Asian and African studies blog

09 October 2015

Chinese collections opened up by Libcrowds

The Chinese collections at the British Library consist of more than 100,000 printed books and 2,500 periodical titles. The material has been acquired or donated to the British Library since the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum was founded in 1753, the year of the foundation of the Museum itself. The earliest acquisitions of Chinese material were from the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, and nowadays we continue to acquire both rare books and contemporary publications on topics such as the humanities and social sciences from the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

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Card catalogues cabinets in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room (photo ©Jon Ellis)

During more than 250 years of collection history, the library’s librarians and curators have been working extensively to catalogue and document the Chinese language material, in order to make it available to readers. Before the era of computers and the internet, the collection was catalogued on cards that provided essential information for each book, such as the title, the author, the physical description (dimensions, number of pages, images and so on), the subject and a “shelfmark”, which linked to the location of the item. This data is still the basis of the electronic records produced and used today in libraries and archives around the world.

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Shelves of recently acquired material in Chinese, kept in the Chinese section for cataloguing and processing

The catalogues for Chinese material which entered the British Library before 1993 are divided into two main categories. Firstly, acquisitions made before 1966 were catalogued using the Wade-Giles transliteration system for Chinese, and they are available in microfiche format in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. A project focussing on their conversion from microfiche to electronic format is ongoing.

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Example of a catalogue card in Wade-Giles transliteration with its corresponding collection item

After 1966, the Pinyin transliteration system was introduced, and has been used for Romanising Chinese metadata ever since. Material acquired continued to be catalogued on cards until 1993, when records started to be input electronically. The cards include records for about 50,000 items held in the Chinese collections which were acquired between 1966 and 1993.

In association with British Library Labs we recently launched LibCrowds, a platform that hosts experimental crowd-sourcing projects focused on enhancing access to British Library collections. The first project series, Convert-a-Card, is dedicated to the retro-conversion of Chinese and Indonesian printed card catalogues into electronic records, in order to make them available to a worldwide audience via our ExploreBL catalogue. This means that our readers will no longer need to come to the Asian and African Studies Reading Room to search holdings of Chinese items using the card catalogue and will instead be able to pre-order items online. We are currently using LibCrowds to derive metadata for printed material published after 1949 and catalogued using Pinyin Romanisation. You can read more about how the platform  works here. 4a pinyin card example4b pinyin corresponding item
Example of scanned card in Pinyin drawer 1 of Libcrowds, and the cover page of the corresponding collection item

At the time of writing, Convert-a-card has received 18,434 contributions by volunteers based in 27 different countries. However, there is still a long way to go and new contributors are always welcome, whether they are anonymous, or registered members of the LibCrowds community!

You can help us to uncover more and more Chinese items by contributing here.

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Example of  Convert-a-Card project on Libcrowds for the retroconversion of Pinyin drawer number 3


Sara Chiesura with Emma Goodliffe, Curators, Chinese collection

With thanks to Alex Mendes and Nora McGregor for developing LibCrowds
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