Reading Room for Ordinary Old Books, National Library of China


A review of Reading Room for Ordinary Old Books, National Library of China (普通古籍阅览室, 国家图书馆), Beijing.

I have spent several weeks over each of the last few summers at the ‘Reading Room for Ordinary Old Books’ (普通古籍阅览室), the main access point for the National Library of China’s (国家图书馆) holdings of nineteenth and early twentieth century materials, pre-1949 local gazetteers and genealogies. Parts of the collection have been reproduced in collectanea widely available outside of China, but the Reading Room has a great deal of material that is unavailable or difficult to find elsewhere. In addition to gazetteers and genealogies, holdings include autobiographies and biographies, memorial collections, literary and poetry collections, official publications of the Qing and even a smattering of archival materials. In my own research, I have made use of training manuals, memoirs and other writings by and about military men in the nineteenth century. The microfilmed rare books collection of the National Library, consisting primarily of pre-nineteenth century materials, has also been recently relocated to the Reading Room. It should also be noted that the gazetteer collection of the National Library has been digitized [website], but originals remain accessible in the Reading Room.

The Reading Room for Ordinary Old Books is located on the second floor of Wenjin Building (文津楼). The building is in a walled courtyard on Wenjin jie (文津街), immediately east of Beihai Park (北海公园). Please note that this is not in the main site for the National Library of China in Haidian District (海淀), which is about 20 to 30 minutes away by subway (Line 4 and soon Line 9, National Library 国家图书馆 station)! The Reading Room is open from Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm. It is closed on all public holidays, and can also be closed unexpectedly. As I discovered several summers ago, the website is not updated with information regarding these irregular closings. It is advisable that you contact the library before buying your plane ticket. Contact information can be found on the National Library website.

The closest subway station is at least a 20-minute walk from the library (Line 4, Xisi 西四 station). It is better served by buses stopping at the Beihai stop (routes 101, 103, 109, 124, 202, 211, 685, 814, 846). The gate to the library compound is less than 5 minutes from the bus stop, just over the bridge. Upon entering the building, you will be required to leave your bag and personal belongings with an attendant. Hold on to your laptop, notebook, pencil, eraser and water bottle. If you already have a reader’s card (读者卡) for the National Library system, you can proceed directly to the second floor Reading Room. Leave your water bottle on the battered cabinet outside the door.

If you do not have a card, you can obtain it at an office on the first floor of the building. For my initial application, I presented my passport and a letter of introduction from my advisor in the United States. The staff did not inquire into the nature of my research. There is no date of expiry printed on the reader’s card, but once obtained it will have to be renewed every 3 years. The renewal, which can be done in the Wenjin Building, does not require an ID or letter of introduction. The same card will give you access to the main branch of the National Library.

Once you have your card, you can proceed to the Reading Room. At the door, a librarian will ask you to enter your name and affiliation and identify the collection you plan to use. If you are using the ordinary old books, gazetteers or genealogies, the librarian will take your reader’s card and give you a number to use when requesting books. To request a book, enter this number along with the book’s author, title and catalog number (索书号) on two of the small forms sitting on the counter. You are allowed to request and examine three titles at a time.

If you do not already have information on the book you want to look at, there are two computer terminals in the Reading Room that you can use to search the library catalog. The collection can be searched by a variety of fields such as author, title, publisher and publication date [website] . The catalog is usually reliable, but it has some significant shortcomings. It cannot be searched by subject, and the dating of works can be sloppy. For instance, Qing-period works without a publication date are often dated as ‘1644’. If you limit your search by date, a large number of these books will simply not appear.

If you will be using microfilmed rare books, fill in your name and affiliation and then proceed past the main counter to the immediately adjoining counter, where another librarian will take your library card and give you a number. Fill out a request form as above. Most of the approximately 20 microfilm readers in the Reading Room appear to be in working condition. They are, however, not designed with the reader’s comfort in mind. The screens are located high on the machines. If you plan to spend entire days looking at microfilms, be prepared for a stiff neck.

Materials can be ordered anytime before noon, or from 1:00 to 4:30 pm in the afternoon. If you have not finished reading your materials at the end of the day, you can ask the librarian not to re-shelve the materials. This will save you five or ten minutes when you come back the next day. Materials requested for the first time will usually be delivered within 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the number of other readers.

Materials can be reproduced, though fees are stiff. I paid amounts ranging from 9 RMB for facing pages without illustrations, to 15 RMB for facing pages with illustrations. The quality of the reproductions is generally excellent, though they are printed with a watermark. Reproductions are limited to 1/3 of a volume (卷). They are usually completed within an hour. As in most other libraries in China, you are not allowed to take your own photographs.

The Reading Room is spacious and quiet. Staff members are efficient. Dark wooden desks, reading lamps, wooden chairs and shelves filled with reference works make for a tranquil atmosphere. There are rarely more than 20 readers in the room. If you arrive before 10 in the morning, you should not have any trouble finding a power outlet for your laptop. During my last visit, the library had kindly supplemented the wall outlets with a number of power bars or extension leads. The room is air-conditioned and becomes colder over the course of a day (a sweater or long-sleeve shirt is advisable). Tall windows on three sides of the room provide ample natural light.

The surroundings of the library are pleasant. Beihai Park is a particularly nice place for a stroll; you will have to pay an entrance fee though it is only around 10 RMB in the peak season. Immediately behind the Wenjin Building, within the same compound, you will find a little-visited museum dedicated to woodblock prints. For a double dose of Qing history, the Number One Archives are only a 15-minute walk. For a triple dose, the north gate of the Forbidden City is even closer.

There are few food options beyond the ice cream vendors and drink sellers in front of Beihai Park. It is advisable to bring your own lunch, which can be eaten on a bench outside the library. The nearest restaurants are at least a 10-minute walk.

Jim Bonk
PhD Candidate
East Asian Studies Department
Princeton University


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Image: Photo by Karoline Pershell.

  1. Nice review, Jim. On copying, as of last week they had a very complex cost structure in place.
    Late Qing materials: 8 RMB per 5 pages.
    Mid Qing materials: 9.5 RMB per 5 pages.
    Early Qing materials: 10.5 RMB per 5 pages.
    This is for only printed books. The price jumps for handwritten manuscripts to 62 RMB per 5 pages. Printing from microfilm is only 1 RMB per page, however.

    Also, there is a cafeteria in the northeast corner of the compound (just behind the library building), which readers are welcome to use.

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