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The first libraries in China came into being during the time of the Shang dynasty (the sixteenth to eleventh centuries B.C.) as intellectuals known as the Shi (historians) and Wu (diviners) emerged from manual labor to special occupations for the creation and spread of culture. Among the documents that these occupations managed were "the country's statute books, genealogies of imperial kinsmen, issued notices and orders, and recorded important events and natural phenomena. For future verification and reference, they built storehouses to keep records in different media. To meet the needs of more and more complicated affairs and to ensure easy use, they began to collect and sort out those records according to chronological order and category. Thus, the earliest library in China came into being. The numerous kinds of media loaded with information and knowledge emerged in human society, resulting in the concepts of preservation and collection. Accordingly, the earliest libraries and archives were the result of conscious collection, process, coalition, and utilization."
Early in the history of China, scholars had extensive private libraries, and all of the imperial dynasties constructed libraries and archives to house literary treasures and official records. The first modern libraries, however, did not appear in China until the late nineteenth century; even then, library service grew slowly and sporadically. In 1949 there were only fifty-five public libraries at the county level and above, most concentrated in major coastal commercial centers.
Following the founding of the People's Republic, government and education leaders strove to develop library services and make them available throughout the country. The National Book Coordination Act of 1957 authorized the establishment of two national library centers, one in Beijing (National Library of China) and the other in Shanghai (Shanghai Library), and nine regional library networks. Even so, libraries still were scarce, and those facilities that were available were cramped and offered only rudimentary services. Seeing the lack of libraries as a major impediment to modernization efforts, government leaders in the early 1980s took special interest in the development of library services. The special concentration of funds and talent began to produce significant results. More than forty Chinese institutions of higher learning also had established library science or information science departments. There were more than 2,300 public libraries at the county level and above, containing nearly 256 million volumes, and below the county level some 53,000 cultural centers included a small library or reading room.
At the end of 2004, China had 2,710 public libraries with a collection of over 400 million copies. There were 2,925 public libraries in China in 2011. Of the university or college libraries, the collections of Peking University and Zhejiang University libraries lead the nation. The national library network also includes scientific research institution libraries, trade union libraries, plus libraries and reading rooms attached to government institutions, army units, primary and secondary schools, townships, enterprises and local communities.
The country's main library, the National Library of China, housed a rich collection of books, periodicals, newspapers, maps, prints, photographs, manuscripts, microforms, tape recordings, and inscriptions on bronze, stone, bones, and tortoiseshells.
The National Library of China, with a collection of over 26 million volumes, is the largest library in Asia, housing the largest collection of Chinese books in the world. In the library's collection are over 35,000 oracle bones and tortoise shells carved with ancient Chinese characters, 1.6 million volumes of traditional thread-bound books, over 16,000 volumes of documents from Dunhuang Grottoes, 12 million volumes of foreign-language books, and dozens of electronic databases.
The library started to accept the submissions of official national publications in 1916, becoming the main national database; and began to accept submissions of domestic electronic publications in 1987. It is also the country's ISSN (International Standard Serial Number) Center and Network Information Center. At present, the National Library of China has formed a digital library alliance with some 90 other libraries around the country, making joint efforts in promoting the development and application of China's digital public information service. The second phase of the National Library – China Digital Library, whose foundation was laid at the end of 2004, is planned to be completed and commissioned in October 2007. The expanded library will be able to meet book storage demand for the next 30 years. The Digital Library will make it the world's biggest Chinese literature collection center and digital resources base, as well as the most advanced network service base in China.
The Shanghai Municipal Library, one of the largest public libraries in the country, contained over 7 million volumes, nearly 1 million of which were in foreign languages. The Shanghai Library, well known at home and abroad, is China's largest provincial-level library. Of its collection, the over 1.7 million volumes of ancient documents are the most valuable and representative, including 25,000 titles of rare ancient books in 178,000 volumes, many being the only copies extant in the world. The oldest document dates back nearly 1,500 years.
The Beijing University Library took over the collections of the Yanjing University Library in 1950 and by the mid-1980s – with more than 3 million volumes, one-fourth of them in foreign languages – was one of the best university libraries in the country. It is one of the earliest modern new libraries in China. Approved by the State Council as the first batch of national key ancient books protection unit, has developed into a resource rich, modern, comprehensive, open research library.