Su Wenzhu: Reading Yesterday Today

Su Wenzhu is the director of the Special Collections Deparment of Hebei Library and Hebei Ancient.

In May 2017, Su Wenzhu, director of the Special Collections Department of Hebei Library and the Hebei Ancient Books Preservation, learned that she had been elected as one of 63 delegates from Hebei Province to attend the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress. This pleasant surprise gave her a new sense of mission and responsibility.


Special collections refer to old documents or materials that are different from ordinary books. They include ancient books and important historical documents. A library’s special collections department is responsible for collecting, arranging, storing, circulating and utilizing ancient books and local documents. In 1996, Su Wenzhu, who had worked for the Hebei Library for nine years, was transferred to the special collections department. At the time, only four employees worked in the department. Even now, it has only expanded to employ eleven.

General investigation of ancient books is the basic task of ancient books protection. Employees must profoundly understand the documents first to capitalize on ancient book resources. In 2007, the General Office of the State Council issued opinions on further strengthening the protection of ancient books and officially launched a protection program. This is the first nationwide ancient book protection project sponsored by the State in the history of China. Hebei Ancient Books Preservation was launched at the Hebei Library in June 2008, and general investigation of ancient books commenced.

As Su recalls, the team immediately encountered many problems: A great amount of ancient paper was damaged by acid, worms and time. Books were not catalogued. Coordination with many different units of the province’s cultural system was required and everyone lacked personnel, facilities and funds.

They began training personnel in ancient book preservation, rescuing and repairing ancient books, and publishing, utilizing and promoting ancient books. In places that were unable to carry out investigation, Su would deploy staff to help or offer local training. Thanks to the efforts of Su and her team, investigation of ancient books in Hebei progressed rapidly.

Resurrecting Ancient Books

If the vast number of Chinese ancient books are not effectively preserved and catalogued, the country will lose not only priceless historical records, but also crucial cultural context. In addition to preservation, Su began to consider how to promote the books. Since 2015, Hebei Library has sponsored a “protection and promotion month of ancient books” three years in a row. Lectures on the protection of ancient books, traditional culture, and exhibition of techniques for ancient books preservation were offered. The “Heritage • Memory • Activation -- Maker@Library” intangible cultural heritage promotion campaign in June 2016 was particularly well received. Readers saw the production process for ancient books and live demonstrations of repair and block-printing techniques.

“Some spectators were surprised that ancient books could be preserved so well after hundreds of years,” said Su. “Some were amazed by the delicate repair techniques to mend damaged books. Others were consumed by the papermaking and printing technologies. Many young people today have a sense of distance from ancient books, and such activities bridge the gap.”

Today, Hebei province has six ancient and modern protection units that provide constant temperature and humidity conditions, complete fire protection and a comprehensive monitoring system. “In addition to professional cultural units, more and more people are getting seduced by ancient books.” Su believes that in recent years, the country has been advocating soft cultural power, and the excellent traditional culture buried in ancient Chinese books has deeply influenced the sentiments and morality of modern people, making them tremendously important in the promotion of Chinese culture.

In September 2017, the Ministry of Culture issued the first five-year plan to protect ancient Chinese books. It is the first top-level design” for protection of ancient books. The plan defines the basic tenets of “adhering to the principles of primary protection, preservation, rational utilization of ancient books and strengthened management.” Su’s mission in the special collections department has just begun.

True to Form

In 1987, Su Wenzhu graduated from the History Department of Shandong University, and joined the Hebei Library. She was excited by the position because she enjoyed reading so much. But when she arrived, she oversaw patrons’ borrowing and returning of books. Every day, she saw thousands of books but had no time to read them.

“At first, I felt very uncomfortable because I couldn’t read the books,” she admits. “But I was happy to see so many people reading. This is probably why some people like working in libraries.” As a library staffer, Su believes that reading not only enhances education, but also cultivates moral character and motivation.

Today, in the fragmented reading era, Hebei Library is constantly brainstorming ideas to attracts readers to the library. As a member of the China Writers Association, Su set up space in the local literature reading room and invited local writers to speak at pubs. She also organized a “love chanting” volunteer poetry recitation group. Su liked the group because even people who were afraid to speak publicly somehow found the courage to step up the stage to recite a few lines of poetry.

“Perhaps such activities fan the cultural flames in the hearts of the people,” says Su. Today, more than 70 people have joined the library’s poetry recitation WeChat group, and the group is still growing. After the renovation and expansion project of Hebei Library was completed in 2011, the upgraded hardware and a richer collection of books and activities drew long lines at the library before it opened every morning. On weekends, nary an empty seat could be found. In Su’s view, a scholarly society and poetic life is not a distant concept, but can be easily achieved.

“Since the 18th National Congress of Communist Party of China, general secretary Xi Jinping has discussed culture at length,” Su adds. “With changes in the social climate coupled with our efforts at the grassroots level, more and more people are getting into reading.” As a librarian, Su is happy as a lark.

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