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D-Lib Magazine

May/June 2010
Volume 16, Number 5/6


Overview of Digital Library Development in China

Xihui Zhen
Content Digital Innovations




China began its digital library development in the mid-1990s with a series of studies and pilot projects. Beginning in 2000, a number of national-level digital library projects, proposed separately by the National library of China, National Technology and Science Library, China Academic Library and Information System, National Science Library were approved, moving the China Digital Library effort into the implementation phase. These national projects are currently building, and the greatest challenges for these project today are in areas of application: digital resources construction, design of services provision, etc. Some universities, colleges and industries have begun implementing their digital libraries. Their shorter development time and smaller scale have produced substantive results which will prove to be beneficial across the China Digital Library effort.


1 Introduction

Since 1980, the widespread deployment of Internet and information technology has had a deep impact on people's daily life, including their way of work, study, and living. The Internet is becoming an important communication channel among the Chinese people. The Internet has also given birth to the concept of digital libraries, a new form of managed information sharing and service provision.

Beginning in 1995, the National Library of China has followed the development of digital libraries in the international community, marking the beginning of Chinese digital library development. Although China started late compared to the US and other developed countries, its development has been quickly catching up. Generally speaking, the development of Chinese digital library efforts can be viewed in three developmental phases: the conceptual introduction phase (between 1995 and 1996), the technical exploration phase (from 1996 to 2000), and the application development phase (from 2001 to now). Each of these phases has a unique development pattern and set of achievements.

In 1995, the 62nd International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) meeting took place in Beijing. The concept of digital libraries received its first widespread attention in China at that time, and has gained more and more in importance ever since.

It is also in this period of time that the Chinese library community started to realize that the future of library development lay in the development of digital libraries, and started to pay close attention to the research and development of digital library technologies in the international community. Various research and study groups were formed over these years to study digital library development, its conceptual and operational aspects, and those fundamental technologies that would be critical for its future development.


2 Research and Technical Exploration

As the idea of the digital library becomes increasingly popular, so does the theoretical research on digital libraries. According to statistics published in the National Journal Index published by Shanghai Library, the number of research theses relating to digital libraries has almost doubled every year since 1994. For example, in 1999, the number of research theses on digital libraries increased over 130% over 1998. According to statistics collected from Xiaoyu Lan, 663 research theses related to digital library research were published in 22 major journals of library study and/or information study between 1994 and 2001.

In addition to the large number of journal articles, books dedicated to digital library research began to appear, starting in 1997. A few of the more influential books include: Digital Library, from theory to practice by Guorong Wu (XueLing Publisher, 2000), Digital Library, theory and technical implementation by Wen Gao, etc. (Tsinghua University Publisher, 2000), Introduction to Digital Library by Wei Liu (Shanghai Science & Technology Publisher, 2001). Also available is the Chinese translation of the book Digital Libraries by Williams Y. Arms (Electrical Engineering Publisher, 2001).

Scholarly exchanges with the international community became very active during this period. Well-known international scholars were invited to visit China and introduce their practices in digital library development. Chinese scholars also visited many countries to conduct field studies of digital library practice. Activities like these set a solid foundation for the rapid development of digital library efforts in China.

As digital library related research and development gained widespread notice, a set of official projects, dedicated to digital library research and experimentation, also got started. These projects were sponsored by the Chinese government. A few of the more important research projects include: "Investigation on Digital Library Technology" a research project started in 1996, one of the national "9th five-year plan" key projects, sponsored by the Department of Education; the "Chinese Experimental Digital Library" project started in 1997, part of the national key project originated by the former National Planning Committee; the "Knowledge Network — Digital Library System" started in 1998, part of the national 863/306 project; the "Zhong Guan Chun Digital Library Technology and Software Study" project, sponsored by Beijing Municipal government in 1999; the "Chinese Digital Library System based on the Chinese Information Super Highway", part of the national 863 project in 2000; the "Chinese Digital Library Research Study" project sponsored by the former National Planning Committee in 2001; the "Standards for Chinese Digital Library System" project sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2002; and the "Internationalization and Interoperability Study of the Chinese Digital Library System" project, sponsored by the National Science Committee.

Here are some details of some of the projects that had a major impact:

  • Chinese Experimental Digital Library Project

This project was proposed by the Department of Culture in July 1996. It was accredited in January 1997 as a national 'prominent' project. The project was lead by the National Library of China, and was carried out in collaboration with Shanghai Library, Shenzhen Library, Zhongshan Library of Guangdong province, Library of Liaoning province, Nanjing Library, and Guilin Library of Guangxi province. The objective of the project was to develop a Chinese digital library system in which China could claim its own intellectual rights while also being compatible with the digital library technologies used in the international community. The system was mandated to have an adequate amount of digital resources in Chinese, and to be operated as a distributed digital library system. Other required features included extensibility and interoperability among its distributed components. In May 2001, the system was completed and approved by a committee of experts. The result was a distributed Chinese digital library system operated by many libraries in China. The system was targeted at the accumulation of digitized historical items, and allowed the sharing of these resources across the participating libraries. Major functionalities of the system included resource collection and refinement, resource storage and management, resource transfer and ownership management, resource registration and announcement, interface for user access, etc. Based on this system, thirty or so multimedia digital resource library collections were developed, with content ranging from travel and tourism, to biography, military history, general encyclopedia, etc. The total amount of digital resources managed by the digital library system exceeded 900 GB. A corresponding metadata database was also established as a part of the digital library system, which allowed page-wise indexing and searching across multiple library collections. Users could search for digital resources transparently across different library collections over the Internet.

  • The Digital Library System of the National Library of China

In March 1999, the National Library of China started and completed its digital library system, aimed at demonstrating the life cycle of its digital resource collection. The system provided reference implementation for digital resource retrieval, metadata collection, resource distribution and selection, user interface design, and indexing and searching across different library systems. The system had a positive impact on spreading the concept of the digital library, and provided necessary experience in digital resource collection, management, and provision of service.

  • Strategic Research on Chinese Digital Library Development

In May 1999, under the "Intelligent Computing Systems" project specified in the national 863 plan, a research group focusing on "Strategic Research on Chinese Digital Library Development" was established. Systematic research was done on digital library technology, implementation, operation and management, as well as related legal and policy implications.

  • Tsinghua University Digital Library of Architecture

In November 2000, the project to develop the "Tsinghua University Digital Library of Architecture" was established. It was sponsored by the Tsinghua University Research Grant, the Tsinghua University Library, the Department of Computer Engineering of Tsinghua University, and the Tsinghua University School of Architecture. Major contributions of the project included: key technologies in digitizing information resources in the field of Chinese architecture, metadata and technology standards, effective storage and management systems for digitized information resources, architectural design of digital library systems, globalization of digitized Chinese information resources and their management, theory and practice on sharing and personalization of digital library services, and the demonstration of systematic research and implementation of digital library on architecture.


3 Application and Implementation

The "Research and Technical Exploration" phase generated a large amount of experience within China, along with a few digital library systems implemented at an initial stage. The government provided continued funding to establish a number of national projects. This marked a new era of Chinese digital library development with the focus switched from research and exploration into practical implementation and application. At the same time, a number of regional projects on digital library implementation were planned and/or established. Many of them provided valuable feedback relevant to digital library implementation. Later on, the involvement of commercial entities further accelerated digital library development in China.

3.1 National Digital Library Implementation Projects

Beginning in 2001, the Chinese government has placed great attention on the development of digital libraries. Major funding has been provided to support the implementation of national digital library systems. Among these are: the National Digital Library project, a project on sharing cultural and educational information, the China Academic Digital Library Information System (CADLIS) project, the National Science and Technology Digital Library (NSTL) project, and the Digital Library System for the Government project. These projects constitute the core development efforts in digital library implementation in China, and have provided valuable reference and support for the development of many other digital library systems.

3.1.1 National Digital Library Project

The National Digital Library Project was established in 2002, and started its implementation phase in 2005. The goal of the project was to establish a digital library service that provides all the functionality of the Chinese National Library, and implements mechanisms and procedures for collection, digitization, and archiving of Chinese information resources, accumulates a very large amount of high quality digital resources, provides access to those resources over the Internet, establishes a platform for technical support of digital resource collection, enhancement, storage and management, provides a digitized Chinese information service in China and around the world via the Internet, establishes the largest and most complete digital Chinese information collection and provides services for it, and makes it part of the foundation of the national information service. By the end of 2009, the digital library of the Chinese National Library had established an index of more than 27 million items, accumulated more than 320 TB of digital resources and made them accessible via the library website.

In recent years, the Chinese National Library has been carrying out additional large-scale development in resource digitization, as well as continued development of a technical support platform for its digital library system. Major components of the platform are expected to be complete by the end of this year (2010), which should further improve the service quality and development of the digital library system.

3.1.2 National Cultural Information Resources Sharing Project

In April 2002, the Chinese Ministry of Culture started a project to promote the nationwide sharing of cultural information. The project targets the development of digital library applications suitable for rural areas, establishing digital libraries for cultural information resources, and making the information widely accessible over the Internet.

The National Culture and Information Development Center took charge of the project, aiming for a uniform service standard and bringing together digital library services from the Chinese National Library, regional libraries from individual provinces, cities, and counties in China. At the time of this writing, there are established digital library services in 32 provincial centers, more than 2000 county centers, and more than 415,000 town centers.

3.1.3 China Academic Digital Library Information System

The Chinese Academic Digital Library Information System (CADLIS) is the continuation of the Chinese Academic Library Information System (CALIS) project, which is based on the China-America Digital Academic Library project (CADAL). The general objective of the project is to develop Chinese digital library systems based on advanced open standards. In addition to developing a systematic approach to academic resource collection, the system is also developing user-friendly digital library services that support document retrieval, bibliographic searching, educational assistance, research and training, and customized service interfaces.

At the time of this writing, the project is starting its third development phase.

3.1.4 China Science Digital Library

In December 2001, the Chinese Science Digital Library (CSDL) project was started as part of the Knowledge and Innovations Engineering project sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The objective of the project is to provide a distributed academic information service that serves every researcher and student within the Chinese scientific community.

Collections in CSDL include publications both in Chinese and foreign languages, and include electronic journals, conference proceedings, academic theses, patents, scientific indexes, and all types of reference material. Disciplines include mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, environment studies, engineering and technology, etc. Users of CSDL can search for material across multiple distributed databases containing millions of original documents, bibliographic records, and citations. There are also dedicated librarians working on authoritative indexing guidance to help in various professional fields of study. To date specialized service interfaces have been established in support of scientific study in chemistry, environmental studies, life sciences, mathematics, and physics. Also established are portals for scientific and research policy, microbiology, ocean studies, plant and seedling studies, and contagious disease control.

3.2 Development in Regional Libraries

3.2.1 The Digital Library of Liaoning Province

The Digital Library of Liaoning Province is one of the early digital library projects in China. The project started in 1997, and is based on the digital library system developed by IBM. The project digitized more than 600,000 volumes of historical publications, and made them openly accessible over the Internet. A number of digital libraries specialized in local characteristics and/or history events were also established, including the digital library of September 18th memorial, the digital library of General Xue-liang Zhang, the digital library for the industrial development in northeastern states, etc.

3.2.2 The Digital Library of Guandong Province

The Digital Library of Guangdong Province is one of the largest and most advanced digital library systems developed by a state province. The project started in the year 2000, and has made major contributions in large volume resource integration and management, long distance resource acquisition, copyright protection, and federated bibliographic search and inquiry. The library system is fully functional after four years of development and testing. Currently, the library contains more than 1,200,000 volumes of electronic books, more than 30,000,000 volumes of journal publications, 800,000 volumes of doctorial theses, and more than 300,000 research papers and conference proceedings. The library provides an integrated digital library service based on collections from more than 30 different database systems, and has made great contributions in public service.

The digital library of Guangdong also established an online customer service center, and established an inter-library service with more than twenty foreign and domestic libraries. The response time for the online customer service center is frequently as little as serveral minutes. From January 1, 2010 to March 11, 2010, the service center resolved more than 200,000 customer inquires, and delivered more than 600,000 published works via its inter-library resource sharing system. The library is quickly becoming one of the most popular digital libraries both internationally and domestically.

3.2.3 DOI and Wanfang Data Corporation

Wanfang Data is a leading provider of journals and other content. In 2007, Wanfang Data and Chinese Research Institute of Science and Technology formed the first DOI (Digital Object Identifier) registration agency in China. The system provides a service framework that is interoperable with publishers all over the world for persistent identification, managing intellectual content, managing metadata, and linking customers with content suppliers in China. The registration service is growing rapidly, and has become the second largest DOI registry in the world. By April 2010, there are more than 1.3 million volumes of Chinese publications registered in the Chinese DOI registry.


4 Major Issues

Digital library development in China has entered an implementation phase in recent years. Due to the large scale of many of the national projects, they will have a very long implementation cycle, and require a large amount of prerequisite work in collection development. This naturally results in a delay of service implementation and the development of some key functionality. Regional libraries in general seem to do better in these aspects.

Generally speaking, the following issues remain to be better addressed in Chinese digital library development:

  1. Lack of Overall Coordinated Planning and Collaboration

While there are many digital library projects currently in place or about to begin, there is an overall lack of information exchange and collaboration across these projects. Duplicate efforts on standards have been carried out in various projects, which may hurt the continued development in digital library implementation. There is also a lack of general guidance or overall planning of the digital library development from the central government.

  1. Lack of Open and Interoperable Standards

Standard practices need to be carried out across different digital libraries in resource production, description, organization, service and operation to guarantee the persistence and interoperability of digital library services. Such standard making efforts have been a bit late in Chinese digital library communities, and could result in a negative impact to continued development.

  1. Intellectual Rights in Digital Library Development

On one hand, digital library systems must provide adequate protection of the intellectual rights of the owners of digital resources. On the other hand, these systems must provide convenient and easy access for their user communities. A reasonable and effective approach must be established to balance these two aspects of library service. An effective solution for the protection of intellectual rights has been a bottleneck in digital library development in China. While most digital library implementations took appropriate consideration for the protection of intellectual rights, a lack of clear regulations for intellectual rights protection has limited the effective use of digital libraries in many ways, and could continue to hold back continued development.


5 Summary

With support at all levels of Chinese government, and with over ten years of investigation, research, experiment, and implementation, digital library development in China has seen great advances. Many national, regional, and commercial digital libraries systems have been established. A common understanding of the overall architectural framework of digital library systems has also been reached.

Constant improvement in computing, telecommunications, and information technology will keep broadening the coverage of digital library services, making them more flexible and more efficient. Collaboration across multiple research disciplines including, but not limited to, computer engineering and networking, library research and operation, sociology, and law and policy, will continue to form and help improve digital library services. Digital library systems, as a new form of information management and service, will continue to gain usage and increase in importance.


About the Author

Photo of Xihui Zhen Xihui Zhen is CEO of Content Digital Innovation Corp. (CDI), which was established in 2002. Mr. Zhen is the standing director of the Document Imaging Technology Association of China. His interests are in the fields of Library Automation Systems, Digital Library Systems and Services. He joined the National Library of China (NLC) in 1987 and has been involved in the development of various national digital library systems, including the Library Automation System of NLC, the NLC Digital Library Pilot System, and the Chinese Experimental Digital Library System. He was the technical director of the China Experimental Digital Library Project.
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