Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity       January 2001 • Volume XXIII, Number

The Fine Art of Finding Information

by Nick Riddle

East is East and West is West, but the twain are finding new ways to meet. B. J. Irvine, head of the Fine Arts Library at IU Bloomington, is playing her part by studying the way things work in the People’s Republic of China. Her findings from a 1999 visit are making detailed information on Chinese fine arts libraries available for the first time.

B.J. Irvine, head of the Fine Arts Library at IU Bloomington, has visited Chinese art instittues and libraries in an efoort to increase exchange and cooperation between Eastern and Western institutions.
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Irvine first went to China in 1988 as part of an American delegation of librarians visiting a number of university and science libraries. During that trip, she often asked to see art libraries in the universities they visited, but was surprised by the response.

“I got a lot of puzzled expressions and shaking of heads,” she remembers. “I discovered later that most major art libraries aren’t in the universities at all. They’re usually housed in separate art institutes or academies.” Irvine left China determined to make another trip to study Chinese fine arts libraries in detail.

It took a while for the right opportunity to arise. In 1990, Zhiyuan Cong, a professor of Chinese ink painting from the Nanjing Arts Institute, came to IUB. In the course of studying with him, Irvine made the contacts she needed. From April through June 1999, she was a visiting scholar at the Nanjing Arts Institute. She conducted interviews at Nanjing and several other art institutes in China, as well as at the Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Library, and the National Library of China in Beijing. Her questions covered every aspect of the libraries’ histories, organization, and day-to-day operations.

“In some cases, I’m pretty certain that I was the first Western librarian they’d ever encountered,” she says. “They were amazed that I was interested in them. But they were very interested in what I was trying to do, which was really to open up some lines of communication. They were fascinated to hear what libraries were like in the United States.”

What Irvine found was a very different notion of what a library should be. In place of the open-plan, open-access model used at IU and in most North American libraries, she discovered an insular world of locked rooms and closed stacks. “Most of the libraries I visited were a series of rooms opening off a hallway,” says Irvine. “If there’s a staff member on duty in the room, it’s open. Otherwise, it’s locked.”

The undergraduate reading room at the Nanjing Arts Institute Library in the east-central city of Nanjing, China

Generally there are separate rooms for every purpose: a reading room for undergraduates and one for graduates and faculty, with one room apiece for periodicals, reference, circulation, library administration, acquisitions and cataloguing, and photocopying. Such a disparate physical layout requires staffing levels far in excess of those found in art libraries in North America.

“The Nanjing Art Institute’s library has seventeen full-time staff,” says Irvine. “Here at the Fine Arts Library, I have four full-time people and one part-time person. It’s a different world, in so many ways. Their idea of public service is based primarily on open hours."

But, as Irvine points out, comparisons are invidious. “What their institutions have gone through—what their country has gone through—just doesn’t bearcomparison with what we’ve enjoyed in the past fifty years.”

During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), it was commonplace for private book collections to be destroyed. Institutional libraries usually were spared from the flames, but they were shut down, and the staffs were removed. Library education and training, likewise, came to a halt. When the Cultural Revolution ended, the central government placed huge numbers of workers in various institutions, including the reopened libraries. These new staffs usually had only a high school education and were rarely trained or experienced in librarianship.

At the time of Irvine’s visit, the same broad picture held true. None of the staff in the art libraries she saw had a master’s degree in library or information science, although a number of staff categorized as professionals had a library science major at the bachelor’s degree level. Training is now actively encouraged, however, through special programs and evening classes. Applicants for positions in most fine arts libraries must have a bachelor’s degree in library science, in addition to knowledge of English or Japanese and experience with computers. But there is still a national shortage of librarians. As Irvine says of the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, ”They’re making progress, but you rarely ever catch up from something like that.”

Fine arts libraries are in many respects a poor relation of the library family in China. Nowhere is this more evident than in the adoption of new technologies. Irvine learned that, among the nearly thirty fine arts libraries in China, only those at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, the Luxun Academy of Fine Arts, and the Shanghai Museum were using computers in 1998. A year later, this had begun to change, although computers were sometimes available only for acquisitions and reports.

Irvine’s visit occurred on the cusp of major changes in fine arts libraries throughout China. Many libraries are building, or seeking funds to build, computerized databases of their holdings. Once this process is complete, most plan to make their databases available to users. Some libraries, such as the one at the Shanghai Museum, already offer public access to their database, although more than one workstation devoted to such a purpose is rare. Irvine’s interviews with several librarians indicated that the common practice of keeping closed stacks is also likely to change as notions of access are transformed by the growth of the Internet. Indeed, the new technologies, says Irvine, “are opening everything up.”

Irvine recalls her surprise at the insularity of most fine arts libraries—she found herself “introducing students in Nanjing to collections in Shanghai that they’d never heard about”—but she points out that as library databases come online and Web access increases, the flow of information will create a much greater awareness of fellow institutions, within China and beyond.

“We’ve just set up a catalog exchange program between the IU Art Museum and the Shanghai Museum,” she says. “We’re sending each other publications about our holdings.”

Irvine has written up her findings in an article for the Art Libraries Journal, published in the United Kingdom. She believes the piece is “the first general English-language overview of the state of art libraries and librarianship in China.” She intends to send the published article to her Chinese colleagues, and says “a lot of it will come as news to them, even though it’s a survey of their own culture.” Irvine also arranged for the library director at the Shanghai Museum, Gu Yinhai, to attend the annual conference of the Art Libraries Society of North America, to be held this spring in Los Angeles.

Irvine points out that her work yields benefits beyond IU. “We know very little about how art institutions function in China,” she says. “Until we know more, we’ll be limited in our ability to exchange and cooperate. Learning about our Chinese counterparts enables us to find information that will be useful to students and faculty, both here and at other Western universities. That’s good for everyone, both East and West.”

For more information:
• IU Fine Arts Library Home Page

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