the ancient, top-heavy village landmarks with Carnegie's name etched above the entrance, to the excitement of the academic repository of ideas. I can't avoid them, and they've served me in every conceivable way wherever I've been. Would that I had a dollar for every hour spent browsing aimlessly, or nearly so, in libraries from San Francisco to Providence, from London to Edinburgh.

Not long ago I began teaching at a college in the city of Wuhan (population over three million) in central China. There, for the first time, I had a war with a library.

I taught English in 1981--82 at one of the largest teachers colleges in the country. My students, most of whom were perfecting their already reasonably good English, will be English teachers in Chinese high schools when they graduate. They have virtually no textbooks in any courses. China is still a very poor country. So with textbooks scarce, supplies in bookstores either non-existent or very meager, and any spare money going for food and clothing, the importance of the college library as a source of materials is magnified.

Our school's library, like most such buildings in China, is an ugly, rectangular monster, two stories of bare concrete. Reading rooms are jammed with tables and crowded with students who have no place else to study, and all are overseen by a gigantic portrait of Mao, still not entirely out of favor in Hubei Province.

The rooms steam in the notorious Wuhan summer, the walls dripping with humidity, and they feeze in the winter. There is no heat, no carpet, nothing to take the edge off the cold. Students come armed with stocking caps, bulky coats, and gloves with the finger tips cut out so they can take notes. There are never enough seats for the number of students, so between classes there is intense scurrying about. In all seasons the library reeks from the fould odor of the bathrooms as it winds its way up the staircases. You quickly learn the most important places to hold your breaths as you walk down the halls.

Despite these handicaps, students never fail to fill up the library. It's a place to study. Such places are few, and students in China work hard; their future rests on their industriousness.

No one in authority objects to students bent over their studies at the library tables; but those who try to borrow a book, read a newspaper or a journal, or make easy use of a reference work run into trouble. the fact that students aren't allowed into the stacks would not be so important if there were othere reliable means for them to find a book. But the obstacles placed in their way are sufficient to frustrate even the most determined. …

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