A Roundtable Discussion on Rural Library Projects

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Some projects continue with the traditional method of setting up and directly managing rural libraries, while others focus on providing support for their establishment.  Some organizations include library projects as part of their programming, while other organizations see rural libraries as their core business.

This group of NGOs has come a long way, from competing with one another in the early days, to gradually creating a cooperative atmosphere. They are also demonstrating increasingly diverse organizational strategies and displaying their unique characteristics.

To better understand these changes, China Development Brief invited a group of NGOs and foundations to come together and share their experiences about the rural libraries industry.

Host: Wang Hui, CDB Staff Writer

Discussion Participants:

Guardians of Spring

China Zigen Foundation for Rural Education and Development

Beijing Brooks Education Center

China Rural Library

Overseas China Education Foundation (OCEF)

Xinping Foundation

Guixin Foundation

Shanghai Cherished Dream Foundation

 I.  Views from Organizations on the Front Line

The Opportunities and Rationale for Rural Libraries

China Zigen: “To have access to books, a passion for reading, and the ability to read,” is very important for children. Yet the children attending village and township schools in Zigen’s project counties (those designated by the state as poverty-stricken counties), typically have nothing to read outside of their classroom texts. Even the schools that do have books, tend only to have small “leaflets” used as part of China’s compulsory nine year education curriculum, or political reading material which is not very readable. And even these books are often locked away in rooms and not open to the students.

Beijing Brooks: In 2003, while researching environmental protection we discovered that China’s vast rural regions generally had a very weak educational infrastructure. Many students in western provinces had never even seen a book outside of their classroom texts. And among rural adults, long periods without reading led to their forgetting characters, resulting in high rates of adult illiteracy. The lack of good libraries were a major bottleneck for improving the quality of education for citizens in these rural communities. Under these limited circumstances, we seek  the most convenient method to provide remote areas with learning opportunities, support children in their education and maturation, and promote educational equity. At the same time we would like to put forth a proposal to the public: “return to your hometown and build a library.” This is the simplest, most direct way of participating in improving education in your hometown.

China Rural Library: With the exception of the lucky few, most of us from rural areas grew up in poverty. Even as adults, we continue to be affected by the poor-quality education we received as children. That is one of the primary reasons we support rural libraries: to stop the transmission of ignorance and to provide young children with educational nourishment and self-esteem when they need it most. We hope that the knowledge and ideas contained in good books can give inspiration and strength to children. We also hope that rural libraries can promote knowledge exchange, cultural transmission and community interaction.

Shanghai Cherished Dream: China’s major urban centers discard around 20 million children’s books every year, while about 30 million students in 200,000 schools in poverty-stricken areas of rural China are basically without any extracurricular reading materials. There exists a relatively large gap in rural and urban education levels, not only in the teaching of basic knowledge, but also in general exposure to new ideas.  The Cherished Dreams Library Project aims to meet the demand for more reading materials for these 30 million students. Additionally there is our “Dream Center,” which is our core project. The Dream Center constructs multimedia classrooms in selected hub schools. To be eligible, schools must have internet connectivity and have a minimum number of students enrolled. While working with these hub schools, we discovered that schools in neighboring village urgently needed extracurricular reading materials. So, we set up libraries in these village schools, and connected them with teachers from the hub schools to provide guidance. Now, the village schools are able to provide their students with a decent reading atmosphere.

Managing the Libraries: Using “Airborne Troops” or Local Residents

China Rural Library: All of China Rural Library’s projects have long-term, full-time volunteers responsible for management, guaranteeing continuity in the group mission and activities. Full-time volunteers must go through a rigorous selection process to ensure they are able to undertake creative and exploratory educational tasks, institutional management, organization of activities, and other such complicated tasks. Currently all local branch libraries have one to two full-time volunteers who not only ensure normal operation hours, but also organize a number of activities, such as reading groups, movie showings, visits from scholars, essay competitions,  summer and winter camps, and mobile reading stations.

Cherished Dreams:  The selection of sites for Dream Libraries mainly depends on the Dream Center which receives suggestions from the local education bureau, Communist Youth League, and cooperating partners. We utilize recommended teachers from local rural elementary schools, teachers and administrators from Dream Center’s hub schools, or workers from local partner NGO’s to manage our Dream Libraries.

Brooks:  We completely depend on local people and donors for construction and management, Brooks only plays a role in aiding cooperation, training and service. Some libraries are constructed in the middle of the village, while others are set up inside of schools. Donors will go to the area themselves and find suitable and dependable locals to manage the library, for example, the director of a women’s group, the child of the village head who is studying in high school, or a teacher in the local school. Donors may also come back at random times to check up and get feedback on the work being done. If there is a problem in the operation of the library, then Brooks and the donor will make some adjustments as necessary.

Guardians of Spring:  Most of the work is done by local volunteers, though outside volunteers may also come in for given periods of time for guidance and exchange of ideas. We will go to local areas and screen volunteers. The most important factor is passion and commitment, whether the volunteer is a rural woman who loves to read, or a local teacher. Outside help usually comes to provide training in library management, or advice on organizing and managing reading activities.

Thoughts on Books Supply and Selection

Brooks: According to the characteristics of the area in which the library is located, such as ethnic culture, sex ratio, degree of literacy, books are distributed on the basis of a 1:4 ratio. The first donation will not surpass 1000 books. After one year of operation, we assess the library’s circulation and needs to replace old books and conduct training. Usually libraries need about 800-900 new books and 3-4 periodical titles. Genres include literature, encyclopedias, history, geography, health and fitness, children’s books, agricultural technology, law, etc.. We coordinate with publishers and booksellers in order to select suitable books.

Guixin Foundation: We select age-appropriate books for children. If the children are in grades 1-3 the books will mainly have pictures and teach Pinyin, if they are in grades 4-6 they will be books on general knowledge, while grades 7-9 will generally have reference books and books that aid in studying. Genres include science, art, literature, foreign and domestic famous authors, Chinese cultural classics, safety, health, physical education, etc.. There is a fixed publishing company and sponsoring partner that determines the supply of books.

China Zigen: Zigen’s reading projects does a survey of teacher and student needs, then works with a book selection volunteer (a worker from San Lian bookstore) to determine the book list. We mostly select books having to do with local history and culture, as well as Chinese history and culture. Zigen supports the purchase of books, commissioning a distributor to distribute and deliver the books. (A distributor typically refers to a large-scale book wholesaler that buys from a publisher and sells to small retailers. Distributors are now being used by many organizations to serve project libraries in villages. The Brooks Center is a prominent non-profit distributor.)

Guardians of Spring: We select different types of books according to the needs and interests of different audiences whether they are elementary school students served by school libraries or rural residents served by village libraries. After first understanding the needs and wants of the reading audience, we consult with a professional book distributor to select books.

China Rural Library: In selecting books we largely consult our core book catalogues. These catalogues are compiled and consolidated from the lists of different friends. To begin a collection, China Rural Library will buy 2000-5000 books. The collections expand with books donated by friends of the library, and with additional purchases made by us.

Cherished Dream: The best donors to consult for collecting reading materials that are suitable for elementary and middle school students are those with similar tastes: city elementary and middle school students. We collect secondhand books with the help of the local education bureau in areas such as Shenzhen, Zhejiang, and Shanghai. These departments ensure the collection, selection, packaging, labeling, and shipping of books to the rural schools.

How Can We Evaluate the Operational Effectiveness of Rural Libraries?

Cherished Dreams:  Every Cherished Dreams library is supplied with a library management software. After books are shelved, schools utilize the software to manage the borrowing of books. At the same time we use a unified database to manage book borrowing in all rural school libraries. We believe that public interest projects need to introduce more tools for the rational analysis of data, to promote efficiency and sustainability.

Guardians of Spring:  Apart from book borrowing statistics, we place a lot of emphasis on quality activities in the library. We aim to create a sort of “living” library. In other words, we do not just want to let a donor’s books lie unused on the shelves. We want to maximize the use of the books and hold interesting events and activities in our rural libraries.

OCEF:  We have library supervision questionnaires, getting feedback and evaluations on all aspects of library management from teachers and students. The most important thing is still that teachers and students can get enjoyment and benefit from the library.

Brooks:  We just want to coordinate the local schools and communities to work together to effectively manage the library and satisfy local service needs. I would go so far as to say that factors such as the size of a library, its management style, its level of technology, are not that important. Basically, we hope that through regular contact with our donors and volunteers we can confirm the normal operation of our libraries. As long as a library is able to maintain normal hours of operation, we have already met our goals at this early stage.

Communication and Cooperation with the Community and Other Organizations

China Rural Library: We cooperate with many different organizations in the same sector. We don’t just exchange our ideas and experiences, we also communicate and cooperate on professional tasks. For example we have learned from Zigen’s “Love Database” in developing our ideas on “blanketing” elementary schools.  We also cooperate with the Brooks Center, buying a portion of our books from their sub-wholesaler.

China Zigen:  We supported the people in charge of Xiamen’s cultural development center to set up reading corners in all classrooms in Zigen Project Schools. We also recommend that those of our Project Schools with relatively advanced reading levels apply to Cherished Dreams for a “Dream Center” or to Evergreen Education Foundation for a stack room. In addition, we have participated in the “Reading Forum Group” with other organizations in the sector, sharing our experiences.

Brooks:  Before, all rural library projects were done on an individual basis, but now that we have entered a stage of integration of resources, it is possible to communicate and learn from each other through meetings, observation sessions, and trainings. We have accumulated a lot of experience over a long period of selecting books, and have just established a “Public Welfare Book Distributor,” which provides book services to all kinds of public welfare organizations.

OCEF:  We work with some local NGOs, co-sponsoring schools. We also cooperate on some projects with other NGOs in our industry, such as a recent collaboration with Smiling Library on a model library project.

There Are Always Deficiencies

China Zigen:  Management of the libraries depends on local volunteers, but many rural schools have a serious lack of teachers. It is very difficult to find designated people to manage the libraries.

Guardians of Spring:  It is very difficult to know how exactly to encourage rural residents to read more and have a passion for reading. At the same time we often run into problems that we wouldn’t encounter in cities, such as needing to negotiate with local governments in sensitive locales, and working with local cadres who may or may not be interested in building libraries.

OCEF:  Changing the ideas of rural teachers takes time. It takes a lot of patience to work with teachers on stressing the importance of reading, finding methods and techniques for guiding reading, and discussing topics with all children equally.

What Course Will Rural Libraries Take in the Future?

China Zigen:  In the difficult conditions of most rural schools, where both reading materials and teachers are scarce, we must try to lower entry barriers to libraries. In this respect the best method is to build reading corners inside of classrooms, bringing the pressure of managing the library down to the classroom level. In schools that already have libraries and relatively good teachers, we must promote reading. As more and more schools gain access to reading materials, NGOs should move from the first step of building libraries to the next step of encouraging reading.

Brooks:  The construction of rural libraries can be divided into three steps: The first step is getting off the ground, going from having nothing to receiving donations and constructing a library. The second step is improving the quality of the library. This includes increasing the number of good books, improving reading levels, and diversifying library-related activities. The third step is reconstructing rural culture. Building upon these reading activities, we must work to expand the horizons of rural adults and children, raise their cultural consciousness, and stress the importance of protecting local culture and education. From this base we can construct local culture, just as is written in the Brooks Center’s educational materials.

Guardians of Spring:  It is hard to predict the trajectory of the libraries. What we hope is that all may have books, have the ability to read books, and love to read books. We must move from using books to alleviate poverty to popularizing reading.

Guixin Foundation:  We want to use our libraries efficiently and hold activities to support children as they grow, such as reading, writing, arts and crafts, small experiments, dramas, and other extracurricular activities. We also want to have university students come and give classes, and encourage children to make reading a lifelong habit. We also want the rural school library to become a village center for learning about science and technology, and the arts.

Every Group Has Its Own New Plan

Brooks:  First we wish to accelerate efforts to create a platform for cooperation among public welfare libraries. In this way, these organizations can stop replicating each other’s work and instead concentrate on what they do well.  Second we wish to create a platform where groups can effectively communicate their experiences and resources with regards to reading, education, and training personnel. Lastly we wish to keep track of libraries that are constructed by rural residents themselves, and allow the integration of their libraries with NGO-built libraries. In this way we can truly promote the public welfare and create a cultural foundation in rural areas.

China Zigen:  First, we would like to use 2-3 years time to build up our local libraries into networks that cover entire counties. Second, we would like to spend more time in improving the management of our libraries, gradually implementing training courses for management of the libraries and teaching training. Third, we would like to implement classroom reading corners in poverty-stricken areas and remote rural elementary schools.

Guardians of Spring: Many rural libraries fall into disrepair after operating for a short time, so we spend a lot of time trying to find ways to increase the long-term stability of rural library operations. By building on the stable foundation of the libraries already in operation, we hope to expand to more remote rural locations.

OCEF:  Currently we have many projects we’d like to do, creating an integrated project that would include education stipends, scholarships, and book donation projects. We hope to help local coordinators establish groups to provide financial aid to students, and ensure the sustainability of projects.

II.  Views from Sponsoring Foundations

Implementing Your Own Projects or Sponsoring Other Organizations?

Xinping Foundation:  Because our institutions have just begun, we admit that we lack expertise in the field. For this reason we only sponsor other organizations’ projects (grassroots charity organizations or foundations with operations on the ground), and do not run projects ourselves.

Cherished Dreams:  We use our own team to implement programs because we have the advantage of having a large-scale collection of books, a modern transportation and distribution system, and also an electronic database for behind the scenes management. We also have a well-developed and expert team for construction, operations, and IT support.  Moreover we have the advantage of being able to buy at wholesale prices, achieving a scale that ensures that these projects can expand to other areas and be run sustainably

Guixin Foundation:  We run our own operations. Each project has very strict regulations, which creates a standard that makes it easier to evaluate and manage our operations.  While surveying our Guixin Libraries we have discovered that finishing the programs ourselves makes it easier for us to discover problems in a timely fashion and find a more efficient way to improve the project.

OCEF:  We run our operations ourselves. We have already run our foundation’s Student Grant Projects for many years. It was only in running our programs that we discovered many of our project schools had a need for books, at which time we began our library projects.

How Can Local Organizations Gain the Support of Your Foundations?

Cherished Dreams:  Rural elementary schools selected to receive “Dream Libraries” are located in close proximity to “Dream Centers.”  Eligible schools are included on a list of possible candidates. If there is a school that meets Cherished Dreams’ guidelines, it may be recommended.

Xinping Foundation:  Generally, we do not take applications. Instead, we are the ones who extend invitations to new organizations, because we are constantly monitoring their actions.  After we send out the invitation, it’s somewhat like a trial marriage, as we will run a few trial programs first. If everyone is satisfied then we will formally become partners. A characteristic that we especially look for in our partners is the quality or potential of being a “social entrepreneur.”

Guixin Foundation:  Our projects are implemented at the village school level. You first tell us about the situation of your school, and if your school fits our requirements and criteria, then you may become our partner, or participate in the construction and management of a library.

How Should We Understand and Evaluate Sponsored or Directly Operated Rural Libraries?

Xinping Foundation:  We directly invite our partners, and this, to a large degree, ensures the dependability of sponsored programs. If during our “trial marriage” period the project is not done well, then they will not have the opportunity to cooperate with us. Because there is not just one way to solve a given area’s library problems, it is not proper for Xinping to provide a template and method. We mostly hope to create a platform, including discussion groups and reading networks, to allow organizations that cooperate with Xinping to share all that they are doing.

Cherished Dreams:  Along with the books we send to schools, we also provide a computer, book management software, and a bar-scanner. We also use a central databank system that is connected to and able to manage book collection and borrowing information for all of our affiliated libraries.  This databank makes it possible to start up and promote rural reading activities. We utilize uploaded data on the frequency and rate of book borrowing in doing our assessments of libraries.

OCEF:  Volunteers will visit the schools at regular intervals, and in some key areas volunteers will go to the schools every semester to work together with teachers in the construction of the library.

Guixin Foundation:  For every library we build we do about 3-5 years of monitoring and service. During this period, university student volunteers come in intervals as assistant teachers. The teachers and students responsible for the management of the Guixin libraries are in charge of weekly registration for reading activities. Additionally, records of student achievement in class reading activities, hand writing practice sheets, and reading competition results are also an index for evaluation. Also donors and the foundation director pay visits to the schools to inspect them.


This year in May, the first session of China’s Symposium for the Construction of Rural Libraries and Popularization of Reading was held in Wuhan. Over 120 workers and volunteers from nearly 100 NGOs all over the country came together and shared their experiences. Just a few years earlier it would have been impossible to imagine that rural libraries could have reached this kind of scale.

Rural libraries are civic organizations that are dedicated to one means of rural education. In their development, we can see different tendencies. Some pay attention to a specific type of service, others provide financial support; some are established in rural middle and elementary schools, others are concentrated on immigrant communities in cities. The seven organizations that participated in the above dialogue with China Development Brief are just a small portion of the many organizations that work to construct rural libraries.  We could also include organizations such as as The One Kilo Book Network, Evergreen Education Foundation, Dandelion Rural Libraries, The Fujian Fuqian Culture Center, Shanghai Morning Star Book Society. Collectively, these groups are making a remarkable difference.

More importantly, these library projects are spread across different areas, and adopt a range of different operating methods. Some work to create multifunctional libraries in local elementary and middle schools, others construct libraries as a vehicle to support community integration.  They allow villages, which had been isolated from the cities, to bring the information age within their reach.

In the years to come it is possible that the term “rural library” will become outdated and inappropriate. One reason is that the goal of these organizations is no longer just to construct libraries in remote rural areas, but also to serve immigrant populations in cities.  They also wish to bring more activities into these libraries with more activities, making them more “alive,” and attuned to the needs of the local population.

The direction many of these organizations appear to be heading in is the promotion of “reading.”  The emphasis, however, will no longer be on increasing the number of books in the library, or on some physical aspect of the library, but rather, on helping the library grow into a mature institution. The question is, what exactly do libraries give to the children or the villagers, or to the local schools or communities? And so there is a gradual transition from focusing on library hardware to improving “software” qualities, such as library services. Thus, the quality of the training given to those managing the libraries has become a more pressing concern.

This most certainly is not a top-down model. It is a grassroots movement that creates a common place for learning in rural communities, and also cultivates a spirit of participation in local affairs.

In Brief

Rural library projects are a standard undertaking in the education sector. Some of these projects began operating long ago, while new organizations have entered the scene. In the span of just a few short years these projects have undergone some important changes
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