In the age of e-readers, tablets and smartphones, books have become something of an anachronism. When compared to hi-tech gadgets, they are bulky, expensive and often do not age well.
There are some however, who do not have access to computers or simply prefer the sensory experience of reading a real book to viewing one on a digital screen. No doubt some of those analogue holdovers work at the Yunnan Provincial Library (云南省图书馆).
The library was founded in 1909 in an attempt to catalogue and store literature and important documents from southwest China. The building was most recently renovated in 2004 at a cost of 150 million yuan (US$24 million) and now houses a collection of more than 2.6 million individual documents, books, paintings and prints.
With the renovation came an initiative to preserve and promote Yunnan's unique collection of cultures and traditions. Today the library archives contain important minority literature and scriptures in 17 languages native to Yunnan, including Dai, Hani, Naxi and Yi.
A visit to the library
Good books are often in short supply in the Spring City, so with an eye toward expanding our reading options, we visited the library earlier this week. After climbing an impressive set of stairs to the entrance, we entered the building's lofty atrium.
A loud and sharp-tongued woman greeted us and repeatedly demanded we check our bags. Upon finding we had laptops, she just as quickly told us the contents of our bags were too valuable for her to safeguard and sent us away. It was not the quiet reception we were expecting.
A door opening off the atrium led us to a small display room where dozens of landscape paintings, watercolors and calligraphy scrolls hung on the walls. They were the work of elderly local artists, many of whom greeted us enthusiastically as we entered. We were led on a quick and hushed tour of the collection and then asked to write comments in a book. "You can be critical!" a woman with a massive hairdo informed us. We were not.
The entrance level is actually the library's second floor. In addition to the exhibition space it also contains an information desk, children's reading room, Braille reading room, copy center and membership card counter.
The Chinese-language book collection occupies much of the third floor. Tables and reading rooms were packed with serious-looking students silently working. Excluding our initial run-in with the bag-check woman, the library was appropriately silent. When cell phones rang, their owners sprinted out of study rooms and looked for empty hallways.
The silence was nowhere more complete than in the newspaper room. About a dozen men sat reading papers from across the country, only breaking the silence to turn to the next page.
The foreign-language library is two floors up from the main entrance. Expecting to find a tiny, dim closet with a few dozen books, we were instead surprised to find a sunlit room with thousands of books in multiple languages. Most of the books are in English, but there are also titles in French, German, Japanese, Russian and Thai.
There are of course nicely-bound collections of the 'classics' – books by Austen, Conrad, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Proust and many others. But the room also contains an assortment of volumes on history, law, philosophy and art.
In the back of the room, away from the sunlight, sat several shelves of old books from the early twentieth century. We were told by a helpful bilingual staffer that these books cannot be checked out, but could be read in any of the library's many reading rooms.
If the foreign book collection was a bit of a surprise, the periodical room on the fifth floor was a revelation. There were dozens of current issue magazines we had previously thought to be unavailable anywhere in Yunnan.
Sharing the shelves with Time and Newsweek were copies of Harper's, The New Yorker, Discover, Nature and The Economist. The recent issue of The Economist with a cover story on China's presumptive leader Xi Jinping (习近平) was noticeably absent.
Current issues of magazines are not available for checkout but can be read in the room without showing a library membership card. Back issues of magazines are bound together and can be borrowed for a week.
All the foreign-language magazines were neatly displayed and in good condition. It was a bit strange then to see the Chinese magazines strewn seemingly at random on the floor in the middle of the room.
We left impressed. Thinking of libraries for us conjures up a specific set of images: spacious rooms, shelves overflowing with books and tranquil areas reserved for study. We were a bit apprehensive to see if the Provincial Library would live up to our expectations, but in the end it had much more to offer than we anticipated.
Hours and borrowing procedures
The Yunnan Provincial Library is open daily from 9am to 5pm. The foreign-language book section is open Monday through Saturday and has the same hours except on Fridays when it is open from 1-5pm.
Library cards are available to anyone with identification. Foreigners must pay a 500 yuan refundable deposit and cards are good for two years. There is a 30-day borrowing period for all books and a five book limit. Children's cards — for those 12 and under — require a 100 yuan deposit and are subject to a two book limit. Periodicals can be checked out for a week, three at a time.
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