The China Evergreen Rural Library Service (CERLS)

Evergreen Education Foundation
(See also: Bringing Information Resources to Rural China)

A. Background and overview of the China Evergreen Rural Library Service

China has a large rural population, which accounts for about 60% up to 85% of China’s 1.3 billion total population. These people in rural areas have extremely limited access to information resources. Those resources are particularly scarcer in western China, which has not benefited from the prosperity of the coastal region and where poverty and illiteracy abound. According to China’s Ministry of Education, about 90 percent of China’s illiterate population live in rural areas. Half of these people live in the western provinces, and 70 percent are female.

In order to provide easier access to information, China has been steadily developing public libraries since early 1990s. Economically developed cities, towns, and villages have engaged in resource sharing activities such as interlibrary loan and cooperative purchasing. According to a survey conducted by Jia, Du, Si and Zhang (1996), about 75% of secondary schools and 49% of primary schools in China have established libraries or reading rooms by 1995. However, this development research result is on urban areas, and rural regions are not covered. Just to gain approval from a school certification program implemented by China’s provincial government in 1995 to reach the national goal of mandatory K-9 education, many rural schools set up temporary “library” rooms with few bookshelves of books. Despite the effort of central government, school library development in rural regions, especially in western provinces, has been difficult and overlooked.

  • What is the project about?
To help combat illiteracy and poverty, the China Evergreen Rural Library Service (CERLS), one of the major projects of the Evergreen Education Foundation, provides free access to information resources in China’s rural communities through public school libraries. CERLS helps to develop and computerize their library collections, setup computer labs, and deliver training workshops on information literacy and library usage. At these library sites, students, teachers, and members of the public learn to use computer technology and the Internet to explore tools for literacy, to obtain practical information, and to engage in lifelong learning.

CERLS was successful in presenting an alternative model of providing public information services to serve rural communities where public libraries are hard to access. In 2004, the Evergreen project has won the Bill-Melinda Gates Foundation's "Access to Learning" Award. The program’s success was largely due to the cooperation between the entities involved in establishing the libraries. CERLS provided computer equipment and library-management software, technology training, and a substantial number of books. Participating schools provided Internet access, librarians, staff, space, and furniture. This was often done with the help of the provincial or local ministries of education.


CERLS has also formed partnership with local officials, public libraries, and corporations to maximize the impact of its work. Under the agreement between the CERLS and county governors, the county public library would receive computer equipment, technology training for its staff on library automation and software as well as on automated library operations and online cataloging, and share the school library’s collection. In return, the high school, which desperately needed more space for community outreach, will expand its network for the public. In addition, as part of the agreement with CERLS, the county governor would pledged to provide Internet access for the public library.
CERLS network includes eight public school libraries in the western provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, and Shaanxi and in the eastern province of Jiangsu, and CERLS libraries serve a combined student population of nearly 20,000 and a combined community population of well over 1 million.

B. Access to Information through ICTs--Evergreen brings literacy skills into rural China

  • Why is the project important?

While China has a vast network of public libraries, many charge for access. Most public libraries, moreover, are located in cities; rural counties typically have only a book station in their local culture center. The few public li­braries that do exist in rural areas tend to have outdated collections and no access to informa­tion technology. Because of lack of funding, most of these county-level public libraries have not been able to add books to their col­lections for at least 10 years. Whatever funds these libraries do receive from their county government barely cover salaries, building maintenance, and utilities.

The concept of information literacy is still new to both teachers and students in China. In the context of CERLS, information literacy means that students and teachers know how to make use of the library system, including comput­ers and the Internet, to search for information needed for learning and teaching. Teachers can then encourage inquiry-based learning—independent exploration and inquiry with use of information resources—to foster critical and original thinking. Students can search, gather, analyze, and synthesize information to answer questions, satisfy their curiosity, draw conclusions, and work out solutions to practi­cal problems.

  • When did the project start?

Founded in 2001, CERLS network includes eight public school libraries in the western provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Shaanxi, and in the eastern province of Jiangsu. Recently, two elementary school libraries in Beijing were added to the network. These schools were established for migrant workers’ children who are not allowed to enroll in local public schools because their parents are not registered residents of the city. CERLS libraries serve a combined student population of nearly 20,000 and a combined community population of well over 1 million.

  • Where was the project implemented?

  • Qinghai
Qinghai is the least developed and poorest of China’s western provinces. This vast region is home to many ethnic minorities, includ­ing Tibetans, Hui, Mongolians, Manchus, Tus, and Salars. CERLS provides library and information resources in both official Mandarin Chinese and their native languages. Today, there are three CERLS school libraries in Qinghai—at Datong Sixth High School, Lijiashan High School, and Gonghe Huanhu Minority School.

  • ShaanxiShaanxi_case.JPG
Danfeng High School in Shaanxi Province has the largest number of public access computers of all CERLS sites. One computer lab is devoted solely to teaching computer-related courses and training on the library system.

Public use of the information resources at Danfeng High School has increased dramatically. In three years, the number of active library users among students quadrupled while the number among community residents went from zero to 475.

Danfeng High School in Shaanxi province has more than 200 computers divided into three groups. One group, which is open to the public, is in the electronic reading room, which is networked to the library system and has Internet access. The second group is located in the com­puter lab, which is the site for teaching computer-related courses and training on the library system, and teaching skills in Internet searching and information literacy. The third group of computers is dis­tributed among classrooms for daily instruc­tional use.

  • Who are involved in the project?

。Board in the US
Evergreen was founded in 2001 by a group of Chinese and American professionals and academics who volunteer their time to raise funds in the United States, primarily from Chinese-Americans, to enhance education in rural China.

。Local Staff
CERLS has expanded its staff from 3 to 11, including several administrators as well as one repre­sentative for each province where the program operates.

  1. SuperStar, a Beijing-based Chinese technology company involved in digitizing library col­lections, donated 1,000 reading cards.
  2. Semia , a Danish robot company, donated five sets of LEGO robots—programmable electronic parts that can be assembled into robots of different functionalities.
  3. Another company based in China, V2Technology, donated its teleconferencing software to CERLS so that project schools can conduct virtual meetings to share ideas and exchange information.

  • How is the project carried out?
Technology training has been vital to CERLS’ success. In April 2002, two trainers from Hua Xia Information Technologies Inc., the company that supplied the software se­lected by CERLS, went to Datong, Qinghai, to conduct an on-site workshop on library automation software and book classification and cataloging.

Key to this program’s success was defin­ing the obligations of each entity involved in establishing the libraries. CERLS agreed to provide computer equipment and library- management software, technology training, and a substantial number of books to update collections and fill major gaps in collection de­velopment. Participating schools, in turn, had to provide internet access, librarians, staff, space, and furniture.

  • What about the future developments?

。Install­ing computers with Internet access at existing satellite information stations

。Establishing a technological infrastructure for resource sharing among project schools

。 Adding schools to the network

。Providing additional workshops and training to school librarians and community users in the CERLS network to improve their information technol­ogy skills

C. Users' Response & Evaluation: Viability & sustainability of this project

(See: Bringing Information Resources to Rural China)
  • Users' Response
"While serving students and teachers in daily operations, we are taking steps to implement programs open to the public, free of charge, to maximize the social effects of investments in information technologies and resources,” says Niu Tuowen, principal of Tongwei First High School. He explained that group library cards were issued to neighboring schools in the local area so that teachers from these schools could obtain resources that their own libraries do not have. Tongwei also issued library cards to students’ parents and started a parents’ schooling program to help them obtain basic skills in accessing information resources.
Zhong Hexin, 30, is one of three librarians at the school. CERLS has trained Zhong in how to classify books, catalog them on the computer, and use the computer to search for books in the library collection and for information on the Internet. “Learning the computer helps me keep people better informed,” he says. “I help teachers design better lesson plans and help people in the community solve practical problems.”

Ling Shurong, a geography teacher at Tongwei Second High School, uses information resources in the Tongwei First High School Library to prepare her lessons. “The school where I am teaching doesn’t have a library, and I really had nowhere to go when I needed to look up things when preparing a lesson plan,” said Ling. When asked about whether she had shared information with colleagues, she replied, “Oh yes, mostly with a neighbor who is a kindergarten teacher.”

Wei Yuanliang, a 14-year-old student from Lingshan village, which is about 10 kilometers from Tongwei First High School, has been using the library to help his father learn more medical skills. Wei Qan, his father, used to be a “barefoot doctor”—a village doctor who provided basic health care, birth assistance, and emergency first aid. When the local commune dissolved, he was sent back to his home village and became a farmer again. Many rural residents are far from a hospital and cannot afford medical fees. To help his neighbors, Wei has started practicing medicine again. Thanks to the library, he is studying both Chinese and Western diagnostic techniques and treatments for common diseases.“The CERLS project has made a noticeable mark on people’s lives both in terms of cultural development and economic advancement.”

Liu Jianhua was an unemployed factory worker until he visited the school library, got on the Internet, and found information about sheep farming, a profession he had always wanted to try. “The computer changed my life in a way that I never could have seen. Now, I share my experience with my neighbors and tell them to go use the computer because it is so powerful,” Liu says. He has built a thriving business and hopes to give some of his profits back to his alma mater to help expand the computer lab.

"Liu Jianhua, 45, used the computers at Danfeng to learn about sheep farming and started his own business which has become quite successful."

  • School Library-centered Community Information Resource Sharing Model
A School-Library-Centered Community Information Resource Sharing Model and Its Impact on Cultural Life of Rural Communities in China
This paper provides a case study of CERLS programs and identifies the vital role of school libraries in improving local residents’ access to information and enriching their cultural life. It analyzes the data collected from user surveys of one high school library and one book station from two library clusters in Tianzhu and Tongwei counties in Gansu Province to assess the impact and effectiveness of a school library-centered community information resource sharing model. A total of 1,350 surveys were distributed to the community library users in the two counties to gain a better understanding of their satisfaction level and expectations of the libraries’ collections, services, and outreach programs, and to examine the impact of the model on the social and economic life of local residents.

The study found that the implementation of the school-library-centered model was generally well received by the residents. Offering free access to library resources and services has yielded very positive results in the promotion of reading, learning, and continuing education in the communities. An overwhelmingly large percentage of the populations was satisfied with the hours of operation and services at the library and the book station. Users were generally pleased with the content, size, and format of library resources, and services offered were also perceived to have been useful and relevant to the respondents’ needs. The study also recognizes following findings:

Education and income as two key variables that affected users’ information needs and their perception of the services and programs.
Technological divides were strongly observed.
Digital resources and accessibility to them are two areas that need to be given more attention.
。Increases in living standards would allow more families to buy computers and access to the Internet from home. Before that happens, however, the library is still the most practical place to help lower income users with training and access to digital resources as this group of users visits libraries more often and are more dependent on the libraries to acquire knowledge and skills. Sharing the print collections is very important and necessary for supporting the resource-sharing model, but at this stage the model has been handicapped by (1) a lack of a shared online union catalog; (2) a lack of a courier system to support interlibrary borrowing among CERLS libraries; and (3) insufficient funding to support (1) and (2).

To address these issues:

The delivery of digital resources becomes a feasible and the ideal method for future resource sharing, and therefore needs to be given priority.
。Survey data indicated low attendance rates for training and workshops held at both sites. The number of training sessions offered so far was small, and topics were limited. A more vigorous program is necessary, and broader topics could better serve the diverse needs of the local residents to help the resource-sharing model bring more local residents together to learn and read, and provide them much more social spaces for communication and entertainment.