Shanghai Library Modern Documents Reading Room

A review of the Shanghai Library Modern Documents Reading Room (近代文献阅览室), Shanghai, China.

Over the past ten years I have done research at the Modern Documents Reading Room at the Shanghai Library half a dozen times. In July and August of 2011, I spent three weeks working there. My research focuses on literary writing, intellectual history, and the publishing business in the late Qing and Republican periods. Since most of the major publishers in the first half of the twentieth century were located in Shanghai, it makes sense that the library would have one of the best collections of published materials, including books, journals, and newspapers.

A basic reader’s card without borrowing privileges is now free at the Shanghai Library.  You only need to present a valid passport or PRC ID card. This card will give you access to the Modern Documents Reading Room, which is located on the 1st floor, just beyond the coffee shop. (The coffee here is good and cheap: ¥10 for a small Americano, which will come in handy when you’ve been reading microfilm for a few hours.)

The reading room has ample seating and a bank of computers for looking up and viewing digitized materials. For materials that have not been digitized, readers may request a maximum of four items at one time by filling out a slip at the circulation desk. This means that if you are looking at journals on microfilm, then you can request a very large amount of material at one time: the entire run of one journal, perhaps five or ten reels of microfilm, counts as one item, just as a single book counts as one item. Usually a multivolume book also counts as one item. The staff, however, will appreciate any effort you make only to request what you need – in other words, if you know you only need three or four years of a journal, it’s nice not to ask for the entire 30-year run. Retrieval usually takes no more than 15-30 minutes.  If you need to leave and come back later in the day (or the next day) and want to continue looking at items that have been retrieved for you, simply tell the staff and they usually will keep them at the desk for you for up to 48 hours.

The midday break is from 11:30 to 1PM.  It’s best to get any requests for reading materials in by 11AM.  If you do not return materials you’ve checked out or put them on hold, you can use them throughout the midday rest period.  I usually try to get in early and then leave at 11:15 for a long lunch.

If you’re planning to look at journals, then it’s important to know that the card catalog in the library (which uses paper cards) is not a complete listing of what is held in the library; neither is the online catalog.  The process of figuring out what journals are available to researchers, then, can be very confusing.  It is a good idea to consult the Shanghai Tushuguan guancang jinxiandai Zhongwen qikan mulu (Shanghai kexue jishu wenxian chubanshe, 2004) before you visit; it is the complete listing, and has a useful subject index in the back. If you find a journal in this print catalog that is not in the physical card catalog, then show it to the folks at the desk, and they will tell you how to proceed in making a request to look at the journal.  If you don’t produce this listing from the authoritative print catalog, you are likely to be told that it’s not in the library at all.

For many years the Modern Documents Room worked to produce microfilms of the most important journals in its collection. Nearly all of these are in the paper card catalog next to the desk. If a microfilm is available, you must use it and cannot view the original item without special permission.  In general, I have found the quality of the microfilms to be acceptable and quite complete, including all of the extra pages, advertisements, and front and back matter. For journals that are not on microfilm and not available digitally, a letter of introduction and signature from staff on the second floor is usually needed. For newspapers, some may be on microfilm, and many are in facsimile reprint; the latter are usually stored in the reading room and can be used at your leisure. Original copies of newspapers are usually available (in my experience) without requiring a special letter.

I don’t know anyone who says they enjoy reading microfilm, but the experience has become even less pleasant in the Shanghai Library. Only half of the ten or so microfilm readers in the reading room are in decent condition. The others are in bad shape, resulting in splotchy and/or dim images on the reader screen. In the summertime and other times when universities are not in session, competition for the better machines is stiff: be prepared to show up before the doors open, otherwise you might get stuck with a dumpy reader or be unable to read any microfilm because all of the machines are taken. As of this writing, printing from microfilm was not possible. Since the spring of 2011, the only machine in the entire library capable of printing from microfilm has been out of service. By August it had not been replaced, and staff I spoke to did not know when a replacement would arrive.  This means that, for now, the only way to reproduce pages from microfilm is to take a picture of the microfilm reader screen with a digital camera (¥0.5 per shot), which requires a steady hand and a camera with a good Macro function if you want to produce an image that does not give you a headache from eye strain. If you have an expense account, you can also request to have a new microfilm copy of a journal made. For this work, I was quoted a cost ¥600 per reel, with a turnaround time of about two weeks.

Like many other libraries, Shanghai is digitizing its older materials.  Many important books and editions in the collection have been digitized and are very convenient to use. They print clearly – usually much better than a photocopy – and, at ¥1 per printed page, are reasonable enough in terms of cost.

The journals, however, are another story. Many journals that were never microfilmed are now only available in digital format – and, because they’ve been scanned, are in such poor condition that the library considers them damaged and will not allow them into the reading room. All digitized journals have been broken down into PDFs of each individual article, which has some advantages and very clear disadvantages. When searching for keywords, individual articles will come up in the search results, which can make for some good discoveries. As of now, however, because each issue is cut into so many separate files, it is not possible to browse a digitized journal as you would look through a paper edition. Moreover, the tables of contents for individual issues are not yet available in digital format.  Readers who want to look through an entire journal to see who wrote what kind of articles, what kind of advertisements appeared in its pages, etc., are out of luck: their only option is to click through dozens of articles from each issue, many of which are out of order.  Researchers can look online at the Quanguo Baokan Suoyin to find out what is in each issue of a journal, but this workaround adds another layer of research and is not always reliable or complete. For well-known journals from the late Qing and early Republic, researchers can always rely on that old warhorse, the multivolume Zhongguo jindai qikan pianmu huilu (Shanghai renmin chubanshe), to find some tables of contents. Print copies are available in the reading room. To find all articles from a journal in the database, try entering the journal’s title and use the “fuzzy search” (mohu chaxun) function, and then sort by year of publication; that’s as good as you’ll get right now.

For original print items that you are allowed to view – which is becoming less and less common – the only mode of reproduction permitted is digital scanning by the reading room staff; images are burned onto a CD-ROM. (During my last visit, about half of the original books I was allowed to peruse were treated as “rare book” (zhenben)). Digital photography of books and journals is no longer allowed. Between the scanning and “materials preservation fees,” reproduction costs were between ¥5 and ¥7 per scan. This is a substantial change in policy and increase in prices over previous years. For facsimile reprints of newspapers and journal like the Shenbao, Dongfang zazhi, etc., you can just make copies at the regular desk in the main part of the library for ¥0.4 or ¥0.2 per page, depending on the size.

When you settle up at the end of the day, you can ask the staff to make a formal receipt that includes your name, date, and the amount paid.

Michael Gibbs Hill
Assistant Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature
University of South Carolina


Room 1110
Shanghai Library
#1555 Huai Hai Middle Road
Shanghai 200031


#10 Subway Line, Shanghai Library Station
#1 Subway Line, Hengshan Road Station


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  1. Kristin Mulready-Stone

    What a comprehensive overview of how things work in the Modern Documents Reading Room. It has changed a great deal since I was last there. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with all of us.

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  3. Jennifer Altehenger

    A quick note for those working on the 1950s and 1960s and hoping to visit the Shanghai Municipal Library: it appears that the policy on retrieving pre-1974 books from storage not located on Huaihai Road has been changed. The new policies apply to books of which the only copy is kept off-site in the book depository on Longwu Road.
    The book depository used to be accessible to registered readers twice a week. You had to apply for materials at the main library building a couple of days in advance and could then spend the day in the small reading room of the depository. This procedure has been changed. You now have to apply to see books held in the depository by Friday in order for them to be retrieved and made available to you in the main library building on Huaihai Road by the following Tuesday. I do not know when the new regulations were put in place as I hadn’t been in Shanghai since 2011.
    This may not be a problem for anyone planning to spend several weeks in Shanghai. But those of us who wish to access some materials at the library before moving on to other archival work outside of Shanghai might wish to plan their stay according to this “order Friday, read Tuesday” schedule. It would be somewhat disappointing to arrive on a weekend only to find that one cannot access these materials until the following week.
    There is an additional “systemic hiccup” to bear in mind: the library’s iPac catalogue lists many of the post-1949 and pre-1974 materials as available in the closed stacks of the main library, which means they should be ready to order and read within an hour. In my case, several of these volumes turned out not to be available and instead had to be ordered from the depository. It is a slightly random process, as even library staff cannot always say for sure whether the catalogue lists entries correctly. Though, as ever, others may have different experiences!

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