The Chinese Rare Book Collection, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne


A review of The Chinese Rare Book Collection, Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne (Melbourne, Australia).

In July 2013, I embarked on a PhD research on the history of diary writing in Mao’s China at the University of Melbourne, Australia. The principal archive based on which my project has been carried out is the large assemblage of diary manuscripts housed at the Chinese Rare Book Collection, University of Melbourne. The collection is a sub-unit of the East Asian Cultural Collection, a division of the Special Collections at the university’s Baillieu Library. It comprises more than 7,000 items dating from the early Qing dynasty to the People’s Republic of China. Among them are over 400 diaries from the Cultural Revolution period, mostly written by young people. In addition to the personal documents, the collection also contains a large number of primary and secondary school textbooks, children’s books, guidebooks, propaganda posters, Red Guard newspapers and other publications produced in the early history of the PRC.

The diaries, in particular, comprise a unique corpus of materials in the English-speaking world, having been collected by the Baillieu Library over the course of more than ten years. The authors represent a wide range of social and occupational backgrounds: students, factory workers, soldiers, teachers, Red Guards, Zhiqing (i.e. educated youths) and village carders; many of whom were barely literate. These scribbled documents, full of writing errors and unrecognizable characters, provide a rich source of data for social, cultural and historical research.

To access the Chinese Rare Book Collection, one way, as a first probing step, is to contact the Special Collections Staff for general research enquiry ( This is especially recommended for visitors from other states and countries, who may not be familiar with the collection’s capacity or the university’s system. The staff would assist you in searching, identifying and requesting materials.

Another way to find items held in the Chinese Rare Book collection is by using the university’s library catalogue: To identify the source, type keywords in English or pinyin (e.g. “Cultural Revolution diaries” or “wen ge ri ji”) in the search window; then select from the drop-down list, “East Asian Collection,” before hitting the search button. Once you find the title you are looking for, or interested in, you can place a “Rare Books Request” by filling in the online request form: After the online request form is submitted, the item(s) will be delivered to the Special Collections Reading Room for viewing at the following delivery times: 10:00am, 1:00pm, and 4:00pm.

The Reading Room is located on the third floor of the Baillieu Library on the west side of the university’s main campus in Parkville. The university is only few minutes away from the popular Lygon Street – Melbourne’s renowned “little Italy”, and within walking or short tram ride distance from the CBD. The Reading Room opens to public on Monday – Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (on Wednesday, 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.). It is closed on weekends and university holidays. Check the university’s academic calendar before you make arrangement to visit the reading room:

No registration procedures are involved for accessing the Reading Room. However, an identification card or document is required upon checking in to the room. There are lockers outside the Reading Room that can be used to store your belongings; a key can be obtained at the staff reception desk. No food or drink of any kind is permitted in the room. Pens, markers, highlighters and portable scanners are also prohibited. Laptops and photographic devices are permitted; however, camera must be used without flash. The Reading Room does not provide a copying service, but does offer high-resolution copies for publication purpose. It is advisable to go through the Reading Room Guidelines before your first visit:

Materials held at the Chinese Rare Book Collection have not been digitized; and not all of them have been indexed and catalogued. Allow yourself ample time when you visit the collection, especially for accessing the diaries as you may find many of them quite difficult to read.

The Reading Room has floor-to-ceiling windows, offering abundant natural light and a pleasant view to the university’s South Lawn and castellated clock tower. It is within easy reach of the university canteen and various café and restaurants on and outside of the campus. There is certainly no shortage of options when it comes to having a convenient lunch or tea break.

Shan Windscript
School of Historical and Philosophical Studies
University of Melbourne

Image: Diaries from the collection. Photograph courtesy of Shan Windscript.

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