Beautiful Libraries: National Library of China

The National Library of China is an absolute whopper! Home to 37 million items, open 365 days a year, and the front looks like the deck of the SS Enterprise. I visited it in 2016 and have finally got around to sharing the experience.

Beijing is the third largest city in the world with a population of over 21 million people. Sheltered on three sides by mountains and a certain wall, it’s been the political centre of China for most of the last 8 centuries.

People visit Beijing for various reasons. It’s home to 91 universities, the Forbidden City, and the bird’s nest stadium, created for the 2008 Olympic Games. Then there’s Tian’anmen Square, where citizens can see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, although I remember it for the man armed with two shopping bags, who stopped a tank in 1989.

But what I wanted to see most during my visit was the National Library of China, home to 37 million items – with an additional million items added each year. Fortunately, it’s open 365 days a year, although to get to it you need to cross an 8 lane highway that’s pretty chocker. Tranquil gardens calm you down at the entrance, but solitude is soon lost to the honking cars in rush hour traffic. Air pollution is a real problem in Beijing. Fortunately, there was no red warning during my visit in May 2016 as there would be towards the end of the year when a thick blanket of smog engulfed the city for five days.

The library is divided into levels. The base level contains the contemporary library with reading rooms and reference works. Its oldest collections are the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells, known as the Oracle Bones. These date back 3,000 years. But you can also find epigraphs and rubbings, ancient maps, documents in 123 foreign languages, and dissertations prescribed by the State Council.

Above this is a digital library whose resources exceed 1000Tera byte. This number is increased by 100 Tera byte each year. One digital element that stands out is the China Memory Project, which collects visual historical data and other new types of literature on major modern events and important figures in China. But if you do visit this, have a read of Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years – a dystopian narrative that you won’t find in any Chinese library, and which addresses a different aspect of Chinese memory – collective amnesia.

The long glass fronted top deck of the library faces the highway, making it stand out to passing traffic, presumably to lure you in. It’s a bit like the front of the SS Enterprise, with an earthquake-proof steel canopy keeping you secure.

Although the design is sleek, it’s defining characteristic is functional – presumably in order to accommodate the 12,000 visitors it receives each day. Everything in China is huge, and so too are the reading and research rooms. This is epitomised by the central study area as you enter the building. Books, file cabinets and draws adorn the outer perimeters, with seating areas out front looking down into the abyss. This is then repeated on descending levels until you reach the basement where rows of tables are perfectly aligned and constrained. It is basically an inflexible grid, a slave to mathematics and functionalism. If we are all products of our environment, then this environment demands discipline, logic and conformity.

As I made my way up the escalator to film the library I was immediately followed by some guards. But nobody stopped and asked me what I was doing. Presumably, I looked like an excited tourist and hadn’t broken any laws. Sometimes at iconic locations in China random people will come up to you and take a photograph whether you like it or not. Many are tourists themselves from other provinces and have never seen Westerners before, and so you find yourself a bit of a novelty. But in the library, people were only interested in the books. Always a good sign.

Libraries started to take off in China around the turn of the 20th century against the backdrop of reform, with the government of the Qing dynasty sent on diplomatic missions to Europe to understand the value of these intellectual spaces. Prominent exile Liang Qichao was particularly impressed by readers who did not steal books they had borrowed. I wonder what he would make of some British libraries today, who have adopted the attitude that if someone steals a book, they must really need it. Punitive measures are a waste of time.

The Metropolitan Library was established in 1909, with the Qing government realising the opportunities to promote national culture. Situated in the Beijing Guanghua temple, it was opened to the public on 27 August 1912, receiving its first legal deposits of publications in 1916. It would later be known as the National Peking Library, then Beijing Library, before it was moved to north of Purple Bamboo Park in Haidian District in 1989. It was renamed the National Library of China on 12 December 1998. Today it’s the third largest national library in the world, covering 280,000 square meters, costing 1 billion 235 million dollars to complete.

If you fancy visiting, get the subway unless you want to sit in traffic for hours. Lines 4 and 9 will deliver you calmly to this gigantic, beautiful modern library.

OTHER BEAUTIFUL LIBRARIES WE’VE VISITED

Central Library wish list

Artist impression of new building. Source Nottingham City Council: Get drooling…

Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature and the City Council are forming an innovative partnership to ensure the construction of the new Central Library has the potential to raise literacy levels, position the library as a focal point of the community, and build upon Nottingham’s rich literary history. These are issues very close to my heart. When I created Dawn of the Unread, a literary graphic novel exploring Nottingham’s literary history, it was very much a love letter to libraries and the potential of books to transform lives. Therefore, I was ridiculously excited to join in a consultation event hosted by Sandy Mahal and Nigel Hawkings at NTU. Here’s my top 5 wish list…

You and Mee (or Mee time or Mee, Myself and I or You get mee, etc)

Arthur Mee (21 July 1875 – 27 May 1943) is best known as the author of the Children’s Encyclopædia and The Children’s Newspaper, the first newspaper published for children. Born in Stapleford, he earned money as a teenager reading the reports of Parliament to a local blind man. All of which makes him perfect to be featured in some capacity at the library. In terms of literacy, teenagers could be encouraged to produce their own newspaper (digital or physical) to build on his legacy, possibly to be overseen by the Young Ambassadors. Or he could simply be recognised within the library in the children’s reading area ‘You and Mee’ as a means of cementing Nottingham’s rich history of encouraging young people to read.

The Human LibraryThe Human Library® is a brilliant concept whereby readers loan out humans and have conversations they would not normally have access to. The organisation was created in 2000 to create dialogue around difficult subjects. A variation on this (or partnership) could see skill-sharing sessions to help improve literacy levels. For example, specialists could lend their skills (I’m James and I specialise in producing digital heritage projects, loan me for 30 minutes for support on your ideas) or library users could request specialist ‘books’ (people) which could be sourced. Imagine young people actively seeking information on knife crime, difficulties at home and how to deal with them, help with homework, finding friends. The potential is massive. Given this organisation exists they would need to be consulted and partnered with.

Digital screens/Tik TokI recently visited Krakow, a fellow UNESCO City of Literature, and in one museum was a 360 degree screen telling the history of the city. A similar screen at the library could have multiple purposes in commissioning new work (which could address particular themes) as an information space, or to project new creative work self-generated by locals. One medium which would work well here is Tik Tok which is basically a 15 second platform that acts as a stage and positions the audience as performer. Content is quick and easy to create on your phone, feeds off of meme culture, and enables creative expression that is relevant to younger people. There is potential to curate ‘best of’ sessions, again possibly run by the Young Ambassadors. A good starting point for ideas would be Nick Robertson, the BBC’s social media content producer who was discovered making snapchat videos about his life working in Starbucks. The fact that all people above 30 will probably hate this medium is the exact reason it should be embraced.

Library AppNow is the time to bring the library card into the 21st century with an app that enables users to visualise their reading history. Whether we like it or not apps provide simple ways of monitoring and motivating behaviour. A FitBit tells you how far you’ve walked, Netflix algorithms tell you what to watch next, etc. A library app could perform similar functions and act as a digital guide. I’ve been teaching a module at an international college for 10 years where I get students to design a mobile app. Overwhelmingly 85% of them come up with an app that shows them how to do things… There is also opportunities or partnerships here with Vue cinema in the neighbouring Broadmarsh Centre. When you get out your first six books, you get a free cinema ticket…

Confessional boothI’ve used booths before in various projects such as the East Midlands Heritage Awards and they always work because people love talking one to one. A digital booth in the library would allow readers to share their favourite books or characters. These could be projected onto digital screens, linked to an app, or simply viewed in the booth. This idea builds on the readers recommendations you see in places like Waterstones. But more importantly it shows young people that their opinions and ideas are valued. It is one of numerous ways to build an inclusive community.

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website on 9 March 2020. You can subscribe to their newsletter here. James and Paul are currently working on Dawn of the Unread II: Whatever People Say I Am, a graphic novel serial challenging stereotypes.

Paint a Vulgar Picture with DH Lawrence – D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage

burning-photograph dhl
Design by James Walker.

A friend of mine recently splashed out on a painting by the Nottingham-born artist Paul Waplington. Naturally, this gave me an excuse to photocopy a short essay by Lawrence called Pictures on the Wall and post it through her letterbox. ‘The human race loves pictures,’ declares Lawrence, ‘barbarians or civilised, we are all alike, we straightway go to look at a picture if there is a picture to look at’. This is perfectly true, although my first port of call for distraction and stimulation is the contents of a bookshelf. I remember once being shown around a house I was interested in buying, and being put off by the seller’s book collection. I just couldn’t bring myself to live in a space that had housed such a shabby collection of fiction. My partner at the time was appalled by what she perceived as my lack of sincerity. But I was deadly serious. The space had been polluted and I didn’t want to catch anything. We split up a year or so later.

Lawrence is fascinated by the pictures we hang on our walls. But needless to say they bring as much pleasure as pain. He takes particular offence at painting that have been hanging around for a long time as they represent ‘sheer inertia’ and a ‘staleness in the home is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. He uses an analogy of fashion to explain these sentiments. Fashion in clothes changes because ‘we ourselves change, in the slow metamorphosis of time,’ consequently it is hard to imagine ourselves in the clothes we bought six years ago because we have since become different people. This is true, although fashion is also a process of aesthetic obsolescence that keeps the greasy wheels of capitalism turning.

Our reason for buying paintings, he argues, is that the painting somehow reflect or respond to some feeling in us. But as we grow (or age) these feelings change. If our feeling for a picture are superficial, our feelings for the picture wears away quickly. This is definitely true and I witness this every year when there’s a poster sale outside Nottingham Trent University for the latest batch of students. There’s only so long you can have a poster of a ‘doh’ing Homer Simpson, Bob Marley toking on a joint, or Tupac ‘God rest his soul’ Shakur on your wall before you feel a bit silly.

Lawrence, as subtle as a flying brick, has a simple solution for dealing with unwanted unfeeling pictures: Burn them.

Now this might seem extreme at first, and it is, but that’s because Lawrence doesn’t like art that’s reduced to materialism. ‘It is fatal to look on pictures as pieces of property. Pictures are like flowers, that fade sooner or later, and die, and must be thrown in the dustbin and burnt’. A picture, therefore, is only useful when it is ‘fresh and fragrant with attraction’. Once the aesthetic emotion is dead, the picture is no more than ‘a piece of ugly litter’.

And there’s more…

It’s a fallacy to see a picture as part of the architectural structure of a house, as somehow opening up the walls and functioning with the same purpose as say, the fire. Oh no. ‘The room exists to shelter and house us, the picture exists only to please us.’ Pictures are decoration, nothing more.

It’s at this point that a lot of readers probably pack in reading this six page essay. Life is too short to be scalded for having a painting on your wall for a decade. Some, good to his word, may even set Lawrence’s essay on fire. But try to have the one thing that Lawrence lacks, patience. He’s toying with you. He’s slowly building up to a bigger idea on how to make art more accessible to the masses. And to do this he brings in the example of public libraries.

In the 18th century books were very expensive. If you asked a gentleman whether he had read so and so he would most likely reply ‘I have a fine example in folio in my library’. Books being expensive rendered them a form of property, thereby overwhelming ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was only the development of the lending library system that changed the direction of the conversation to the contents of the book, the pleasure of reading for readings sake. ‘The great public was utterly deprived of books till books ceased to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.

Lawrence argues that the same principles apply to art as long as a ‘picture is regarded as a piece of property, and not as a source of aesthetic emotion.’ He suggests that we need a Circulating Picture scheme that follows the principles of the library, where we can hire pictures as we hire books until we’ve ‘assimilated their content’. Obviously he doesn’t offer any practical advice on how to implement such an arrangement, but the sentiments are honourable.

LORD-BIRO
In 2010 Lord Biro and me created a ‘recession-busting’ Hirst skull covered in jelly tots. You can read about it here. Photo Aly Stoneman.

Money is always a corrupting influence for Lawrence, and he suspects that a man who pays a hundred pounds for a canvas is doing it in the secret belief, or hope, that one day it will be worth thousands of pounds. The world of modern art supports these accusations, not least the vulgarity of Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. But I think Lawrence’s arguments don’t necessarily apply to my friend. She hasn’t purchased her Waplington painting for financial reward, she’s bought it because he’s a local artist and, perhaps, it helps her feel a sense of home, within her home. And she certainly wouldn’t burn it because that’s wasteful and she’s someone who thinks about her impact on the planet. I’m quite sure she didn’t bother to read Lawrence’s essay on paintings but this doesn’t matter. If we’re still friends in ten years and the Waplington is still on her wall, I’ll post another copy through her door.

In 2019 Paul Fillingham and me will be creating a DH Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will include artefacts that address aspects of Lawrence’s life. Perhaps ‘Pictures on the Wall’ will be one of these artefacts. If you’d like to get involved and have any suggestions,  please submit your ideas here.

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Source: #MondayBlogs Paint a Vulgar Picture with DH Lawrence – D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage

Nottingham Council on the future of Central Library

The following Q&A was produced by Nottingham City Council. If you would like to respond with a separate blog, please get in contact.

Nottingham City Council has in principal agreed to explore the opportunity to redevelop the site working with a developer. If we are able to agree a sale, this would include investment to provide an updated central library facility which otherwise we couldn’t do. We understand people’s concerns about the sale and where the library will go – below is some information to provide reassurance that there is a commitment to developing a new Central Library and an outline of the early proposals to make that happen.

Is the council fully committed to keeping Central Library open?
Yes.
This council absolutely recognises the value of libraries, both as community hubs and to help improve literacy and provide internet access for many who don’t have it themselves – that’s why we’re committed to not just keeping the Central Library open, but to investing in it so it remains open, relevant and popular for many years to come. We’re proud of Nottingham’s great literary heritage and our status as a UNESCO City of Literature. Our track record in recent years shows investment in modern neighbourhood libraries including Bulwell, Hyson Green and St Ann’s, often in new joint service centres which encourages more people to use them. This is in contrast to some councils facing budget cuts which have carried out large reductions in library provision to make savings. Bucking that trend, Nottingham City Council’s ruling Labour Group has had a commitment in its last two manifestos to develop the Central Library, and this is now part of the Council Plan.

Is it true Central Library is closing and being turned into offices?
No. That’s only half a story.
We are investing in new Central Library facilities through a deal which will also see new offices developed. The council has approved in principal the disposal of the Angel Row library site to developers Henry Boot Developments Ltd which would provide funding for the council to reinvest in a new and updated library facility. It also paves the way for an increase in Grade A office space to be created, meeting the demand for top quality office space in the city centre and keeping office development in the city centre where it needs to be.

Isn’t this deal more focused on office space?
No. This deal means we can build a new library at virtually no cost to local taxpayers.
This is a good deal for Nottingham and local library users. At a time when we are facing huge Government cuts to our budgets, we have to find imaginative ways to raise capital to fund ambitious plans for Nottingham and without this deal with Henry Boot Development Ltd, we wouldn’t be in a position to develop new Central Library facilities. With it, we have certainty that we can meet our commitment to develop Central Library facilities to meet modern standards and expectations. It also helps to meet the demand for top quality office space in the city – and it delivers a new Central Library at virtually no cost to local taxpayers.

Why does the library need developing?
To create a library fit for the 21st century.
The current library is not fit for purpose. The needs of library users are changing but this site is tired and not very adaptable to those changing needs. Modern central libraries should be a destination which attracts large numbers of people not only to borrow free books, but to access a wide range of services including learning, business intelligence, job clubs, literacy development and access to PCs and wi-fi, research archives, get help using new technology and so much more. Our proposals will give Central Library users the 21st century facility they deserve.

Will Central Library remain in Angel Row?
That’s the plan.
Our focus at the moment is on providing upgraded Central Library facilities on the existing site, but there are other options we are exploring to see if better value and a better outcome can be achieved.

How long will the development take and will services continue while work is underway?
It’s too early to say.
It is too early to say precisely how long the development will take, given that plans have not yet been submitted. While negotiations progress we will be looking at options that enable us to continue providing some Central Library services, but it won’t be a like-for-like service during this interim period. A number of approaches could be followed, all of which will be looked at, and it is important that we consider how we can enable people to use their local neighbourhood libraries to gain better access to the Central Library stock.

Will there be consultation on the proposals?
Absolutely.
Proposals are at a very early stage but we will of course consult with people in due course when our proposals are more refined.

Are there any details yet about the Angel Row development?
Yes.
The scheme will deliver a new Grade A office development of over 100,000sq ft. The proposal seeks to retain the existing façade facing Angel Row. It will also provide free space within the proposed new development, together with a £3m capital contribution, that can be used to provide a new Central Library within the Angel Row development. There will also be new retail units on the ground floor. A planning application has yet to be submitted.

Is there a chance the library element of the scheme is dropped?
No.
There is a clear commitment by the Labour Party and by the Council to provide a Central Library for the City.

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Today a meeting was held with Councillor David Trimble. Dawn of the Unread were invited but we were unable to attend. We will release more information soon.

Central Library Nottingham site sold off to Property Developer

Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

In the opening issue of Dawn of the Unread we made some subtle observations about the state of British Libraries. Our intention was to ask whether libraries could still be a focal point of the local community. We suggested that on a political level, libraries weren’t valued. This was represented by a hideous hybrid called the Cleggeron (representing the then coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg) whose favourite game was smashing up libraries.

bobins
Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

On an educational level we see a young teenager being dragged to the library, complaining ‘they’re boring and full of oldies.’ Our intention here was to think about how young people perceive libraries. When the teenager is given a copy of Dawn of the Unread and discovers that quite a bit has gone on in Nottingham he complains ‘My school is bobbins. They don’t teach us owt good like this.’ The implication here is that our cultural partnerships need to be better joined up and support each other. A thirst for knowledge at school leads to a thirst to learn more through books and engagement with extra curricular activities. According to an essay in Standing up for Education (2016),  50,000 teachers quit last year due to stress and the pressures of micro management. Teachers are vital in raising the aspirations of teenagers, so give them the time to do it!

es-tesco
Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

We included future predictions for libraries when our heroine Edith Slitwell has to check out her book using a Tesco style self-service machine which bleeps ‘unexpected genre in the bagging area.’ The slow erosion of humans from all areas of work is gaining momentum and libraries will be no different. Money is being saved through reduced opening hours. With this in mind we had our heroine informed that she would have to leave the building as it was shutting soon. Originally I’d wanted a sign on the library wall saying ‘opening hours 2pm -2.30pm’ but it was lost in the edit.

I mention this as it has just been announced that the Central Library site has been sold off to a property developer for 4 million. The council have put out an ambiguous statement of intent and consequently it is leading to a lot of concern. The Nottingham Writers’ Studio have quickly reacted and created a small group of interested parties who will be meeting with Councillor David Trimble to express their concerns. We have been invited to join in this conversation and will report back once we have some solid facts on exactly where the library will live.

ctax.jpg
Issue 4 of Dawn of the Unread.

I have long been highly critical of Central Library. It is an ugly and depressing building in much need of a makeover and may very well benefit from being embedded inside a new fancy pants building. But it is called Central Library for a reason, so I do hope that the Council remember this so that it doesn’t have to be renamed ‘tucked away in one of those Sneinton Market huts that nobody uses on the outskirts of town library.’

In our Gotham Fool issue I stipulated to writer Adrian Reynolds that his narrative must mention that Central Library is a one stop centre where you can also pay your council tax. Originally, I was disgusted by this. I felt it devalued knowledge. But three years on I’ve changed my mind. Proximity may very well be the best way to encourage access to books and computers, films and music.     .

Dawn of the Unread was always meant to be a dialogue about the role of libraries. The reason that we are donating one copy of our book to every library in Nottingham is to support them. To help create conversations. To celebrate the very many positive things that have come out of Nottingham. The book is published by Spokesman Press, part of the Bertrand Russell Foundation. It was important our publisher reflected values we believe in as well as having a local connection. We sincerely hope that issues raised in our 16 part serial are taken into consideration by the Council in these very difficult times. We’re already witnessing a high rate of homeless people back on the streets, will we start to see books made homeless as well? And what will follow after that?

There are currently talks to hold a peaceful demonstration some time in December. Hopefully a silent sit in, like our reading flashmob a few years ago. We’ll post more information as and when this is confirmed through our Twitter account. @Dawnoftheunread.

Further reading