On July 1, 2006 the Qinghai-Tibet Sky Train made its inaugural run from inland China to the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Chinese government heralded the Sky Train as a marvel of modern engineering. However, in Tibet there were mixed reactions.
Some believe the train will help develop Tibet’s economy by improving access to goods and services. Others worry that it will lead to an increase in social problems, namely the further erosion of indigenous Tibetan culture. Tibet seems to be on the verge of great change and this can be a scary prospect for any community. However, it is important to note that change does not always have to work against tradition. One prime example can be found in the institution of the library.
In Tibet’s libraries there is a unique opportunity to use new ideas, practices, and technologies from the field of information science to preserve and strengthen Tibet’s cultural heritage. The development of libraries in Tibet has been closely tied to the movement of history, economics, politics, and culture. Since ancient times, monasteries have served important religious, cultural, and educational functions, among which has been the collection and preservation of Tibetan manuscripts and documents.
From 1951, when the Tibetan government and Chinese Communist Party signed the Seventeen Point Agreement, this tradition was greatly impacted. Since the 1950s the number of active Tibetan monasteries has dropped from 6,200 to 550, and according to one scholar, around 60 percent of the Tibetan written record was lost as a result of the Cultural Revolution.
At the same time indigenous collections have been declining, there has been an increase in Chinese reading materials. From the mid-1950s the Chinese Communist Party has worked to build new libraries or government reading rooms. Understandably, with the increase in the Chinese population in Tibet and with the Chinese government encouraging Tibetans to learn Chinese for school and work, the amount of Chinese literature in Tibet has increased substantially over the years.
Today’s libraries collect both Chinese and Tibetan materials, with Chinese materials in many cases outnumbering the Tibetan materials. Under present conditions there is a danger that Tibetan literary heritage will soon be completely overshadowed. This fate, however, can be offset through the development of the Tibetan library. Developing preservation programs and building partnerships with monasteries are two ways in which libraries can help protect Tibetan documents and manuscripts. Libraries can also help make Tibetan documents more accessible to people by cataloging and through digitization.
Moreover, libraries can bring an awareness of Tibetan history and literature, and reconnect a new generation with their culture through library programs. Today, librarianship in Tibet is still in the process of developing. While a Masters in Library and Information Science is the new standard for librarians in America, only 5 percent of librarians in Tibet have undergraduate degrees in Library and Information Science; most enter the library with no professional experience. Education and cooperative partnerships will be the key to the future development of libraries in Tibet.
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