Special Libraries in China: Present and Future

HU Junping
Visiting Scholar from Beijing Document Service
Lancaster University Library
Lancaster, England


We are living in the era of information. The significance of the role played by information in all kinds of human activities, especially socioeconomic development in changing and developing societies, is too great to ignore. In a sense, information service is all the more needed in developing countries. As we know, technology, equipment, quality, economy, living standard and society in developing countries are all inferior to those in developed countries. They must, therefore, refer to the successful experiences of advanced nations and incorporate and use the latest achievements in science and technology in their endeavour to catch up with developed countries. Information service is the vehicle to provide and facilitate exchange of information and thus plays a key role in their endeavour.

Information service is raison d'Ítre of a special library, whose objective is to provide information in support of the objectives of its parent organization. The special library must provide information in a more efficient and economical way than other libraries. In developing countries, the special library occupies a predominant position over public and college libraries in serving the development of local economy and society. Special libraries in developing countries is obliged to fulfill this role.

Libraries in China

Information service in China is mainly provided by more than 3,700 libraries with different clientele. These libraries are generally classified into six categories: national, public, academic, research, school and military. The number of each category is shown in Table 1.

Beijing Library (the de facto national library), founded in 1800s and now administered by the Ministry of Culture, is the biggest library in the country with a holding of 18 million titles. It offers a variety of services such as acquisition, cataloguing, distribution and SDI (Service of Directed Information) to all walks of life. Over 700 public libraries, which are maintained by local governments of all levels and technically guided by the national library, provide information service to local residents with collections on literature, languages, arts, sports and so on. More than 1,300 academic libraries, or university libraries as known in some other nations, are located in the universities and colleges throughout the country. Their users are mainly students and faculty members. School libraries refer to those libraries in the middle or high schools. At present, they exist only in those famous middle schools in such big cities as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Military libraries obviously offer services to scholars, engineers, technicians in defence industry, and military officers and soldiers.

Types National Public Academic School Military Research
Numbers 1 781 1,372 296 70 1,185
Total 3,705
Table 1: The Types and Numbers of Libraries in China

The research libraries, so called by Chinese library scholars, are similar in definition and characteristics to the special libraries commonly known in the West. Information services such as "Document and Information Centre" or "Scientific and Technical Information Institution" in China, therefore, belong to the category of special libraries. By the end of 1994, there were 1,100 of special libraries at different levels with a total staff of 100,000 and a combined collection of 100 million titles in China. Thus, special libraries, together with public and academic libraries, are three pillars of the national information service.

Special Libraries in China


The special libraries are an important component of the Chinese library system. All Chinese special libraries are maintained by government agencies and institutions and are under the jurisdiction of those agencies and institutions. There are two types of special libraries in China -- libraries of the Academy of Sciences (natural sciences and social sciences), libraries in the numerous research institutions under the Academy; and libraries in various ministries or commissions such as the ministries of geology, medicine, agriculture, and industry as well as in their numerous branches.

The libraries of the Academy of Sciences include the Document and Information Centre of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (DICCAS), and the Document and Information Centre of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (DICCASS). Both DICCAS and DICCASS have many branches throughout the country. The principal collections of DICCAS are mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, geography, biology, interdisciplinary science, and high technology whereas DICCASS holds collections mainly in the social sciences.

The special libraries in China's ministries and commissions are divided into three classes. The first class (i.e., the national class) includes four special libraries: 1) the Institutes of Scientific and Technical Information of China (ISTIC), maintained by the State Science and Technology Commission (SSTC); 2) the China Defence Science & Technology Information Centre (CDSTIC), maintained by the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (CSTIND); 3) the Document Centre of the Patent office of China; and 4) the Standards Information Centre of China (SICC), maintained by the State Bureau of Technology Supervision (SBTS).

ISTIC's principal collections are engineering and technology, management science and high technology. CDSTIC's primary collections are military science, military industry and weaponry. ECPOC's principal collections address patent specifications, bulletins and classification index in China and from other countries. SICC's main collections are national standards, regional standards, specialized standards, enterprise standards, and measurement documents in China. It is also the national centre which collects international standards such as those formulated and issued by ISO (International Standardization Organization) and IEC (International Electricitization Committee) and other standard materials from abroad.

The second class (i.e., the ministry class) are specialised document and information centres maintained by the ministries or commissions under the State Council. Their principal collections are materials closely related to their specialties, such as textiles, geology, medicine, aeronautics, and nuclear engineering. These special libraries also organise and coordinate the information services of their specialised fields (including acquisition, distribution, procession, and other services) and provide users within the ministry, commission, or branch with specialised information services. There are about 60 libraries of this class in China.

The third class (i.e., the local class) includes the scientific and technical information institutes of provinces, prefectures, and counties. Their principal collections are materials closely related to the local economy and society, and meet local information needs with practicable technology information such as standards information and trade literature. These libraries are maintained mostly by local science and technology commissions.

The forth class (i.e., the enterprise class) are virtually information-consulting organisations which have mushroomed after Chinese government established a policy to enhance scientific and technological information system development in late 1992. These special libraries are independent financially. However, they have few information resources of their own due to financial problems. They provide customers with information service by collecting information from other information resources outside their organization.


The Chinese government established a policy of unified management and planning over the system of special libraries. SSTC manages all the special library's system on behalf of the Chinese central authorities and is in charge of the exchange of information and cooperation within the libraries, building and leading the national information network, and establishing and implementing the rules, laws, and standards concerning information services. Under the unified management, the information services network of special libraries and the national special libraries' system have been formed, and play an active role in the national information exchange and rational distribution of document resources and services. The structure and system of the special libraries in China is illustrated in Figure 1:

Figure 1: The Structure and System of Special Libraries in China

Information Service Pattern

Information is an important resource for the development of the national economy, science, technology, and society. As early as in 1956, the Chinese government established a policy that gave considerable importance to the building and development of special libraries. More than 30 years later, the special libraries in China have established an information service pattern (including the scope and types of information services) suitable to the Chinese condition. The scope of information services of the special libraries is illustrated in Table 2.

Scope of Special Libraries' Information Services
Industry Including import and export, trade, developing new products, public relations and investment, etc.
Research Including appraising the achievement, user education, and varied research, etc.
Society or Public Including market supervision, law affairs, arbitration of trade, agriculture, citizens' education, etc.
Table 2: Scope of Special Libraries' Information Services

The types of information services are many and varied, including: information consultation, information searching, SDI, foreign materials translation, reading services, secondary processing, trade literature, user education, subject information research and "enterprise diagnosis."

During "enterprise diagnosis," information staff, together with technology and management experts, economists and others, go to an enterprise to identify the problems in management, technology, process or financial affairs, and then provide consultation services or other type of assistance. This is an advanced information service quite suitable for enterprises in developing countries.

DICCAS concentrates particularly on scientific research, and DICCASS on social science research. ICSTND's primary focus is on military science and military industry, while the other "first class" special libraries pay particular attention to industry, society, and research. To sum up, the first-class special libraries serve the growth of national economy. The second- and third-class special libraries serve mainly the development of industry and the countryside. The forth-class special libraries are focus on the business and societies as well.

The special libraries in China have, step by step, developed a widespread and qualitative information service. Before the death of Mao Zedong (i.e., Mao Tse-Tung) in 1976, Chinese special libraries largely followed former Soviet conventions in their information services and management, serving only for scientific and technical researches. After Den Xiaoping came to power in 1979, China began to reform and open to the outside world. Then Chinese government began to emphasize its economic development and improvement of people's living standard, which resulted in tremendous demand of information and information service. Consequently, Chinese special libraries started providing industry and enterprises with information service. After 1992, the policy of deep reforms and widespread opening to the outside world required that special libraries extend their services to the Chinese society as a whole. Since then, the content and types of information services special libraries provide have gradually become more varied and flexible. This has enabled special libraries to fulfill even more varied needs while highlighting the need for information and the importance of special libraries and information professionals.

Distinguished Features of Information Services

Audiovisual Information Services

Audiovisual information services have become an important part of the Chinese special libraries' information service system. They mix technology and art together and are vivid, lively, and easy to understand. Therefore, they are suitable forms of information services for general users. The special libraries' audiovisual information service network covers nearly all of China. Chinese special libraries now have 1,800 full-time staff for audiovisual information services, more than 800 facilities for production, translation and broadcasting, and more than 1,000 locations to show and distribute audiovisual materials. In recent years, Chinese special libraries have produced more than 2,500 scientific and technical films or videodisks, importing additional 1,500 from abroad. They have also provided broadcasting for about seven million information users. All of these activities have produced tangible benefits for the Chinese economy and society.

Serving the Countryside

The Chinese special libraries have also concentrated on providing information service to rural (agricultural) areas in China, including countryside enterprises which are mostly small industries set up by the rural governments or peasants. Their efforts have met with success among the peasants and countryside enterprises.

In China, agriculture is the predominant factor in the national economy, as eighty percent of the Chinese population lives in the countryside. Providing agricultural and countryside enterprises with suitable information services can not only promote the development of the rural economy but can also improve living conditions there. Chinese special libraries have provided the countryside with widespread and significant information services as they build the information network and set up information exchange centres to promote communication and information transmission from information agencies or cities to the countryside. They also train the information centre staff, especially those who will concentrate on serving the peasants and the countryside. These librarians recommend improved plant breeds and agricultural techniques according to the information needs and characteristics and problems of countryside enterprises -- specifically, their strong demands for information and information services and lack of search capacity.

Emphasis on Gaining Profit

Chinese special libraries are concentrating on the creation of unique information products by making full use of their rich information resources and advanced information technology and equipment. They are now beginning to adopt the methods of management and administration of profit-oriented enterprises and to build the "information market" step by step. Today in China, information services are considered a sort of commodity which may sell in the "information market" and gain profit. But before 1985, prior to the reform and opening to the outside world, this was not the case. Since then, the Chinese government has actively encouraged these types of information services and has given them a lot of favorable conditions such as a preferential tax ratio. In 1988, Chinese special libraries generated a total revenue of about £4 million, which rose to £23 million in 1994.


Relatively early on, the Chinese government had a clear and correct understanding of the value of information and special libraries. And in early 1986, the government began to develop the nation's special libraries and information services. Since then, it has promulgated more than 40 decrees and orders about the special libraries, defining their roles, usage, obligation, and organization by law. At the same time, it has provided special libraries with budget and staff guaranteed by law. As a result, the establishment of China's special libraries and their information services is rather advanced and successful. They have made a great contribution to the development of the national economy and society through their work.

After the national conference on scientific and technical information held in 1990, the Chinese government has placed such importance on the value of information and information services provided by special libraries to vitalize the economy and raise the living standards of people that it published the "National Development Policy of Scientific and Technical Information: Blue Paper of Science and Technology No. 6" , which was revised in 1994. The development of information has gradually been placed on the plan of national development. This is clearly an effort to enhance the roles of special libraries in the national economical development.


1. Marilyn Domas White. " Measuring Service Quality in Special Libraries: Lessons From Service Marketing" p36-45, winter 1995, Special libraries.

2. State Science and Technology Commission. Guide to Chinese scientific and technical document policy: blue paper of science and technology no. 6. Peking: Scientific and Technical Document Press, 1994.

3. State Statistics Bureau. "Yearbook of Chinese Statistics 1994." Peking: Chinese Statistics Press, 1994.

Copyright © 1996 HU Junping.
Submitted to CLIEJ on 22 April 1996.