Pascal’s place


Views on technology and libraries

Visit with School of Information Science and Technology, East China Normal University

On Friday we visited faculty of the School of Information Science and Technology, East China Normal University as well as several staff of the University Library.

Established in 2001, the School of Information Science and Technology Institute includes the departments of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Technology and the Communication Engineering and Computer Center.

Within the research academy of engineering, they focus on establishing a science research and teaching system in the field of information and technology; forming a graduate education base; becoming a research link from basic theory; software and hardware design; application to product development; building an interdisciplinary group network, including new material; functional devices; communication and information; computer software; chip design; and complex systems.

This was the largest group we’ve met during the delegation, with seven members from the Library and another three from the School. I personally got the most relevant to my areas of interest with this meeting out of any of the delegation meetings.

The session started with an overview of the Library, after we finished introductions and some general discussion of the delegation’s areas of interest. The Library is a large one, with 143 staff, collections in excess of 4 million printed volumes, 1.3 million e-books, 1 million e-dissertations, and a suite of sophisticated web-based services spanning their III Millennium ILS, a federated search system, citation linking, and significant resource discovery and digitization programs.

I learned definitively that there is no credentialing system in place for those professionals who work in academic (and other) libraries in China, and that orientation to the profession and practices of library work is highly localized, with each library being responsible for this following a new hire. A Director of the Systems Division for the Library attended this meeting, and so I established a contact that I can follow up with for more information on the staff in his Division. Generally speaking, the Division there and in Systems divisions in libraries hires staff trained in computer science, information technology and information management.


Filed under: librarianship, travel reports

Beijing Cultural Day: visit to Tian’an Men Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China

This past Wednesday was our cultural day for seeing some of the significant cultural sites in and around Beijing. The bus first left us off adjacent to Tian’an Men Square (yes, it is officially this and not the Tiananmen Square as we know it in the West), the world’s largest square which can hold more than one million people. I had hoped to be able to visit the mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong, which is also on the Square, but in recent years one needs to bring official documentation (in our case, passports) and queue up several hours to file past Mao’s body, so we had to miss this unfortunately. The Chinese people still revere Mao for his leadership and accomplishments, and on this morning there were many people obviously from the rural areas in Beijing to see Mao’s embalmed body. We did get a group photo on the Square, which I will digitize and update this post when I get back home to Indiana.

From here, we walked across the remainder of the Square and towards the gates of the Forbidden City, which from the fifteenth century until 1911 was the exclusive residence of the Emperor of China and his thousands of concubines, eunuchs and senior staff. The nearly 9,000 buildings in the Forbidden City are slowly being restored to their former glory after being neglected from 1911 to sometime in the 1970s when the Chinese government recognized the value of the City as a tourist destination and cultural heritage gem. The Forbidden City these days is known as the Palace Museum, open to everyone and chronicling this most important of Imperial China’s splendour. We walked through the Gates of Heaven and succeeding gates through to the places immortalized in Bertolucci’s wonderful film, The Last Emperor. I was in absolute awe. I never had thought that I’d ever see this in person, and was absolutely delighted with the experience. The scale, grandeur and extreme sophistication of the buildings we toured was breathtaking. I understand about 500 of the nearly 9,000 buildings have been restored to date, and as I thought about the need for whole new specializations in architectural antiquity preservation and restoration I realized what a daunting task this was. We only got to spend about 2.5 hours in the Forbidden City, and if I ever come back here, I’ll set aside a couple days to explore the huge compound.

For lunch, we went to one of Beijing’s Friendship Stores upstairs to have lunch. After lunch, we had some time for shopping in the state-run large store, mostly of Chinese cultural souvenirs, artwork and jewellery. I picked up a few things, and then we were off to the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China. Several miles outside of northwest Beijing, this was the section of the wall that President Barack Obama visited in a 2009 visit of China. There are actually two paths one can take at this section of the wall, an easy route and a hard route. I and another delegate chose the easy route, and started our trek up the wall.

After walking a few minutes on this, I was thoroughly winded. This section of the wall was about 10-12 feet wide, and follows the contours of the geography that it goes over, with extreme inclines and descents as one might expect in this part of China’s mountainous regions. The width of the wall would make a possible military highway for Chinese imperial troops, but boy would this be hard work moving men and supplies for very long. Added to this, along the wall are battlements every few hundred meters or so, and these only allow enough space for an average man to pass through. So why then did they make the Wall so wide? The wall is an average of 3-4 metres high at least in this section of it, and this was the main disincentive for troops outside of China’s northern borders for getting in. Approximately 5,500 miles in length, the Wall was not usually manned except in particular sections that had active battles/skirmishes ongoing. So we got to the third battlement, and the next section looked incredibly gruelling, so we decided to stop, take photographs and enjoy the scenery for a few minutes before heading back.

We headed back to the hotel after this thoroughly enjoyable day. Dinner was at a nearby restaurant with reasonable prices, excellent service and decor and good food although somewhat bland to my taste. I prefer fiery Sichuan, and there was none to be had on this menu, unfortunately.

Filed under: librarianship, travel reports

Information control in China: some observations

This past Wednesday, a national day of mourning was observed for the 2800 dead in the recent earthquakes in western China. At 10:00 am China time (there is one time zone for the entire country), three minutes of reflection were held nationwide, which also encouraged people in cars to honk their horns and otherwise make much noise in the observance of this. Most interestingly, for the entire day the government decreed that all entertainment of any kind should not be held — no movies, no arts & culture or popular performances, no televised entertainment, and, very interestingly, no internet entertainment!

Turning on HBO and CineMax in our Beijing hotel room on Wednesday brought up a notice that programming was not available in observance of the national day of mourning. BBC World News was still available, as was CNN, but other television channels of the CCTV (Chinese government television service) all had the same programming on, covering memorial services around the country and later a ‘telethon’ event that raised over 2.2 billion yuan (approximately US$275 million) over the course of the day, pledged by Chinese throughout the country. Stories of workers donating their wages for the day to the relief and reconstruction effort were reported in the newspapers the following day.

It was interesting to observe the singular national focus on this and the solidarity the Chinese people felt for their fellow citizens suffering from the devestation in western China. It was also amazing how the government could fairly easily control news media throughout the country and even block satellite content from outside China as well as internet sites and services that constituted entertainment.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others are blocked here in China (these blog posts are posted automatically to my Facebook profile page, which is why those of you discovering them from Facebook can see these). Google’s site redirects to Google’s site in Hong Kong. There are conspicuous surveillance cameras wherever one goes. It strikes one as a fairly controlled society in some things, and in others it seems very much like an open capitalist country with flourishing commerce. It doesn’t quite feel like the paternalism that we see in Singapore, but it is, as our guide mentioned, “socialist centralism” (as it is now officially known in China) in terms of political and social environment.

Filed under: librarianship, travel reports

Meetings with China Science and Technology Information Institute and College of Information Science and Technology, Beijing Normal University

On Tuesday, we had two meetings, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We first met with the China Science and Technology Information Institute. Founded in 1956, the China Science and Technology Information Institute is a state-level nonprofit research institution directly under the Ministry of National Science and Technology.

The institute is mainly engaged in information analysis; providing scientific and technological information services; promoting and developing new technology; personal training and continuing education, etc. Within the last 50 years, the China Science and Technology Information Institute has made great contributions to S&T information business, and have received several awards.

Interestingly, the Institute also has graduate and post-graduate programs in Information Science, something that we do not typically see in the west for scientific institutes. They sponsor faculty and students for foreign study exchanges also, and host students and faculty from outside of China to teach and study at the Institute as well. They also have a publications division that publishes and is responsible for several academic journals, meeting proceedings and other publications in the area of information and library science.

This meeting was quite different from our meeting at the library of the CAS on Monday in that almost all of the communication was performed through an interpreter. We found out later that the staff there had good facility in English but that because they were officially representing the government of China they communicated in Chinese.

In the afternoon, we visited the Beijing Normal University’s College of Information Science and Technology. The predecessor of the Information Science and Technology School of Beijing Normal University is the wireless electronics subject in the Physics Department, which has recruited students since 1964. The Wireless Electronics Department was established in 1980, and over the next several years also included education technology and computer science; and the School of Information Science and Technology soon followed. Throughout these changes, the curriculum evolved as well.

Currently the College of Information Science and Technology consists of two departments and many science research centers, specifically the electronics science and technology and the computer science and technology department. Students can receive a Bachelor’s degree in either Electronics Science or Computer Science or a Master’s in Communication and Information Systems, Signal and Information Processing, Computer Software and Theory, Computer Applied Technology, Computer Architecture, and Pattern Recognition and Intelligent Systems. There are 433 undergraduate and 170 graduate students currently enrolled.

The school encourages the students to actively participate in scientific research and innovation activities, as well as various competitions. In recent years, students have published more than 130 academic articles and have won over 90 internal and external awards, but participating in contests including; the National Undergraduate Electronic Design contest; Mathematical Modeling and Computer Application Competition; English Contests; and the Students Entrepreneurship Contest.

This was our first visit to an LIS school, and we met with two faculty members and one student who was in his second year of a Master’s level program at the College. Interestingly, most of the focus here was on undergraduate education, with many of the students having strong computer programming components of the curriculum, information management/engineering, and what we would consider non-traditional library areas in North America. Many of their students after graduation work in the private sector for search engine companies such as Baidu, which has a much larger visibility and usage in China than Google does. I exchanged cards with the faculty members and look forward to finding out more about their course offerings at the College. They do have graduate programs in information science and library science both. It seems that positions at academic libraries are highly sought after in China, so often students with advanced subject degrees are selected for subject librarian positions. There is no established credential for working as a ‘librarian’ in China, and new employees go through a training program in their new position to contextualize the work for the new employee, including teaching them what they may need to know about the work of libraries.

Filed under: librarianship, travel reports

Credentialing information professionals: the context of technology professionals in academic research libraries

I’m going to be leading a discussion on the formal and informal education of systems librarians later today when we visit the College of Information and Library Science at Beijing Normal University, and I’ve been thinking about what the crux of the main issues are to try to really focus discussion on areas that really invite collaborative thinking and work on this.

We touched very briefly on the issue of credentialling yesterday at our meeting at the National Science Library of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and there is interest from our Chinese colleagues in looking more closely at competency standards that have been established by Special Libraries Association, ALA and others.

The issue from my standpoint is that I think we are nearing a crossroads in the utility of the traditional MLS in providing a solid foundation for information professionals who are responsible for library technology systems and services in research libraries. I am very fortunate to have a very talented staff of 9 others in our Library Information Systems department, with only myself and one other librarian. These talented computer science-educated staff add huge value every day with building, assessing, implementing, upgrading, maintaining, key information systems and services that further the mission of the library and the academy in which we serve. They do remarkably well in learning about libraries, our standards, mission and values, and act in concert with these with some context setting and occasional guidance from myself and our other systems librarian. What value would be added for some of these folks to get MLS degrees? Would it help them “go to the next level” in their work?

In libraries we are very concerned about the socialization process of bringing people into the library profession, and in some cases, I think this is to the detriment of the capability of the people we are able to attract to given positions. It was quite striking for me yesterday with the CAS library and the focus on advanced subject degrees and immersion in the research process, but without formal library credentials. These people are acting as subject librarians and information analysts for their own areas, and bringing a lot of credibility to the scientists and graduate students in which they serve. An interesting comment from the Executive Director in terms of outcomes: we are successful to the extent we provide satisfying (also implying strong outcomes) services to the scientists, graduate students, and scientific institutions which we serve. I can’t think of a more user-focused statement than that, and I was impressed.

I am optimistic in some of the new so-called iSchools programs, such as the University of Toronto’s ALA-accredited Master of Information, which offers course content of “information-focused fields of study from various disciplinary and professional viewpoints”. There is an approved track “Information Systems and Design” with core required courses in database modelling and design, systems requirements and architecture design and such, which is positive in adding technical capacity.

One area I am particularly interested in is the process of decisioning ongoing professional education and skill enhancement for information professionals here in China. In libraries in the US and Canada, the individual has to take a lot of personal responsibility in keeping their skills honed and identify areas to develop new skills that further the goals of their organization. To a large degree, most libraries are able to provide a modest level of financial support in these endeavours, with individuals having to contribute some themselves. I don’t know if the individual as as much responsibility for these here in China, which is something I’d like to explore in today’s discussion.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Found my Beijing soul kitchen

When I travel to new places, I always try to find places to eat off the beaten path that are authentic. Simple, good food, unpretentious, I’m looking for a soul kitchen!

Well, we found one of those last evening. About a ten minute walk from our hotel down a side street, this place was packed, which is usually a good indication of excellent food and value. I’ll call it “Cafe of Chairman Mao.” A tiny place with seating for perhaps 20-25, this place had wonderful Sichuan dishes and many, many posters of the Chairman from his young days as a Communist guerilla leader in the late 1920s and 1930s while fighting the Kuomintang, through a photograph of him speaking at a rally during 1949, the year the People’s Republic of China was established, and then Cultural Revolution period of the late 1960s. They even has a gold-colored statue of Chairman Mao with his hand outstretched and smiling by the front counter. Anyhow, this place was it. Filled with locals, we ordered two litre bottles of Tsingtao beer, a deal at 4RMB each (US$0.50), and then started going through the menu. There was some confusion on our part at the beginning as our waitress brought two bottles and wanted us to choose from them for some reason. I think she wanted to know whether we wanted chilled or non-chilled beer, but we just smiled and indicated these were fine. No English in there, but lots of pictures in the menu and prices clearly marked. We chose a hotpot of what looked to be squid (RMB48/$US5.75), although with cartilage still attached we couldn’t actually verify what it was, but it was delicious nonetheless. Also two bowls of white rice (1RMB/US$0.12), and another Sichuan dish that was finely ground beef (RMB18/US$2.25), ginger, bamboo shoots, leek, and lots of 1cm pieces of hot peppers in both of these. Absolutely wonderful food, and a deal at 76RMB/US$9.50 for the both of us. We left a tip of 10RMB/US$1.25 and left completely happy with the experience.

We have one more meal in Beijing that is on our own for Wednesday’s dinner and I’ll try to get some other adventurous delegates to make a return trip with me, and will take photos this time!

Filed under: Uncategorized

Meeting summary: Chinese Academy of Sciences Library

Today we had meetings with the executive staff of the National Science Library of China (NSLC), Chinese Academy of Sciences library, in Beijing. NSLC is the public library service system of CAS, as well as the National Library of Sciences in the Chinese National Sciences and Technology Libraries (NSTL) system. Under a Board of Trustees appointed by CAS, NSLC consists of a Main Library (based in Beijing, formerly the Library of CAS) and three branch libraries.

NSLC functions as the key library nationally, for collecting information resources and providing information services in natural sciences, inter-disciplinary fields, and high tech fields, to researchers and students of CAS and for researchers around the country. It also conducts services such as information analysis, digital library system development, scientific publication (with its 14 journals), and promotion of sciences. It also operates the Archives of CAS.

NSLC has a staff over 370, and a collection of about 11.5 million items. In recent years, it has acquired or developed more than 30 databases, covering over 5,000 foreign STM full text journals, 11,000 Chinese full text journals, 80,000 foreign theses and dissertations, 180,000 e-books, and an increasing numbers of full text proceedings and reference books, all of which are accessible from 108 CAS Institutes in over 32 cities in China. NSLC provides an interlibrary loan system, connecting every CAS institute, as well as connecting to NSTL and major academic libraries. In addition, NSLC has developed many innovative services and tools, such as cross-database searching, integrated journal browsing, online reference, subject portals, remote and mobile authentication, and the ScienceChina system, that incorporates abstracts, citations, and full text of key Chinese scientific literature.

There were a number of striking things with this meeting. First, the Executive Director of the NSLC was completely fluent in English, having been educated with an MLS and Ph.D. at Columbia University’s library school back in the late 1980s. He gave an excellent presentation on “Toward Knowledge-Based Information Professionals”, which outlined the NSLC’s programmes and capability in two periods, first from 2001-2006 and second, since that time. The NSLC supports 30,000 scientists and 40,000 graduate students in the areas of basic sciences, life sciences, geologic science, and technology, and provides a sophisticated suite of services to these clientele. They build scientometric analysis systems and services, current awareness, federated searching, a union catalog representing over 500 libraries in China, embedded library services and librarians (although these subject librarians do not have library science credentials) in China’s many scientific institutes, and a number of sophisticated desktop integration and other user point-of-need systems and services.

I was very impressed with the breadth and sophistication of the services offered, and it was interesting that they are very focused and intentional in serving the needs of scientists with the goal of helping them identify and innovate in new areas of research across these disciplines. They have both subject specialists as well as information analysts, and 93% of their subject specialists have science/technology/medicine (STM) backgrounds,with over 70% of them having Masters or Ph.D. subject degrees, and an even higher percentage of these for the information analysts. The one major difference these have from North American research libraries is the fact that these subject librarians and information analysts are not required to have library science degrees. It seems in North American academic libraries, we are much more concerned with having the library science credential and people socialized into the profession, and here in China they are much more outcomes oriented in terms of maximizing the contribution and sophistication of service that these subject specialists have on the research enterprise. I sometimes wonder if academic librarians in our institutions would be more credible if we had advanced subject degrees; it seems like here they can and are, so the question to ask is for some of our subject disciplines that are particularly complex, should an MLS be required over a candidate who has advanced subject degrees and still some socialization into the library profession?

The NSLC also is very outcomes oriented, which surprised me. Merit increases are tied to the success of the scientists that the subject specialists/information analysts serve,and if goals are not met, then their job isnot thought to be complete, and they must continue to work on this.

All of this has compelling implications for innovation in science & technology for China. It is interesting that these resources are being focused on enabling research outcomes.I think that our national science libraries focus more on collecting scholarly and research resources and providing access to them. The National Library here has this but focuses on making science happen much more intentionally. The thought of a nation of 1 billion focused on scientific innovation outcomes will pose a significant challenges to the more developed G8 nations, I can imagine.

We also spent time in discussing future collaboration between the NSLC and ASIS&T (Nancy Roderer is a Past President of ASIS&T) and SLA (one of our delegates is current President of SLA), and of staff exchanges between China and the United States. Some wonderful opportunities here for US libraries to host Chinese professionals!

Tomorrow we have two visits: the China Science & Technology Information Institute in the morning, and the College of Information Science & Technology at Beijing Normal University in the afternoon.

Filed under: librarianship, travel reports

Finally in Beijing!

We finally arrived in Beijing after an 11 hour 20 minute flight from San Francisco on one of United’s 747s. It actually went faster than I thought it might, although I am pretty close to zombiehood right now, with my body being up for going on 19 hours. Maybe its also the ozone I’ve been sucking in since arrival. The Beijing airport is impressive, hugely impressive, even. On the plane was an interesting Discovery Channel segment on a massive 3,340 ft bridge completed about a year ago in Hong Kong, called the Stonecutter’s Bridge. China seems to really revel in engineering feats. This bridge is one example; the massive Beijing airport, which is apparently the world’s largest by some measure, is another. Beijing has a population of 18 million with four million cars (hence the pollution), and Shanghai has 19 million. Next week in Shanghai, we’ll be stopping by the Shanghai 2010 Expo grounds, which open May 1st.

For now, I sip my Tsingtao and contemplate a nap before dinner.

Filed under: librarianship, travel reports

People to People delegation on “Educating the Information Professions” in China

So, last October I received a letter inviting me to be a part of a delegation of library and information science practitioners and teaching faculty that would be visiting with colleagues in China to discuss “educating the information professions” in our respective countries. This was proposed and being led by Nancy Roderer, Director of the Welch Biomedical Library at Johns Hopkins University, who happens to be my first mentor and Director that I worked for (at Yale’s medical library, back in 1995-1997), fresh out of library school. Wow, what an opportunity, but how to come up with the money for this in a short time frame?

So I wrote a grant proposal to the in-house grant program that we have at the Hesburgh Libraries at Notre Dame, which provides funding for research in librarianship for its library faculty. I proposed to study and contrast the formal and informal education of systems librarians in the United States and Canada with those of China. Those of us in the sub-discipline of systems librarianship know how much of an ad-hoc process it can be to actually get into this role in libraries, and despite more technology focus than ever before in LIS programs, we still talk much about the ‘accidental systems librarian’, one who through a confluence of technical skills, learning ability, intellectual curiosity and need, gravitates towards roles in providing support for library computing infrastructure in the institutions in which we serve. I’m intrigued whether this has been formalized any more in professional programs than when I went through my studies (McGill MLIS ’95). I’ve also been reading up on the idea of ‘communities of practice’, and I think there are some excellent examples of where communities within the sub-discipline of systems librarianship come together and organically form themselves into an intentional community of practice, where the informal education along with a group of peers bridges the gap between the formal education one receives in MLS and related programs, and the practical hard and soft skills one needs to be a successful systems librarian, for example in a higher education institution in North America.

Take the Code4Lib community, for example, a group of library computing professionals (not all degreed librarians, which is important to note) that are engaged with the possibility and practice of leveraging open source software to provide solutions for library needs. This is quite an interesting ‘community of practice’ in that it grew up organically from within systems librarianship, first with a mailing list, and IRC channel and a website, and then with a major national annual meeting that regularly sells out and has more recently spawned a whole host of regional Code4Lib meetings through the US, Canada and Europe.

So what is so interesting about all of this? Well, for one there continues to be a dearth of published research on the topic of systems librarianship. Its important to understand the role of systems librarians within the context of libraries and where they can best contribute, particularly when technology approaches in libraries seems to be accelerating. We have a handful of good books on the subject, beginning with Tom Wilson’s excellent 1998 work “The Systems Librarian: Designing Roles, Defining Skills” and Rachel Singer Gordon’s more recent “The Accidental Systems Librarian”, and then perhaps a dozen articles, but that’s pretty much it. Tom’s work posits that there have been systems librarians since the last 1960s and although they have had various titles, they have cluster of important characteristics, skills and roles within libraries, and as technology changes the titles change but the raison d’etre for the position remains largely the same: enabling the use of technology to support the mission of the library and the communities in which the library serves.

The combination of examining these questions within the context of a rapidly emergent nation such as China, and the increasingly significant state-directed information industry there seemed even more interesting to me. If we have developed some of these norms of defining what the sub-discipline of systems librarianship over the course of the past 40 years in North America, what is the experience of this like in China, where modern library and information science only began following the ‘Great Reforms’ of the 1980s in deconstructing the Cultural Revolution period (1966-1975) which severely damaged higher education institutions in China. To what extent are the roles of the equivalent of systems librarians in Chinese libraries equivalent to those of their colleagues in North America, and what is the mix of formal and informal education for successful members of these roles, and to what extent are there communities of practice around systems librarianship in China?

I’ll be exploring these issues on my visit to China with the delegation, April 17-26 in our visits to six library organizations and schools in Beijing and Shanghai. I will document and share my thoughts as much as I can here throughout this trip, and welcome your comments and insights as I do so.

Filed under: librarianship, travel reports