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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2012

[Board accepted]

A View from the Mountain Top: The Purple Mountain Observatory Library, China

Jian Zhang
Purple Mountain Observatory
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Nanjing, China

Copyright 2012, Jian Zhang. Used with permission.


This paper discusses the author's experience directing the Purple Mountain Observatory Library, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Nanjing, China. Routine collection development, management and preservation issues are described, and the unique challenges and opportunities involved in operating a remote observatory library are highlighted.


The Purple Mountain Observatory, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Nanjing, China, was founded in September 1934. Its predecessor was the Institute of Astronomy, Academia Sinica, which was established in February 1928. It was the first modern astronomical research institution set up by our country. Until 1962, the Purple Mountain Observatory was the only modern observatory in China, and as such has been famed as "the cradle of modern astronomy in China" (Purple Mountain Observatory CAS 1985). At present, the Purple Mountain Observatory has more than 200 scientific researchers and over 100 Ph.D. and MA students.

With an abundant collection of books, the Purple Mountain Observatory Library is an astronomy library with a long history. I have worked at the library for more than 30 years, engaging in collection development, management, and services to astronomy researchers. This article highlights some of the unique challenges and opportunities I have faced managing a small, remote observatory library.

Collection Overview

An adequate collection of astronomy literature resources serves as an important material basis and a necessary condition for astronomy study and research. The library had a collection of more than 6,000 volumes when the Purple Mountain Observatory was established. The library contains nearly complete runs of many famous Chinese and foreign astronomical journals such as Astronomische Nachrichten, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, The Astrophysical Journal, and The Astronomical Journal. The observatory has duplicate materials exchange agreements with institutes of astronomy in many countries. Through 80 years of gradual acquisitions, it now has over 70,000 volumes of astronomy journals and monographs. In addition, a number of electronic resources are supplied, as well as such special literature as photographic star charts, e.g., Palomar Observatory - European Southern Observatory Photographic Atlas of the Northern Sky, SERC - EJ Sky Atlas on Film, etc. One can get a sense of the collection by browsing our library home page (Library of Purple Mountain Observatory 2012). It has become the largest astronomical library in China, serving Chinese researchers in the field of astronomy in addition to scientific researchers at the observatory.

The Challenges of Acquisitions

Before 1990, foreign science books purchased by Chinese libraries were basically pirated copies. A large quantity of copies led to very cheap prices for libraries. These inexpensive copies could meet the needs of a majority of scientific researchers. However, starting in 1991, when China implemented its first copyright law, Chinese publishers and vendors were prohibited from copying imported books to avoid copyright infringement. Libraries were only allowed to purchase the original editions. However, there was a big price discrepancy between the original edition and a copy. On average, the original was 10-20 times higher than the copy. However, due to the small market for astronomy books, an original astronomy book can often cost 30 or sometimes even 50 times higher than the copy. As a result of the newly implemented Chinese copyright law, the number of foreign science books purchased by all Chinese libraries dropped dramatically due to the lack of funds. The number of foreign books acquired by our library decreased to less than 100 from nearly 300 annually, a decrease of over 2/3. The number of foreign books purchased by some libraries decreased by nearly 80%. After China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, with the copyright law revised yet again, almost no science books have been copied in China, with the few remaining circulating copies commanding considerably higher prices. These two major events caused a tremendous impact to the collection development of libraries.

It has been my experience in over 30 years at the Purple Mountain Library that, regardless of the changes in information technology and document formats over time, the basic needs of astronomers remains the same -- timely access to the scholarly research literature in as many different formats as possible. However, the need to build a rich collection of books and periodicals is in perennial conflict with financial support of the library. The current budget is never enough to meet all needs. What should library directors do?

A fair amount of basic creativity is needed to obtain necessary astronomy books and periodicals. To solve this problem, as head of the library, I have taken the following strategies:

  1. Spending the small amount of library funds on key research projects with the greatest need, and purchasing/subscribing to only the most essential astronomy books and periodicals.
  2. Paying special attention to e-mails announcing the disposal of astronomy books from other libraries and researchers of Chinese and foreign astronomical institutes. Whenever these libraries or individuals mention a need to dispose of astronomy books (especially books absent from our collection), regardless of language, the year of publication or status, I'll make every effort to bring them to our library.
  3. Encouraging astronomers and retired researchers to donate to the library copies of their own published works, as well as copies of books and periodicals acquired when serving as editorial board members or participating in academic conferences, for long-term preservation and use of peers. We ask astronomers to sign their names to the books they donate as a way of letting other patrons know of their generosity.
  4. Requesting book and periodical donations from other astronomy libraries and professional societies.
  5. Soliciting discounted or preferential subscription rates from astronomy societies and the editorial boards of astronomy journals.
  6. Asking research staff with narrow specialties to subscribe to some journals for personal use in their own names.
  7. Directly subscribing to journals from foreign astronomical societies or publishing houses, rather than going through a vendor. Subscribing directly reduces vendor fees and makes online access more straightforward. In addition, having direct contact with publishers enables us to be informed in a more timely fashion of changes in subscription rates, publication delays, and publisher mergers.

In the past 15 years, with the advent of online resources, our library service model has evolved from primarily face-to-face service (reference, document delivery, book and periodical checkout) and print resources to online resources and services. In early 1998, when such journals as The Astrophysical Journal (APJ) hosted by the American Astronomical Society and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) first released online editions for free trial use, our library was at the forefront in China in obtaining online access to these, as well as to journals published by the University of Chicago Press and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. We have continued our efforts to broaden our access to online astronomy books and journals with agreements with Elsevier, Springer Publishing, Cambridge University Press, EDP Sciences, The American Physical Society, and IOP Publishing.

Despite providing increased online access to the scholarly astronomy literature, we have not been able to provide sufficient access to resources in related disciplines, particularly physics and mathematics, due to continuing budget limitations. However, we do our best to make up for this shortage through interlibrary loan, in particular through agreements with the National Science Library, Chinese Academy of Sciences (NSLC) and with the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

Despite these challenges, I feel that the size of our astronomy collection compares well with others in China. We have been fortunate to have obtained support and assistance in this endeavor from many astronomy institutes such as the International Astronomical Union, the Royal Astronomical Society, the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the U.S. Naval Observatory, the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and the U.S. Space Telescope Science Institute. They have donated a number of astronomy books and periodical runs to us free of charge. I would like to express my sincere gratitude to them.

The Challenges of Preservation

Many of the materials collected at Purple Mountain Observatory Library are irreplaceable, tracing the development of modern astronomy in China. Hence, preservation of these unique materials is essential. One of the challenges that I have faced in my years at the library include the continued preservation of a number of unique books seriously damaged by an electrical fire (and subsequent extinguishing efforts) in 1974 (before my tenure at the library). We have preserved them to warn future generations of librarians of the threat that fire and water can pose to libraries, and that safety checks of water and electrical facilities are necessary to prevent similar events from occurring.

In addition, the Observatory has a large spread-out collection, stored in a number of locations, both on and off the mountain. Because of the distributed nature of the collection, it can be quite inconvenient to manage and use these books.

Complicating matters is the need to deal with damage to the building from inclement weather. I have often had to travel up to the observatory, even on holidays or when public transportation has been unavailable, to personally check on the integrity of the building during heavy rains or snowstorms. When no shuttle bus has been available, I have had to walk up and down the mountain. Being the primary person responsible for upkeep of the library even requires occasionally climbing onto the roof to repair leaking holes during heavy evening rainstorms. Furthermore, during long-term construction projects, I have had to actually live at the library for a period of time.

Preserving the observatory library is a great responsibility, and leaves little room for error or carelessness.


From 1996 to 2003, the Purple Mountain Observatory Library had the honor of taking part in the national interdisciplinary scientific project entitled "The Xia -Shang-Zhou Chronology Project", which involved astronomy, history, archaeology and scientific dating technology. My staff and I provided the literature and research support required in astronomical chronology for members of the project team, including the astronomical historian Zhang Peiyu. The involvement of the Library on projects like this and others underscores the continuing value of our Library and its services. Finally, being involved in projects like this piqued my personal interest in ancient Chinese astronomical calendars, leading to my co-writing a journal article in astronomy (Zhang and Zhang 2001) as well as a single-author research paper (Zhang 2008). In addition to this work, I have presented ten library science papers at international conferences.

I take a great deal of pride in this meaningful work assisting astronomers in their important research, especially when we are able to supply materials not found elsewhere. The constant collaboration with other astronomers and librarians (both within China and internationally) has honed my skills, as well as made my job a joyous one. The Purple Mountain Observatory Library stands always ready to assist.


Library of Purple Mountain Observatory (CAS). 2012. Library Web Site. [Internet]. [Cited 2012 May 9]. Available from:

Purple Mountain Observatory CAS. 1985. Fifty years of Purple Mountain Observatory 1934-1984. Nanjing, China: Nanjing University Press. p. 36, 38.

Zhang, J. and Cuilan, Y. 1998. The Document Resources of Purple Mountain Observatory Library. In: Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series, Volume 153. Library and Information Services in Astronomy III. Editors: U. Grothkopf, H. Andernach, S. Stevens-Rayburn, and M. Gomez. [Internet]. [Cited 2012 May 1]. Available from:

Zhang, J. 2008. The study of precision positions of five planets for Shoushi-Datong calendar. Acta Astronomica Sinica 49(2): 207-215.

Zhang, P.Y., Zhang, J. 2001. The Timing System of Lunar Mansions in Japanese Calendars. China Historical Materials of Science and Technology (Zhongguo Keji Shiliao), 22(3): 281-287.

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