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Navigating Shanghai Library and its rules to locate and check out gems in English
By Brian Offenther

Adapt them to video games and movies or digitize and download them, there's nothing like a good book. Drab in appearance next to more recent, flashier media, books are reflected by their towering gray monument in the city: the Shanghai Library.

Located at 1557 Huaihai Road M., the Shanghai Library, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, advertises as holding 51 million items. Although only a small percentage of those are books in the English language that are found on the ground and fourth floors, they number in the thousands, and it's easily the largest collection available to the public in Shanghai.

However, it's not as easy as grabbing a book off the shelf and finding a comfy spot. Besides, with more books than anyone can ever read in a lifetime, navigating them is an art in itself.

And, the somewhat confounding and confusing rules for checking out the books themselves means getting the most out of the Shanghai Library requires some finesse.

Finding books online

To start, it's probably worthwhile to see if the library has books that suit your interests, because as we shall see, checking them out is a bit of a task. The ground and fourth floors have separate collections, and moving books between them can be a headache.

Fortunately, the Shanghai Library has a website which allows browsing of its entire collection. Unfortunately it's somewhat buggy. Despite this is still the best way to start.

Go to http://ipac.library.sh.cn, the Internet catalogue home for all the media at the library. If you're already at the library and want to explore it, there's a whole row of computers that can navigate the site. They can be found by going through the library's main entrance and then walking all the way to the right.

On the site, those who don't read Chinese might be tempted to click on the link for the English version, but this may only lead to frustration, as the English version contains many errors.

In the middle of the screen is the search box, and next to it is the category. The default search option is for the book title, and if you click on the arrow next to it, you can also scroll to the next option, which is author, followed by subject.

Browsing for books can be a joy, since the Shanghai Library contains many books that cannot be purchased or borrowed anywhere else in the city. These include books on every controversial topic imaginable, including a coffee-table book by edgy comic artist R Crumb, "Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream" about illicit drug use in the United States by Jay Stevens. Touchy national issues are covered as well.

If you find books you might want to check out, write down their information, including their call number (索书号) and whether they are available on the ground or fourth floor (馆藏地).

Getting a library card

Getting the library card is the biggest hurdle due to its hefty requirements. Expats need to take a passport and the long-term residential certificate obtained when registering at your local police precinct.

Also be ready to pay a 50-yuan (US$7.85) fee and a 1,000-yuan deposit for one year of access. The deposit can be refunded at any time, as long as all borrowed books have been returned.

Take the paper work and money to the "Reader Registration" section, which can be found by walking straight in through the main entrance of the library and bearing slightly to the right.

Go to one of the computers, where the registration process begins, by putting in your personal information. After doing that, go to the counter on your left to complete the process.

Checking out books

It's time to get your hands on the books.

The Shanghai Library card allows patrons to check out five books at a time in non-Chinese languages. Working hours are 1:30-4:30pm on Mondays, and 9am-4:30pm from Tuesdays to Sundays.

Books can be checked out for a month at a time and then renewed for a second time (see box for more information on renewals).

At this point, the process becomes a bit tangled.

The library's non-Chinese-language books are divided into two sections: those on the ground floor and on the fourth.

Newer and donated books are kept on the fourth floor, with many older ones accessible from the ground floor.

Books on the ground floor can be found by searching using the Internet catalogue website (see above "finding books online"). This is important because these books are kept in storage and are not available for browsing.

To check out these books, take the information about them to the librarian who can be found by walking in at the main entrance, and then walking all the way to the right. After getting to the end, this librarian will be sitting to your right.

Note that often this librarian is often not at this station, so asking other librarians to retrieve him or her is sometimes necessary.

The librarian will take down your book or books' information and give you a piece of paper with a number written on it. This paper will be used to pick up the requested books just across from the librarian at the large check-out desk.

After about 15 minutes, show a librarian at this desk the slip of paper, and the book is handed to you. It can be checked out at the same counter.

It's important to plan your visit to the Shanghai Library, because after checking out books on the ground floor, in many cases the librarians will not allow these books to be taken to the fourth floor, where the other sections of English books are located.

Sometimes the librarian will allow the reader to go to the fourth floor after vetting the book or books to make sure they were checked out properly, but this is not always the case, making for a sometimes frustrating experience.

It is therefore more advisable to first go to the fourth floor to explore or check out books.

Browsing books is possible here, as is reading a variety of English magazines and newspapers.

Books on the fourth floor are separated into "Foreign Books & Proceedings" and the "Friendship Library." Each is in a separate section of the four-floor collection and needs to be checked out at their corresponding desks.

Fortunately, all of this is clearly labeled. Still, keep this in mind if searching for a book corresponding to a specific call number of a book on the fourth floor: It's possible the book is there, but simply in a different section.

Renewing books

For those who just aren't ready to put down their borrowed books, the renewal process can be done in person at the library or more conveniently online.

To renew books in person, go to the checkout counter (see above in the "Checking out books" section).

To renew books via the Internet, go to the catalogue of the Shanghai Library at http://ipac.library.sh.cn. Across the top of the page you'll see a few tabs. The second one is labeled "我的图书馆" and is the one used for accessing features of your library card. If you can't read the Chinese instructions, click on the English tab and put in the corresponding information.

Here you can renew your books, as well as update your personal information found on the card.

By keeping up to date, the library's thousands of books will always be available for your enjoyment.

Other resources at the Shanghai Library

The Shanghai Library is like a Swiss Army knife, with books being only the main blade. There are still plenty of other resources and facilities.

In late May, the library opened a new computer room accessible to the public without having to physically enter the main library or even have a library card. The few dozen computers have Internet access, and printing in black and white is available for 0.05 yuan per page. The Internet room is open daily from 9am to 5pm.

If you already have the document you need printed, copies can be made in black and white for 0.20 yuan.

Other useful facilities include a ground-floor café that sells snacks and drinks. In a few locations around the library there are art exhibitions and ancient book displays that can be explored.

On the ground floor is also a handy store that sells pens, paper, postcards and other stationery, as well as books.

Other places to find books in English

The Shanghai Library is impressive, but it's not the only place for books in Shanghai.

The Changning District Library (356 Tianshan Road) is conveniently located directly outside the Exit 1 of Metro Line 2 Weining Road Station. The eighth floor has a few hundred books in English, along with very comfortable chairs and a nice décor.

Unfortunately, the books cannot be checked out, so reading them requires an extended stay - or likely a few of them - in the library. A few English books are available for sale in the bookstore on the first floor, such as "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson for 180 yuan (US$28.26).

Other options include Garden Books (235 Changle Road) and Shanghai Book Trader (390 Fuzhou Road), second-hand stores like William the Beekeeper (84 Fenyang Road), or cafes that have book trade services like Boonna Cafe (1690 Huaihai Road M.).

Finally, many go with the book carts that line popular nightlife areas, such as on the corner of Xinle and Fumin roads. However, many of these books are illicit copies and may have missing pages or entire chapters from their originals. Buy these at your own risk.

The Shanghai Library is open daily 9am-8:30pm, with English books available to check out from 1:30-4:30pm on Mondays, and 9am-4:30pm Tuesdays through Sundays. The Changning Library is open daily from 9am-8pm.

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164