If the heat is debilitating, walk to the library and cool down with books

Wan Lixin
Small community libraries don't have the same foot traffic as larger venues, but those that adapt to local interests find success.
Wan Lixin
If the heat is debilitating, walk to the library and cool down with books

Some public libraries in Shanghai have become popular destinations for people seeking refuge from summer heat.

As the summer sizzles on, the more than 200 community libraries in Shanghai are a favorite escape from the heat for local residents.

Some of the libraries draw larger numbers of people than others, for a variety of reasons.

"The joy of being here is the secluded quietude," said a blogger who identified himself as Tang Miyan on the short video platform Xiaohongshu. "On a hot summer's day, walking to this nearby library under the dappled shade of plane trees is refreshing."

The 219 community libraries in the city are part a municipal plan to locate libraries throughout the population.

"Some community libraries are in a relatively good situation, while others suffer from a lack of patrons," said Jia Tiefei, chief librarian of Shanghai Normal University Library.

Jia blamed lack of visitors on a mismatch between what smaller libraries are offering and what residents want. An effort is underway to change that.

Take the example of Heping Library in Hongkou District's Heping Park, which opened in April. As a branch of the district library, it has deeply integrated into the local community.

When a reporter visited the library recently, some readers had their noses in books while sitting between bookshelves, while others were working on laptops.

A vendor who sells coffee and snacks before the library even opens at 9am said library patrons show up for breakfast at about eight. On an average weekday, he said he sells 100 coffees.

An Xin and her two daughters are frequent patrons at a community children's library on Nanjing Road W.

"It's the summer school holidays and we live nearby, so I bring my daughters here as often as possible," the mother said. "My children like books. The 10-year-old prefers popular science, and the 5-year-old loves picture books."

Despite all this, some libraries remain underutilized, in contrast to community canteens, sports facilities and schools for the elderly that are usually oversubscribed.

A reporter sampling opinion on the street found that a considerable number of people weren't familiar with their local libraries. Some said they had visited libraries a couple of times but stopped for various reasons – book collections that didn't interest them, early closing hours, lack of a strong reading ambience.

Shanghai Normal University Library chief Jia isn't surprised. If libraries fail to connect with local needs, people won't come, he said.

Libraries in the city have attempted to make visits easier by creating a system where one library card works in all 400 municipal, district and community libraries. Books checked out in one library can be returned to any other library.

Community libraries, said Jiang Yiqing, deputy editor-in-chief of Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House, said smaller facilities cannot hope to compete with larger libraries in terms of foot traffic. They have to find their own niches, he said.

A case in point is Jiangning Road community library.

According to Zhu Yuxiang, chief librarian, the facility's collection has evolved into an emphasis on design, art, architecture and Shanghai history books. Patrons seem to like the mix.

"The collection of city history books," he said, "includes volumes on old buildings and includes a 1939 map complete with street numbers for aficionados doing research."

To be sure, any successful library needs to keep up-to-date on bestsellers and the lists of most popular books loaned out by larger libraries.

Jia has suggested that books returned to one library should be allowed to remain there for a number of months to keep circulation more fluid.

A 2022 reading survey concluded that a Shanghai resident read an average 13 books a year – well ahead of the national average but behind the 24 average for the French, the 44 average for the Japanese and the 68 for Israelis.

Some city political advisors have said community libraries need to be more creative in using their public space to promote love of reading.

Some libraries, like Sinan Books in Huangpu District, do host periodic literary and book-reading events. At one recent meeting at Sinan to discuss the introduction of classical Chinese poetry to the Western world, Fudan University scholars were guest speakers. The library also stages author autograph sessions.

"Publishing houses want to promote their books, and community libraries are an excellent venue for that," said Jiang of Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House, adding that more needs to be done to improve cooperation between publishers and libraries.

(The article is adapted from an article published on July 7 in Jiefang Daily.)

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