Three Collections in Taipei

A review of the National Palace Museum Library (國立故宮博物院圖書文獻), the National Central Library (國家圖書館), and the Grand Secretariat Archives (內閣大庫檔案), Taipei, Taiwan.

One of the great stories in the history of archival preservation is the removal to Taiwan of a huge number of historical documents and rare books at the end of the Chinese civil war. The losing KMT carted much of this archival material from Beijing to Nanjing and then to Chongqing before beginning evacuation to Taiwan in the 1940s. Given the meticulous preservation of all these materials, and the complete open access, the scholar of late imperial China often wishes that the rest had been taken as well. But that would be heresy.

Ed. Note: Macabe Keliher’s introduction rounds out a wonderful season of the “Fresh from the Archives” series. Previous introductions have included: Tianjin Municipal, Beijing Municipal, Hangzhou Municipal, Shanghai Library, Sichuan Provincial, Shaanxi Provincial, Xi’an Municipal, Shaanxi Provincial Library, Academia Historica, Shijiazhuang Municipal, Zhejiang Provincial, Chongqing Municipal, Yunnan Provincial, and Yunnan Provincial Library. For a complete list, please visit here. To contribute a review of an archive, library, or collection relevant to any of the current and future Dissertation Reviews fields, please email dissertationreviews@gmail.com

For the past twelve months I have been in Taipei using archives to facilitate a dissertation on Qing state formation and statecraft in the seventeenth century. The focus of my research here has been on the institutional and cultural development of the bureaucratic apparatus in the pre-conquest period, and on internal contestations and external political consolidation in the Shunzhi and Kangxi reigns. I work in both Manchu and Chinese language materials, relying on the Manwen yuandang and the only existing copy of a Shunzhi era draft of the Shilu (more different than you think) for pre-1644 materials, and Grand Secretariat memorials, internal board documents, and rare books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The National Palace Museum Library

Nestled in the mountains to the north of Taipei, the National Palace Museum Library (NPM) is probably the most idyllic Chinese language archive in the world. Located at 221 Zhishan Rd. Section 2 (至善路二段221號), the library is most easily accessible by MRT. Take it to Shilin 士林 station, exit out the north, and catch bus R30, 255, 304, or 815. (If you forget your Dissertation Reviews notes, an attendant at the MRT station will cheerfully provide you with a pre-printed list of buses.) Facing the majestic Palace Museum, the library is the unassuming building on the very far left. It has its own staircase if you start out from the bottom of the hill. Keep climbing past the parking lot and enter the library on the second floor. Lockers are provided for bags, but laptops, etc. can all be carried in. The document and rare book reading room is located on the third floor (second floor of the library).

A word about getting into the NPM and libraries and archives in Taiwan in general. Unlike experiences in China, you do not need a letter of introduction, you do not need a local affiliation, you usually don’t even need your passport. Any official looking ID will do. Heck, a university ID can often suffice. Many public use libraries, including the NPM, will even make you a permanent library card if you bring a passport photo.

The library is open Monday through Saturday, 9-5. Documents can be requested 9:00-11:30am and 2:00-4:00pm, Monday through Friday. (Although the library is open on Saturday, documents cannot be requested.) The staff will collect all materials at 4:30. The reading room does not close for lunch, and if you have your materials you can continue working right through the noon hours. Like all government agencies everywhere in the world, the library closes on public holidays, so check the national scorecard before you make the trek, otherwise you will have to spend the day looking at the jade cabbage with hordes of mainland Chinese tourists in the perennially open museum.

Materials are catalogued according to one of two types: documents or rare books. The corresponding bound paper catalogues at the front desk of the document reading room will guide you if you wish to peruse the collection, or the digital catalogues at the local terminals can identify exactly what you are looking for.

There is also Chuang Chi-fa, the famous Qing historian. Although he retired over ten years ago from the research staff at the NPM, he still comes to the library everyday for his own research. He is an encyclopedia on Qing materials, and claims to have read every document in the NPM archives at least twice—I believe him. If he does not find you first and put you through an interrogation on your research, it is well worth your while to seek him out amongst the stacks and inquire about what materials are available for your topic.

You can request up to twenty volumes from a single collection at a time, but no more than one collection can be had at any one time. There is no limit to the number of requests made per day. (The staff is nosy, however, and may ask why you did not read the whole volume before requesting another one. Ignore them.) If the reading room is empty, as it usually is, you can have your materials within ten minutes. Some collections, like the draft copy of the Shilu, are deemed rare and need approval from the vice director. Some collections, like the Manwen yuandang, are deemed “national treasures” and need approval from the director. In either case, there is a form to fill out with a summary of research and why you need to use this particular collection. In the case of the latter, it may involve an interview with a senior archivist. In my experience, a simple scholarly explanation of the importance of the material to my work was sufficient.

Pictures are not allowed, but the staff will make photocopies for you upon request. It costs NT$3 per page and is usually done immediately. They will not mark the copies, but you can sit by and receive the pages as they come out. No more than a third of any one volume can be reproduced.

The library is a wonderful place to work. It is quiet with large windows looking out over lush verdant hills. The document reading room, on the other hand, is set in the back of the library with a view of concrete retaining blocks. The staff also have a tendency to pass the time talking on their cell phones (mostly about stocks and retirement).

Food and beverage options are limited. The first floor of the library building houses a cafe with overpriced lunches and bad coffee. It is convenient, although not always fast. A short jaunt back to the bottom of the hill opens up a few more options. A block or two to the right is a cheap pick your own veggies and meat place. A half a block to the left are two other veggie and meat kitchens and two convenience stores, where a 7/11 latte can be had to get you through the afternoon.

National Central Library

Out of the hills and back downtown, the National Central Library is located in the heart of the city at 20 Zhongshan South Rd. (中山南路20號), just across the street from CKS Memorial. The MRT will take you within a half a block—come up exit number 6 of the CKS Memorial MRT station and continue to march forward. You cannot miss the big concrete box on the left. Register at the front desk with any official looking ID for one-day library card, or bring a passport photo and get a permanent one. Small laptop bags can be brought in, but security is quite strict about food and outside books, which can be stored in a locker.

The main reading room is open 9-9 Tuesday through Saturday, and 9-5 on Sunday. The specialized reading rooms are open 9-5 Tuesday through Sunday, except for the rare books reading room, which is closed Sunday. The entire library is closed on Monday. There is no lunchtime closing, allowing researchers to work unimpeded throughout the day. When hunger does strike, the lower level cafe will serve you food and caffeine at any time of day, as will the 7/11 .

The online catalogue directs readers to the library’s entire collection. Given that the stacks are closed, it is best if you know exactly what you are looking for. The staff in the Center for Chinese Studies reading room are extremely helpful, however, and go out of their way to find needed materials.

Almost all of the archives and rare books have been microfilmed. Unless you have a good reason to look at the original, they will insist that you sit at a terminal and turn the reel—although their new digital systems are a bit more convenient.

Pictures are allowed and copies are cheap. The digital microfilm readers can make copies from the terminal. There are also copiers in each of the reading rooms, and the third floor is lined with them. Purchase a copy card at the third floor desk, or borrow one for the day and pay for what you use. Copies are NT$1.

The specialized reading rooms are generally depopulated, quiet, and comfortable places to work. The main reading room is another story. Despite signs on every table and desk informing patrons that cell phones are prohibited, the local cliental talk on their cell phones incessantly. Earplugs or headphones are recommended for those wishing to venture there.

Grand Secretariat Archives

In what must count as one of the greatest achievements in archival access, the Grand Secretariat Archives of the Ming and Qing dynasty (GSA) are fully digitized and available online. There are two means of access to this invaluable resource: free and restricted. Free access is available to anyone anywhere in the world, and allows searches and viewing of extracted document metadata (usually a short summary of the document). With just this limited access, one can still get a good sense of what the archives contain and the thrust of the document. Access to the fully digitized document requires one to either be in Taiwan or at a purchasing institution (the Harvard Yenching Library, for example, has a terminal with full access). If you are in Taiwan then you can register online for an account.

There are a few things to know if registering for an account to gain full access to the archive. Foremost, you must have a stable IP. If you are moving around, or your internet provider changes your IP regularly, you are going to get locked out. Second, it ain’t going to work on a Mac. Not only is Internet Explorer required, but the viewing software can only be installed on a Windows system.

The other option is to go out to Sinica and visit the bricks and mortar archive. But unless you have a good reason to see the original (e.g. unclear scan), the staff will cheerfully set you up at a terminal in the Fu Sinian Library 傅斯年圖書館. Here you will be allowed to print, an advantage one is not granted off campus.

Academia Sinica campus is located to the east of Taipei on Yanjiuyuan Rd section 2 (研究院路二段). Getting there involves a long subway ride to the Nangang Exhibition Center and a transfer to a bus heading south, which will deposit you at the front gates of the campus. Another option is the free shuttle bus that runs between National Taiwan University and Sinica. The schedule can be found here. (Although be forewarned, the morning and evening shuttles fill up, so arrive early if you expect to get a ride.) Follow the campus maps to the library. It is open Monday through Friday 8:30-5:00, and you will need your university ID to get in.

A bit about what to expect using the digitized archive. The advanced search function covers a summary of the document (usually taken from the lines of the document), the year, and the name and position of all officials involved. This allows one to find almost anything instantaneously with any search term. The interface also enables efficient browsing of the results, unlike, say, the FHA. Furthermore, names are linked to biographies at the MQNAF. In short, just about everything the scholar of Qing China could desire.

Macabe Keliher
PhD Candidate
History and East Asian Languages
Harvard University
keliher@fas.harvard.edu

Important Note: Dissertation Reviews, its members, and affiliates assume no responsibility for the accuracy of this material. Access, location, times, and other data are subject to change, and readers assume all responsibility for making direct contact with the institutions in question and double-checking all information before any visit. If you discover errors in this description, or changes to the policies or relevant information in one of the sites features on “Fresh from the Archives,” please contact us at archives@dissertationreviews.org

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  1. Scott Writer

    Great article.

    “The staff also have a tendency to pass the time talking on their cell phones (mostly about stocks and retirement).” — Priceless!

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