Chinese American Librarianship: Status Quo and Future

Wendy Tan
Hunter College Library
City University of New York

I. Unfavorable Wind for Librarianship

Given the fact that strong academic background breeds career success, it is not difficult to understand why professionals such as lawyers, doctors, engineers or accountants are traditionally held with the highest regard in Chinese American communities, because they all demand solid academic backgrounds. However, there are some professions that require advanced degrees and extensive training but never receive due respect. A few handy examples are social work, teaching, and librarianship. These are the professions dedicated to serving the general public, success in which entails knowledge, skills, experience and devotion beyond impressive academic credentials. Undoubtedly, they have a major impact on the development of any society. Nevertheless, these professions hardly share the glamour and respect of those other professions mentioned above, especially so in Chinese American communities.

Of course, career choices are based on many factors, of which supply and demand is a major one. As a librarian, it is natural for me to examine this issue from the perspective of professional librarianship. And it seems appropriate to make a brief historical account of what our profession did to serve the society.

II. Traditional Roles of Librarians

Back in the “dark ages”, before computers became standard tools in the workplace, librarians were expected, but not limited to, the following responsibilities:

III. Librarianship in the Electronic Age

The above landscape of library operations has been drastically changed with the introduction of library automation and the Internet. Superficially, many library functions such as collecting, organizing, archiving, and disseminating information seem to be outmoded. However, if looking a bit deeper, this notion is turned out to be far from the truth.

As matter of fact, there are both advantages and disadvantages in the same package of Internet services for the library work. Obviously, librarians are benefited from a wide range of access to information with super efficiency. The down side of this convenience is information chaos, resulted from explosion of information, free access; lack of uniform access tools; ever-changing technology, insufficient financial support; and more demands for skills and learning.

We have come to the realization that the working environment and the way to perform our services are changing but the value of our core services as embodied in the evaluation, organization and provision of information remain the same. They are the foundation of librarianship.

IV. Status Quo of Chinese American Librarians

Despite the impact professional librarians have exerted on the society, librarianship is never on the list of “dream jobs” for Chinese Americans. From my personal encounters, as an academic librarian and educator for over a decade, I have not yet met a Chinese American student who had chosen librarianship as his or her career goal. As a result, Chinese American librarians are gradually ascending the list of “endangered species”. Fortunately, there has been a small influx of Chinese immigrants from China or Taiwan enrolling in library schools in America. Otherwise, the profession of Chinese American librarianship would have long been declared "extinct". It is disheartening to see that American-born Chinese (ABC) have little interest in librarianship. What gave rise to this phenomenon?

V. Barriers to the Promotion of Chinese American Librarianship

1. High qualifications but low salaries

A practical joke that librarians are self-fed and well-bred horses has been widely in circulation. Sadly, this is not much far from the truth. Librarianship demands high qualifications but offers low salaries. A typical librarian classified advertisement often reads:

Two master's degrees (Doctor degree preferable); 5 years professional experience; excellent communication skills; working knowledge of two foreign languages; active services to the community; extensive publications of books or articles on refereed journals, starting salary in low 30k.

Moreover, according to 1990 ARL (Association of Research Libraries) salary survey, minority librarians employed at ARL libraries earned 4% less than their colleagues. Given that an office clerk or administrative assistant earn 40k+, it is hard to convince young people to consider librarianship for their career. Whether you are a Chinese or an American, the harsh reality makes it no economic sense to enter a career that demands high qualifications but pays so little.

2. Lack of leadership models for Chinese American librarians

After a careful study of the Directory of Chinese American Librarians Association (CALA), I have to lament the scarcity of leadership positions held by Chinese Americans. Based on my past experience and personal contacts with many Chinese American librarians while serving for CALA North East Chapter for the past decade, I have sensed the frustration about the prospect of climbing the corporate ladder. We all agree that excellent job performance is a given for any career advancement. In this regard, I am sure that many Chinese American librarians excel. However, few Chinese American librarians ever held commanding positions or leadership roles in major institutions or corporations. This outcome has further dampened many Chinese Americans' desire to pursue this career. Many of us can recall our aspirations as a child. We wanted to be a policeman, a baseball player, or a doctor. We wanted to be so and so because there were positive role models. Our aspiration for a particular career was heavily influenced by what we saw our “hero” performing those jobs, albeit our perception was often tinted with fantasy rather than reality. Nonetheless, they evoked an interest that remained in a young person’s heart. In the case of librarianship, neither glamour nor notoriety can ever be found. There are just not big role models among our professionals to elicit respect for librarians in the young generation.

VI. Phoenix or Dinosaur

It may be true that at present, Chinese American librarianship is experiencing a low tide. If we manage to position ourselves and ride the tide well, to rise once again is not a mission impossible. We should not relish on what was before but should concentrate on how to move forward. There is no short cut to the path of success. Since a thousand-mile journey starts with a single stride, the following avenues may be able to serve as the first step into the bright future. As a matter of fact, what is being proposed is by no means new. But it is important to re-visit it and reinstate its power, if the glory of being a phoenix is what we are longing for.

As a motto goes, “You can turn your worst enemy into your best friend with the right maneuver.” Today, the most powerful configuration of information management comprises the utilization of the best functions of information technologies and the best experiences and knowledge of librarians. Such a configuration will yield the greatest satisfaction in patrons. Knowledge Management, an enhanced way of information access, is a model of such configuration.

VII. What Is Knowledge Management?

The term “Knowledge Management” (KM) has been in circulation for quite some time. Lately, it has emerged in the library world as referring to the educational role of librarians. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “knowledge” is defined as “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association.” A professional librarian’s interpretation of KM, adapted from Webster’s definition, could be “the systematic processing of data through identifying, screening, organizing, storing, and packaging the final products of information regardless of its format or carrier (i.e., databases, catalogs, bibliographies, etc.)”. This presentation of knowledge products is very structured, efficient and effective with a wide range of accessibility. To the information seekers, the chief characteristic of this paradigm is “one-stop shopping” for all their information needs.

VIII. Misconceptions of Knowledge Management

As with many experiments, errors sometimes help clear the obstacles on the way to success. Understanding the following misconceptions will no doubt be conducive to the promotion of Knowledge Management, thus paving the way for implementing KM in an institution.

1. Information is knowledge
Information is defined as processed data. As data is not equivalent to information, so is information not a synonym of knowledge. Information, before it becomes well-wrapped knowledge, needs first to be found, analyzed, reviewed and disseminated to get to the path of knowledge.

2. Technologies dominate the development of Knowledge Management
While nobody would disagree that many achievements we have been enjoying in the information world are the brainchild of technologies, it is a major misconception that technologies dictate the success of KM. With a thorough understanding of the operation of KM, we realize that humans, not technologies, rock the cradle in the realm of KM.

3. Knowledge Management is not team work
In fact, sharing is critical to the success of KM. As stated above, humans are pivotal in the operation of KM. Since no one is omnipotent, it goes without saying that cooperation is the foremost requirement of KM. After all, we often say, “Two heads are better than one.”

4. The framework of Knowledge Management is static
Since knowledge is a constant recreation of old knowledge, the contents of KM have consequently been evolving and dynamic. In fact, currency of information is the key to the success or failure of KM, because obsolete information often does more harm than help to patrons.

IX. Convergence of Knowledge Management and Librarianship

With a thorough understanding of what is involved in Knowledge Management, one can appreciate the intricate connection between librarianship and Knowledge Management. Some librarians see KM as growing out of traditional librarian’s functions. There is logic to this viewpoint. Catalogers use the subject headings and classification schemes to systematically organize library materials, making them available for public use via library catalogs. Public service librarians, who are familiar with these tools along with many other reference materials, stand ready to provide guidance to those seeking the information. Cataloging and reference services are actually a primitive form of KM, although they may not have been widely credited as such.

The advent of new technologies has revolutionized library work. It can also broaden the spheres of librarianship. Other than above-mentioned traditional roles, librarians’ job domain, depending on the institutions, has been more or less expanded to the following:

  1. Identifying relevant databases and evaluating their qualities;
  2. Designing and conducting training workshops;
  3. Providing pathfinders on the Internet to library patrons;
  4. Pairing with faculty in teaching research methods;
  5. Developing the information infrastructures to keep abreast of the trend of technologies, etc.

With current developments and future outlook, it is safe to say that the boundary between modern librarianship and KM is thin. As a matter of fact, modern librarianship uses conventional library services as a base upon which to build up information processed through technological innovations. Clearly the best interest of the information world is served by having the dynamic combination of library services and computer technology.

X. Intercultural Knowledge Management

The fact that the United States has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents in the world does not come as a surprise. According to Census 2000, 11.1% of its population were born outside the country. Though Americanization of all ethnic groups may be desirable, total assimilation is impossible. Therefore, it is an absolute necessity to promote racial and ethnic harmony and cultivate respect of cultural diversity. Grillo described the essence of cultural diversity as follows:

“A state of equal co-existence in a mutually supportive relationship within the boundaries of framework of one nation of people of diverse cultures with significantly different patterns of belief, behavior, color, and in many cases with different languages. To achieve cultural pluralism there must be aware of and secure in his own identity, and be willing to extend to others the same respect and rights that he expects to enjoy himself.”

Undoubtedly, a wide range of cultural differences in patrons presents an opportunity and a challenge as well to library services. Diversity could be used as a reservoir of knowledge in many respects. Meanwhile, commitment to satisfying patrons’ needs would take, in some cases, more efforts to achieve.

The domination of the American market by “Made in China” products, such as: garments, household appliances, accessories, and toys, is a clear evidence that the trade between the two countries is booming. As a result, demands for Chinese cultural, economic, industrial, and trade information from American businessmen and companies are unprecedentedly high.

Given the above-mentioned circumstances, Chinese American librarians’ special intercultural awareness and bilingual knowledge can come into plays and make significant contributions to American society. If Intercultural Knowledge Management (IKM) is the future of Chinese American librarianship, then it should be a powerful inducement for Chinese Americans to consider librarianship as a viable career choice. The emerging popularity and the global significance, both politically and economically, of Chinese culture have led millions to want to find out more about this fascinating culture. For example, we can help entrepreneurs to access geological information of Hunan province for industrial development. We can provide social and political leaders with appropriate information regarding the social history and ideology of the ‘Politburo’ in order to develop and cultivate a working relationship with the Chinese Government. Certainly, there will be countless people in academia and multimedia settings depending on us to help them seek the most up-to-date information on all aspects of the Chinese cultural development. Topics could be ranging from food to folklore, climate to custom, martial art history to military development. There are wells of rich information that could be tapped into in the land of the once sleeping dragon.

Who is going to capitalize on managing all such information? Who has the technical know-how and the cultural background to master this vast amount of knowledge? The answer is, of course, Chinese-American librarians. As mentioned earlier, we are best equipped to fulfill this increasingly demanding role of information management. Today, the most powerful tool to deal with this task is Intercultural Knowledge Management. In fact, it is under the umbrella of KM, which implies the performance of KM in an environment rich with cultural diversity in the context of a rapid development of globalization.

This trend has already begun and has been a tremendous challenge that most Chinese-American librarians are facing every day. Because of that, contrary to what was described earlier, this is actually an exciting time to be a Chinese American librarian. Collectively, we can establish a clear identity among our American colleagues while carving out a professional niche that makes us highly sought after in the professional market. This development will undoubtedly enhance our public image and helps us to gain social recognition. In turn, it should also boost salaries. The demand for Chinese information will leave little choice for any institutions but to provide sufficient funding for hiring and retaining Chinese American librarians.

Bear in mind that we cannot put the cart before the horse. We must first demonstrate this process with quantifiable success and establish a working mechanism that can prove our worth before we can bring all of this into reality. However, reality is within reach.

XI. Essential Competencies

In order to promote this favorable environment for Chinese American librarians to thrive in, we must provide leadership for achieving the essential competencies within our institutions. The following are some of the areas demanding our attentions:

1. Enhance ethnic collections. Many public libraries and quite a few academic libraries have made impressive achievements in this regard. After the initial step, Chinese American librarians should ensure that patrons from diverse cultures can benefit from our performance as KM specialists. Here is some of what we can do:

2. When I conducted an Internet search for the literature on KM and global business, only minimal information put out by commercial companies was retrieved. It seems that intercultural knowledge management for business needs is still a barren area with no highly relevant results. Considering the barriers preventing Chinese American librarianship from flourishing, this is another exciting opportunity where we can serve the business community, increase our career mobility, and promote our profession. It is understandable that public librarians or corporate librarians are in a favorable position to bridge the business world and library community. As an academic librarian, I can only enumerate the “shallow” frameworks of an expert in intercultural knowledge management that may benefit American business with China:

  1. Overseeing the development and presentation of language programs that are suitable for targeted audiences.
  2. Organizing and conducting workshops related to intercultural environments.
  3. Analyzing trade statistics and making use of demographic or resource-related data from a comprehensive database for business purpose.

3. Organization of Internet resources is another area in which librarians’ expertise is in high demand and will have an impact in the future information world.

As the World Wide Web has been labeled the greatest invention of the 20th century, Internet resources have really opened a new world for information seekers. However, “bountiful information” could be both a blessing and a curse, because oftentimes retrieving useful information from the Web is very much like trying to find a needle in a haystack. As Sheila Creth elegantly stated, “For most people, though, navigating the Internet may feel like entering Bermuda triangle during hurricane season”. Meanwhile, in my experience helping patrons, I can sense the public’s negative attitude towards and frustration in surfing the Web efficiently. I hear many complaints about the lack of structure of information presentation. In comparison, the orderly organization and systematic retrieval of library catalogs have been highly praised.

Actually, catalogers have successfully started to catalog electronic journals and databases. Nevertheless, most libraries are conservative in tackling other Web resources due to their magnitude, the complexity of the coding procedure, lack of standards, and shortage of manpower, etc. Obviously, this is still an under-developed area, and concerted efforts from catalogers are urgently needed.

Since Chinese American librarians are concentrated in cataloging, it is an opportunity for us to invest our talents in organizing the Web information. That can really make a difference. We should take the initiative to create efficient ways to organize Internet resources and promote the integration of metadata in Web pages.

XII. Final Thought

I recalled that the former Mayor of New York City Rudi Giuliani once said after the tragedy of September 11: “It was the most tragic event in the history of this country but one positive outcome grew from that was the rediscovery of the silent heroes, the heroes of everyday lives.” Although he was describing the men and women in uniforms in that context, he implied that these were people dedicated to a career of public service. He helped us remember the importance of those everyday heroes. Librarians, too, are the silent heroes behind the countless successful students, scientists, researchers, legal defense teams, or businessmen. Yet, we are almost never mentioned or remembered. Our contributions may only be as small as provoking a young inquisitive mind into reading about how everything works. But on a larger scale, we can be the vital link in providing resources and information that enable a multi-billion dollars company to seal a 10-year contract with a foreign developing country, which will, in turn, create jobs for 5,000 local citizens. It is up to each one of us to decide how we can dedicate ourselves to serving mankind with the best of what we have to offer, without any prejudicial pressure on our career choices. I hope we don’t have to wait for another national disaster to remind us of that.

Today, we are witnessing the verge of a new era, a millennium of new technology, of globalization, and a China that is likely to be an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. The world is going to be focusing on these future developments. It will demand even more of domestic and foreign communications and cooperation. America will continue to play a vital role in the world’s success. We should not forget that professional librarians are expected to play a pivotal role in this global development. We hold the future in our hands by choosing to lead a new trail instead of following the old path.

Furthermore, as Chinese Americans, we assume a special responsibility to ensure that we are doing what we can to help facilitate the communication, the understanding, and the interest between the two great nations. In such a capacity, Chinese American librarians will emerge as one of the most prominent professionals in the new millennium.


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Copyright © 2004 Wendy Tan