Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship

v.3 no.3 (Spring 2002)

The Development of the China Digital Library

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Yang Guihua, Associate Research Librarian
Tianjin Library, The People’s Republic of China

Zhang Tong


This article describes the China Digital Library (CDL) and explains how to use the computer network in China. It also explores the advantages of the China library in establishing the CDL. Finally, it examines the future construction and development plans for the CDL.

China is a large country that contains 5% of the world’s population. Along with the rapid development of the Internet worldwide, China has advanced her steps. The digital library has become a focal point in the high-tech world. At the same time, it is also a very important symbol with which to evaluate the basic facilities of information sciences in a country. The leaders in library fields have done a great deal to play important roles in realizing the China Digital Library (CDL).

1. The Current Situation of the China’s Computer Network (CDL)

China’s computer network usage has become more and more common in recent years. Five national networks have been opened (see Table 1).

Table 1

Network Management Unit Completed Time Nature
CSTNET China Academy of Science 1994, 4 Science and Technology
CHINANET Information Industrial Ministry 1995, 5 Business
CERNET Education Ministry 1995,11 Education
GBNET Information Industrial Ministry 1996,9 Business
UNINET Information Industrial Ministry 1993, 3 Business

Today, 200 universities and colleges in 8 regions in China are connected to these networks. According to calculations given by Chinese authorities, at the end of June, 2000, the number of computers connected to Internet was about 6.5 million, and the number of users accessing the internet was about 16.9 million. Based on these estimates, the number of users accessing the Internet will reach 30 million1 in 2002.

2. The Application of Computer Network in China Libraries

The Document Digital Center of the China National Library (CNL) was established in March 1999. At the China National Library, which is the fifth largest public library in the world, the resources have been digitized in CD-Rom storage. By the end of 1999, a total of 30 million pages, or 150 thousand copies of books, could be read on the Internet. In addition, 600GB of databases, catalogues, titles, and full text are available on the Internet at the CNL.2

The digital library set up jointly by the Liaoning Provincial Public Library and IBM supplies a large number of multi-medium databases with 10GB of full texts, pictures, films and TV. The contents include rare books, scenic images, cultural information, local documents, etc. Today, the Shanghai Public Library is creating a CD-Rom of rare books. 120 thousand copies out of total 170 thousand copies of rare books3 will be planned to make CD-Rom. In the near future, rare books will be read by computer screen. Since the 1980s, The Integrated Library Automatic System (ILAS), designed and run by the Cultural Ministry, has unit users of 280.4

Many kinds of techniques are used to digitize the Chinese resources, for example: 1. Making a CD-Rom database by the traditional method of typing by hand, as the CD-Rom database of People’s Daily 50 Year, etc. 2. Cooperating with some companies abroad. The Liaoning Provincial Public Library cooperated with IBM to protect the rare books with the modest techniques of encryption and digital photography. 3. Using scanners to input digital pictures. So far, many libraries in China have begun to order CD-Rom at home and abroad. It is very common to use CD-Rom databases in public libraries. For example, the Tianjin Library, being a city public library, collects many kinds of CD-Rom databases, such as: Academic Search Full text International published by EBSCO; Full text of Academic Journals published by Qinghua University, which contains more than 5,000 kinds of subject journals; Copy Materials of Full Text By Renmin University, which collects all kinds of key social science journals; and the Complete Library in Four Divisions, a CD-Rom database that contains one full Chinese rare book.

Encryption and scanning techniques have not been widely used in China. Therefore, the process of digitizing resources is very slow. We have a long way to go to compare with foreign countries. We must pay more attention to studying and developing the digital technique to meet the needs of users. The Share System Project on Document and Information Network, run by the Document and Information Center of the China Academy of Science, began in 1996 and was completed in 1998. Sharing documents and information from the Local Area Network, Metropolitan Area Network, and Wide Area Network has been realized. Since then, the network and resource construction of documents and information have been combined together and realized as the Hundred Units Network Project of China Academy of Science. Under such conditions, four regions and more than 100 institutes can be serviced with a catalog and information search, and remote access users can get requirements free of charge through CHINAPAC(China Packet-Switched Data Network) or the Public Telephone Network.

In Oct. 1997, The China National Public Library realized 2M connections with the China Public Computer Network and access to the Internet. In February 1999, the Library Area Network with 1000MB was put into use. The jointed point of Library Area Network is up to 2913. A 1000 M channel was put into use in March 2001 which is special for the China National Public Library. According to the calculation, more than ten projects on various digital libraries are being studied, such as the China Experimental Digital Library, the Intellectual Network-Digital Library System Project, mass storage and digital library application, etc. We can use these networks in various departments within China’s public libraries, for example, acquisition, catalog and classification, circulation, information search, inter-library loan, international libraries exchange activities, etc.

3. Preparation for Establishing the CDL

To catch up with the development of digital libraries worldwide, research work and development started in the mid-1990s in China. The concept of the digital library was introduced at the IFLA (International Federation of Library Association) Conference in 1996, which was held in Peking, China. At the conference, IBM and Qinghua University demonstrated the IBM Digital Library Plan. In July 1997, the China Experiment Digital Library Project was reported to the China Planning Committee. Six public libraries participated in the project, including the China National Library and the Shanghai Library, among others. With this project, the CDL construction was officially underway. The Digital Library Key Project-CDL Demonstration Project is a large cultural project in which many organizations in China participated. The project was begun in 1999.

In October 1998, the China National Library Project was started by China’s Cultural Ministry and the China National Library, In March 1999, the National Library Document Digital Center was established, with over 30 million pages of resources scanned annually.5 In June of the same year, a CDL International Seminar was held in Beijing, China. At the same time, the network condition of CDL research work has reached the advanced level and technique has caught up with the international advanced Next Generation Internet (NGI) level. In this case, many research projects of the digital library began in China public libraries at provincial and municipal levels. The working meeting on the Library Project Resources Construction of China Digital Year was held at the end of 2000.6 The First Plan for the China CDL Project (2000-2005) was discussed and worked out at the meeting and also determined to process the resources according to the international standards concerned. Digital library research institutes have been established in some universities such as the Beijing University and the Normal University in the Northwest China.7 At the beginning of the 21st century, a new upsurge of research and construction of the digital library has started. From this we can see that the digital library research and construction work has developed so fast both in public and university libraries in China.

4. The Advantages of the China’s Public Libraries in Establishing the CDL.

First of all, a library contains rich documents and information, which are important national resources. The levels of storage, collection, development and use of document and information resources of a country is the important symbol showing a country’s cultural history, intellectual storage ability, and science and technology capacity. As one of China’s largest social information systems, the information resources of a library have an important position that cannot be replaced in quantity or quality. After many years of development, several large library systems have been established in China: public libraries, school and university libraries, and special libraries. Each has its own characteristics in information construction but can work together. The China National Public Library has been engaged in establishing the largest Chinese information base. So far, several Chinese multi-media information resource databases, like “Poems,” “China’s Ancient architecture,” “Marine Life,” “Universe Structure,” etc., have been completed.

Cross retrieval can be done through five successive resource databases. That is, you can access related databases from required resource databases very easily and conveniently to get the information needed. Besides this, some local public digital libraries have been established, such as the Shanghai Digital Library, in which the construction project contains the Shanghai picture dictionary, Shanghai cultural dictionary, rare books, Chinese newspapers and magazines, foreign language journal catalogs, etc.

Started in July 1999, the China Experimental Digital Library Project was completed in December 1999. The libraries participated the project have since set up their own digital libraries: Beijing University digital Library, Qinghua University Digital Library, Liaoning Provincial Digital Library (public library), Shanghai Digital Library (public library), and Tianjin Digital Library (public library). Some of each library’s resources have been digitized, and we can read their special collections online. The CDL network will give us a wide concept of China’s library that mainly supplies information and resources in Chinese. It can provide the services of reading, retrieval, and researching documents of special subjects online to the public.

Now, the top design of CDL Project--China Cultural Information Network--has been started. As calculated by the system of public libraries, at the end of 1999, the total quantity of documents in public libraries is up to 390 million copies, including large amount of rare books, local documents, nationality documents, special collection documents worthy of valuable research, etc.8 These documents are distributed all over China. They are the social information system with the greatest quantity and used widely, which can be served to the people directly. The problem is how to develop them and use them through a network. From this, we can see clearly that the library is the one of the most important organizations needed to realize network services.

5. The General Purpose and Development Plan of the CDL Project

The Digital Library Project in China has just begun. It is in an embryonic form that displays the library’s transformation from a traditional library to a digital library, which gives us a hybrid library today. We know very clearly that to establish a real CDL, we have a lot of work to do. CDL is a large project across areas, across departments, across professions. It is also a newly created high-tech project.

High quality Chinese Digital Resources Databases Groups have been developed and are servicing China as well as the world through China Key Communication Network access to the internet. The techniques online in China have already been close to the international advanced techniques.

The Project Target:

More than ten databases of Chinese digital resources with a total capacity of not less than 20TB will be completed by 2005.9 At the same time, we will purchase many special databases abroad and realize online acquisition and classification, as well as inter-library loan in most parts of China. The digital library application system with Chinese distinctive features will be completed. Many high level professional specialists will be trained to continue the development of the CDL Project.

The Resource Construction of the Project:

The resources Construction of the project include many fields, such as digital resource construction, system development, standards and specifications, and personnel training. We will develop a large number of Chinese multi-media digital resources databases with a total capacity of over 20 TB in the fields of culture, science and technology, and education.10

The Project Feature:

The feature of the project is the virtual network, which is a large-scale, open, and disseminated digital information resources network system structure. It has many functions, for example: complicated information process and access; mass capacity information development and memory; Besides Chinese language, there are many other languages online including information resources on foreign languages and nationality languages; the network system with compatibility, good inter-operation, open distribution, etc. All the work we have done must meet the international standards and specifications. CDL research in China started late as compared with developed countries. To realize the real digital library, there are many inhibiting factors, both technical and non-technical. The technical factors that restrict the realization of the digital library include: 1. A very large amount of information to be digitized. 2. Without the unified agreements, specifications and standards. 3. The construction of a network infrastructure. 4. Safety problem of a digital library and copyright questions. The non-technical factors are questions of economy, management, and personnel. We need some time to solve all these problems, which are the same throughout the world. China, with its rich culture of 5000 years, is one of the largest countries in the world. We have the duty to do our best to share our information resources with the world and make the world we live in smaller and smaller.


1. "The First Period Plan of CDL Project Construction" (2000-2005)

2. Deng Shengli "The Investigation of the Development of the CDL" (Information and Document Work 2001,3)

3. Liu Xiaoying "The Preparation at the Beginning of Digital Library" (Library Scholar Journal 1998,3)

4. Ibid (Note 3)

5. Yang Peichao "On Development Policy of the CDL" (Information and Document Work 2001,3)

6. Ibid (Note 5)

7. Ibid (Note 5)

8. Ai Qingchun "The Speech on the Meeting of the CDL Project Construction" (2000,12,17)

9. "The First Period Plan of CDL Project Construction" (2000-2005)

10. Ibid (Note 9)

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