by Gesche Schröder (29 July 2002)
The Digital Revolution
The digitization of texts and the Internet have dramatically changed Chinese Studies:
- Chinese language dictionaries installed in computers offer unprecedented ease and speed for searches;
- A large body of classical and modern Chinese sources such as the twenty five dynastic histories, the Chinese classics with commentaries, the Buddhist canon, and the Siku quanshu, many modern Chinese newspapers and periodicals as well as a rapidly growing number of entire Chinese books are accessible in digitized form and often on the Internet. This greatly enlarges the resources a scholar can easily draw on in his research, and makes many projects feasible for the first time.
- A substantial part of the scholarly publications in both Chinese and in Western-languages have become accessible in digitized form.
- On-line Public Access Catalogues, many of whom accessible via the Internet, allow worldwide searches for Chinese and sinological monographs, periodicals, and even films and music scores.
- Through the Internet, China-related information can be retrieved from newspapers in many languages around the world, and many of the controversies concerning Chinese developments such as the WTO entry can be followed in greatest detail in a speed very close to real time.
- Specialized courses for teaching particular China-related subjects to participants linked through the Internet are being developed.
At the same time, communication among scholars has become much more globalized through e-mail and the ease of sending materials via the Internet, not to mention the change in work style, source organization, and publishing coming with the advent of computer programs able to handle Chinese- and Western-language inputs, desk-top printing, and e-publishing.
All this allows researchers to draw on resources far beyond the reach of a given institution. It makes possible advanced forms of research, and of up-to-date analysis of ongoing developments.
The 'Digital Library'
Potentially, the digital revolution provides a level ground for international scholarly competition. Given the modest size as well as financial means of most European institutions involved in China-related research and teaching, they have the most to gain from this development.
The access to these resources, and possibility of their easy linkage, substantially contributes to a better overall understanding of particular issues in the field. It has already begun to change the environment of research and teaching in Chinese Studies, and skills in handling digital China-related and general resources have become a key qualifying element for graduates. With the explosion of the World Wide Web, a particular information literacy has to be developed to get at quality information instead of just diffuse quantities.
At the same time, the handling of these new options requires, apart from the technical equipment, new and complex skills as well as familiarity with a large and rapidly evolving body of information. Once relevant information is in principle accessible anywhere, no scholarly work can claim ignorance. Information gaps have grown, however, between generations, regions, and research fields with regard to these new options. There is a certain urgency in speeding up the process of adapting to the new environment if the great and innovative intellectual potential of students and researchers in Chinese Studies in Europe is to be fully developed, and the danger of lagging behind in this new domain is to be avoided.
Obviously, no one individual or institution can meaningfully assemble and assess all relevant information, or accumulate all relevant resources. The development of a 'virtual library' connecting the catalogues and other information resources on a regional, national, European and international level can only come about through the cooperation of all concerned, and this is even more true for the gigantic task of creating a 'digital library' which would make digitized texts, images, and sounds located in very many different places accessible via the Internet.
The Heidelberg Center
Over the last 15 years the Institute for Chinese Studies, University of Heidelberg, has made efforts to contribute to the improvement of the research environment for Chinese Studies in Europe. It has developed its print and audio-visual resources in areas where Europe's libraries are often weakest, namely Chinese newspapers, periodicals, and scholarly monographs in Chinese and Western languages, in film and music, and in digitized forms.
The result is a rapidly growing collection of 120 000 monographs including 25 000 Western-language works, 3800 periodical titles, many of which unique in Europe or even anywhere outside China, 1 300 Chinese movie and documentary films and a large holding of contemporary Chinese music.
The Institute has, in the realm of digital resources, made efforts to promote the development of a low-priced library management and electronic information environments capable of handling Chinese characters, and has since many years a stable OPAC presence that is accessible over the Internet.
It has actively contributed to the arduous task of developing a union catalogue of Sinological Serials in European Libraries (SSELP). It has now begun to develop a link between the OPACS of different European sinological centers (EVOCS). It is the host for the China-section of the Virtual Library, the Internet Guide to Chinese Studies (IGCS), one of the most widely used tools to locate relevant and evaluated information about China.
It has assembled, supported in this among others by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation in Taipei as well as the German Research Foundation (DFG), a fair amount of fully indexed databases and of digitized texts, many of which are accessible over the Internet. In the process of this work - with one full-time librarian and much support from student helpers and the scholars at the Institute - it has accumulated much valuable experience, and, needless to say, encountered enervating frustrations.
The Idea behind ChinaResource.org
The digital revolution requires the present work to be taken one step further. The Heidelberg Institute for Chinese Studies therefore has applied for funding from the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation in Essen, Germany, to help improve the Chinese Studies research environment in Europe by
- providing access to digital and Internet resources,
- promoting and facilitating the use of digital and Internet resources, and
- at the same time developing the quality of, and access to, the printed resources held locally.
The Foundation has graciously decided to support this program for a period of three years, extendable to five years.
To bundle these efforts, the European Center for Digital Resources in Chinese Studies (ChinaResource.org) has been set up. It will work in conjunction with the Institute whose library has also received funding to develop its research holdings and greatly increase its service functions for outside users.
The purpose of ChinaResource.org is to contribute to the improvement of the conditions for China-related research and information access in Europe with a long-term goal of linking up with and contributing to the evolving virtual and eventually digital library in this field. This contribution will be made by
- offering on-site, and whereever possible via the Internet, access to the broadest possible array of China-related digital resources. These include
- fully indexed databases of classical and modern Chinese language primary sources;
- digitized classical and modern Chinese texts for free use by all scholars;
- searchable digitized texts of Chinese- and Western-language scholarly materials;
- search engines such as EVOCS and SSELP for China-related internet-accessible open public-access in Europe, even if these use different cataloguing routines;
- guides to Internet resources about China such as the Internet Guide to Chinese Studies IGCS.
- support for making accessible via the WWW databases and research tools developed elsewhere such as the Synonyma Serica database compiled by Prof. Harbsmeier in Oslo.
- support for digitizing manually compiled older data resources such as the complex name, place, and utensil Index to the Taoist Canon.
- facilitating and speeding up access to existing Chinese-language resources through the establishment of mirror-sites.
- archiving and keeping accessible digital information from Chinese or China-related newsgroups, mailing lists, and other forums.
- assisting other European China institutes in their development of Internet accessible public access catalogues (OPAC) through on-site and Internet-linked courses.
- to help scholars and students in Chinese Studies to develop the routines of handling digital resources through Internet and on-site courses and through opening a newsgroup to exchange information and promote mutual support.
ChinaResource.org will make efforts to promote an interlibrary loan system among sinological centers across Europe as it now informally exists between a few institute and state libraries.
ChinaResource.org will also make efforts to facilitate long-distance access to those digital resources as well as to the print and microfilm/microfiche resources only accessible in the Institute itself.