Promoting the Accessibility of Chinese Resources to Overseas Chinese Cummunities

Junlin Pan
Northern Illinois University
145E Founders Memorial Library
DeKalb, Illinois 60115

I. Introduction

In the past two decades, a lot of research has been done on various aspects of Chinese resources and services in American libraries. Studies include, but not limited to, knowledge management (Yang, 1997; Yeh, 2000), Chinese material acquisition and collection development (Wu, 1989; Zhou, 1996), cooperative cataloging of Chinese materials on an international standardization (Lee, et. al., 1996; Tam. K., 1986; Gong, 1999), Pinyin conversion (Teng, 2000), resource sharing (Chao, 2001; Tam, L. 1999), etc. There is, however, a scarcity of research on library resource accessibility for the Chinese ethnic user group. The current study shall address this issue on the following 4 aspects: (1) Chinese users' characteristics, (2) their needs and demands for Chinese language materials, (3) their frustrations in using the library, and (4) what Chinese-American librarians could do to help this user community. The study is set in an academic environment and draws on the author's first-hand experiences gained at the Northern Illinois University (henceforth, Northern) Founders Library.

II. Chinese Users' Characteristics

Chinese users of American academic libraries are a very diverse group in terms of where they come from, the visa status they hold in the U.S., and their purpose for using library resources.

Overseas Chinese from different parts of the world do not share a unified Romanization system. Whereas Hanyu Pinyin is used in Mainland China, Wade-Giles is the dominant transliteration system in Taiwan, Malaysia, and others. Although Hong Kong has been returned to Mainland China, due to its long history of British colonization, Wade-Giles and other forms of transliteration are far more popular than Pinyin. This library user group mainly consists of mainly students, visiting scholars, teaching faculty, as well as supporting staff members. In addition, their spouse, children, and parents, also form part of the community.

III. Chinese Library Users' Needs

Before we look at how to make library resources accessible to this user group, we must first understand what they need. The needs of Chinese users are multiple, ranging from coursework requirements, to research projects, and to recreation demands. Here are some of the questions I have received at the reference desk:

These and many more senarios reflect material needs that tie up with academic curricula and research projects. Needs as such usually are well justified in academic libraries' acquisition policies.

However, many Chinese readers also need materials that cannot be well defined as being closely related to the curricula and research needs. We have seen elderly Chinese people come to the library and hope to find Chinese newspapers and magazines. We also hear university staff complain about the inadequacy of Chinese language materials. A professor once said to me: "We have a cultural thirst." An editor from the Writings of Henry D. Thoreau Project lamented that there were very few Chinese literary works in the library. "We need more Chinese literature materials," she said.

The problem of inadequate Chinese language materials is not uncommon to most academic libraries. The problem is even more conspicuous for universities that do not have a strong Chinese language and culture oriented program. At Northern, the only such classes are fundamental and intermediate Chinese offered by the Foreign Languages Department. So the library did not have a separate fund allocation for Chinese materials until the end of 1999, when an increasing need for Chinese language materials was brought to the attention of the library administration. As a result, a fund of $2,000 has been allocated annually for purchasing Chinese language materials. Although this fund is not very big, it is not very shabby, either, given the exchange rate between HK and US currencies, as most of our Chinese materials are purchased through HK book dealers. The average cost for each title is $11. Since the year of 2000, over 600 books have been purchased. Most of these books are already available on the library shelves. Of these, novels, biographies, and essay anthologies enjoy much higher circulation rate than textbook type of titles. Since our reader group comes from diverse cultural backgrounds, we should take into consideration not only curricula requirements but also users' cultural and recreational demands in building our collections.

IV. Chinese Library Users' Frustrations

In general, library users have various kinds of problems in using the library efficiently. It is more so with overseas Chinese library users. One phenomenon that we often observe is that some Chinese students and faculty seldom make visits to the library, because they do not know what is available there but assume that there is nothing of interest to them. For example, a full professor, who has been working at Northern for fourteen years, once told me, in response to my email inquiries about faculty's material needs, that he'd like to see some Chinese magazines purchased. I replied to him that our periodicals and monographs were purchased with separate funds. In the case of periodicals, a new title could not be added without canceling an existing title. I showed him the Chinese magazines we did have in our collection. Among them were 青年文摘 (Youth Digest), 历史 (Historical Monthly), 新体育 (New Sports), 读者 (Reader), 大众电影 (Popular Cinema), 大众医学 (Popular Medicine), etc. He became very excited at seeing those. "I didn't know we have these here in our library", he exclaimed. I have also met many other students and staff members who show similar reaction when getting to know about those periodical titles in our collection.

Another major frustration many of Chinese users are facing is that they do not know how to look for library materials. In order to make our Chinese books known to our users, I sent out some "New Book Titles" lists to faculty members. On receiving such lists, a professor sent me a "Thank You" note, in which he wrote: "Thank you so much for sending me the lists. These books will be my spiritual food." And then he asked, "But how can I find these books in the library?" He is not the only person who does not know that books should be searched first in the library online catalog.

What alarms me is that that professor has obtained his master's and doctoral degrees in the U.S., and survived all the tenure and promotion processes. It is very likely that he does not know that Chinese materials can also be searched in the library online catalog. Even though he cannot at present search by Chinese characters, he can search by Romanized Chinese instead. He can well represent most of our Chinese students and faculty who come to the United States to pursuit Masters or higher academic degrees. It is, therefore, very important to include how to search Chinese materials in the library online catalog in bibliographic instruction sessions at the beginning of each academic year.

Overseas Chinese library users do not have much education on the basic concepts about American academic libraries. They are rather hesitant to solicit assistance when in need. The choice not to ask itself is giving up the user's right. At the same time, it rules out the possibility for us librarians to offer any help. Various factors may contribute to their unwillingness to ask. In the first place, some students are afraid to ask questions because their English is poor. Others do not ask because they do not know they are entitled to ask any questions at the reference desk. A reference desk is still not common in most libraries in China. Still others may carry over their bias about the traditional library back in China where those who work in libraries are often "老弱病残", that is, "the old, the weak, the sick, and the handicapped".

Many user frustrations also come from our inconsistent library Romanization systems. American libraries are going through a transitional period, moving from Wade-Giles to the Pinyin standard. The completion of such a grand project will take quite some time. In the meanwhile, the coexistence of different Romanization systems is still the reality that we have to deal with. Whereas bibliographic records are transliterated using multiple systems, most of our Chinese library users, and many of us Chinese American librarians, are familiar with no more than one system.

Besides (inter)national bibliographic databases such as the WorldCat, the standardization of Chinese Romanization is largely dependent on individual libraries' capabilities. Take Northern Founders Memorial Library for example. Its periodical items are organized into two major categories--the current issues and the bound back volumes. Everything in this collection is alphabetically arranged by the title. As a result, Chinese journals and magazines are not all shelved together but spread out among the entire collection. Their titles, moreover, do not follow a uniform system. 中国画报, for example, is under the English translation title "China Pictorial", whereas 青年文摘 is rendered in Wade-Giles starting with letter C, but 新体育 is transliterated in Pinyin starting with letter X. This inconsistency in cataloging and shelving Chinese periodicals confuses a lot of users. Titles starting with 大众 could be on D shelf according to Pinyin, or on T shelf in Wade-Giles, or on P shelf in English translation.

V. Approaches to User Help

In view of the above-mentioned problems, I consider the following very important for promoting the accessibility of the library resources: (1) library resources awareness; (2) library instruction with concentration on Chinese bibliographic records searching; (3) Romanization system standardization.

First, we need to spare no efforts in promoting the awareness of library resources so that our users know what Chinese materials are available in the library. For example, "Chinese New Book Title Lists" can make our latest purchases known to the user group. "Chinese Periodicals Title List" may enhance users' awareness of our journal, magazine, and newspaper collections. Meanwhile, we should not overlook the enormous Chinese resources available on the Internet, which may well complement the inadequacy of print collections in any single library. "木子书屋" (, and "亦凡书屋" ( provide full-text materials, including books and anthologies, both classic and contemporary, in various subject areas and categories such as literary works, biographies, philosophy, anthropology, history, military science, politics, education, medicine, travel, sports, computer, etc. These sites are also constructed with AUTHOR and TITLE searching capabilities. 华夏文摘 (, 枫桦园 (, and 新语丝 ( are a few of the online magazine publications. Some print magazines such as 大众电影 (Popular Cinema, also provide full-text online access. Newspapers such as 人民日报 ( and many others can be read online, too.

Our efforts should go beyond the promotion of Chinese materials awareness. We should also promote our services and advocate newest advances. Once I asked a professor from the Literacy Program in the Education Department to name one thing that he wanted the most to be improved in the library, he said IDS (Information Delivery Services or Interlibrary Loan). "The form is over-elaborate, and the process takes too long", he complained. He was apparently not informed of our IDS changes, which allow online requests. In addition, interlibrary loan requests filed on IO (i.e., the Illinois State online union catalog) or in First-Search databases do not require citation information manually inputted by the user. The professor was not aware of our Document Express, either. This service gets interlibrary loan articles within four working days, and has been there for years.

Second, we should promote library literacy education in order to enhance our users' awareness of the searching tools as well as the ability to use them to find information. Bibliographic instruction for Chinese users should be specialized based on Chinese record characteristics. In other words, the instruction should cover both general and Chinese-specific contents. Examples of the former are database selection (e.g., book catalog vs. periodicals indexes) and searching strategies (e.g., use of the correct access point, use of the LIMIT function, and subject vs. keyword searching). Chinese-specific contents may include Chinese bibliographic records searching tips such as: (1) awareness of coexistence of different Chinese Romanization systems in library databases, (2) disunity of rules in different Chinese Romanization systems (e.g., rules of hyphen/space in place names and multi-syllabic words); and (3) Chinese personal name conventions.

For those users, who are afraid to seek for assistance, we could draw on the practice of the University of Arizona Main Library. They hire international students for the reference desk, which greatly encourages foreign students to approach the service.

Third, we should maintain a library Romanization system that is as consistent and standardized as possible. Completion of transition from Wade-Giles to Pinyin in (inter)national bibliographic databases such as the WorldCat is beyond the control of individual libraries and librarians. It is a long-term project, which involves many technical complications. Standardization, however, requires more than that. It demands continuous and persistent efforts from all of us. I have written an article entitled "Your name and my name--with implications to Chinese book title Romanization in American libraries" (Pan, 1999, 2000). It was first published in 华夏文摘, and then was collected into a book entitled "Away from Home". In that article, I talked about the chaotic transliteration of overseas Chinese personal names. If you look at Chinese personal names in the U.S., you will not fail to notice in how many different ways they are Romanized. Over ten different ways can be found in the Chinese American Librarians Association's Membership Directory. If our names appear as such in a bibliographic database, which name convention would we expect the user to follow in searching? In this sense, standardization is not just an information organizational, institutional and administrative action. It needs support from every Chinese individual, especially us librarians.

VI. Conclusion

Library resources awareness, library literacy education, and Romanization standardization are among many of the important things we could do to promote the library resources to the Chinese user community. To be successful Chinese-American librarians, we should pay a good deal of attention all along to the Chinese user group, and find out their needs and their difficulties in order to help them more effectively.


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Copyright © 2002 Junling Pan.
Submitted to CLIEJ on 4 June 2002.

Originally presented at the Chinese American Librarians Association Midwest Chapter Annual Program in Chicago on 1 June 2002.
Author Information: Junlin Pan, MLS and Ph.D. Currently Reference Librarian, Assistant Professor, Coordinator for Reference Desk Services, Chinese Specialist at Northern Illinois University Libraries. Chair (2001-2002) of ACRL Asian, African, and Middle Eastern Section (AAMES). Chair (2001-2002) of ACRL Sections Council.