McLuhan Studies : Issue 6

Home Page

Table of Contents

Author Index

Title Index



Library Systems in East Asia

Library Systems in East Asia

by Insup Taylor and Wang Guizhi


Libraries have existed in China since ancient times. During two thousand years of dynastic history, to keep book collections was often a duty as well as a prerogative of royalty and wealthy literati. In these old collections, books were grouped into a few classes according to their subject matter. The collections were not open to the public. The traditional Chinese library system lasted until modern times, not only in China but also in Korea and Japan.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a large-scale modernization, borrowing from Western culture, began in East Asia. Many public, university, school, and special libraries sprang up, many of which used a modified Western classification system, based on the Dewey Decimal Classification or the Library of Congress Classification (see below).

In these modern libraries, after books are classified by subject matter, they are catalogued first by title and then by author, the reverse of the order used in the West and recommended by the International Standards Organization. In Chinese and Korean, an author's name is typically written in three Chinese characters; and in Japan, in four characters (see Appendix A). Everywhere in East Asia, surnames come before first names: thus, Mao Zedung of the Mao family, in contrast to the Western European John Smith of the Smith family. Because all of these countries have only a limited number of different names, one name can be shared by many people. Thus the names of the authors do not discriminate well among the books on a given subject.

Titles and authors are ordered in a library according to their sounds and the written graphs for these sounds. The writing systems used are these: Chinese characters in China; an alphabetic syllabary, along with some Chinese characters, in Korea; and Chinese characters along with a syllabary in Japan (see Appendix B).

All three nations use a limited number of English words written in the English or Roman alphabet, often in abbreviations (e.g., p. for page; cm. for centimeter) or initialisms (e.g., ISBN for International Standard Book Number).

At present, libraries in East Asia are not as advanced as those in the West. Some do not allow public access to stacks, and some charge user fees. There are no neighborhood libraries, though some mobile libraries visit remote villages or factories in Japan and Korea. Computerizing library operations has begun, but its progress lags behind that of the West.

Dewey Decimal Classification and Library of Congress Classification

The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) was developed by Melvil Dewey in the United States in 1876; its 20th edition was published in 1989. Library materials are arranged decimally in 10 main subject classes, 100 class divisions, 1,000 sections, and so on. For example, the main classes include 100–199 for Philosophy, Psychology, Ethics, and 900–999 for History, Geography, Biography, Travel. Subjects are placed in class hierarchies, as illustrated in the following example.

Subject: Women in the labor force

Call number: 331.44

300 Social Sciences

330 Economics

331 Labor Economics

331.4 Women Workers

After a decimal point there can be as many as six numbers.

The Library of Congress of the United States of America, established in 1800, is now the largest library in the world. To handle the great diversity and quantity of materials, it uses its own Library of Congress Classification (LCC). Knowledge is divided into 21 major areas, and each is labeled with a capital letter: A, General Works; B, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion; C to F, History; . . . Q, Science; . . . Z, Bibliography and Library Science. Letters, I, O, X, and Y are not used.

A broad subject area such as science is subdivided into a set of second-level areas (e.g., Botany, Chemistry) and second capital letters are added to the first one. Then a topic is represented by a set of numbers specifying lower-level divisions, such as tree, grass. For example, the classification or call number for a book titled “Trees in North America,” authored by John Smith, is as follows:

QK 481

.S 51

The letter that follows a decimal point refers to the initial of the author's surname; subsequent numbers differentiate that particular work from similar books by the same author or by authors with the same initial.

Until 1980, each publication was classified and listed on several catalogue cards, with its call number placed at the upper-left-hand corner. These cards were filed alphabetically by author, title, or subject. Since 1 January, 1980, for English-language works, all kinds of information on library materials—e.g., books, films, magazines, videos, music scores—have been computerized, eliminating catalogue cards.

Libraries in China

The oldest libraries in China could be the 3400-year-old "archives" or the "stacks" of ancient animal bones and tortoiseshells that bore records of divination. Incidentally, these records were kept in Chinese characters, thus providing us with a valuable clue to how Chinese characters began and developed over a few thousand years of continued use.

Nearly every dynasty, starting with the Qin (221–206 BC), established imperial or state libraries or both. Wealthy literati, too, collected books in private libraries. In the Sui dynasty (AD 589–618), books in libraries were classified into four areas: Confucian classics, philosophy, history, belles lettres. This fourfold classification remained traditional in East Asia until Western classification systems began to be adopted in modern times. One of the three monumental reference books published during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), called Four Treasures, is a comprehensive anthology of famous works in these four areas.

Today, most libraries belong to central or provincial governments, universities and colleges, and industrial and commercial establishments. The largest library in China, one of the largest in the world, is the Beijing National Library, which began in 1912 as the Capital Library. It houses many Chinese classic books, including rare antiques, along with new books and foreign books. At most libraries a user pays for a library card and can borrow only between two and four books at a time. Public access to these libraries is limited.

Since 1980, books in most libraries have been classified and catalogued according to the Chinese-Book Classification, which is modeled on the U. S. Library of Congress Classification (LCC). The Chinese system includes unique categories such as "Marxism and Mao's Thoughts" and has its own letter-category pairings. It uses 22 categories, which are labeled with the letters of the Roman alphabet, from A to Z (minus M, W, and Y) as follows.

A Marxism and Mao's Thought

B Philosophy


E Military


T Industry and Technology


Z General Works

The T category, being broad, has double letters, such as TG for Metallurgy, and TQ for Chemistry. Under each letter or two-letter group, subcategories are labeled with numbers, such as

TG 14 Metal materials

TG 141 Black metal materials

TG 142 Steel

In addition to the category of its subject matter, a catalog card contains the title and author of a book. Titles and authors are written in Chinese characters, whose stroke numbers determine how the two items are ordered in a library (as is done in dictionaries, indexes, etc.).

Chinese Characters

Chinese characters (henceforth, characters) have been continuously used in China for a few thousand years. They were adopted by Koreans about the third century AD, and by Japanese about the sixth century AD. Characters are numerous: about 50,000 are available, of which a few thousand are used by East Asians today. A simply shaped character has only one stroke, but most are complex and have as many as 64 strokes. The most common number of strokes—used in about 3,500 characters—is nine. Appendix B shows a few examples of Chinese characters.

About 85% of characters are composites of two component characters, one component hinting at the sound, and the other at the meaning, of the composite character (see Appendix B). For convenience, it is customary to count the stroke number of only one component of a composite character, and to order characters according to this number. If two components have the same number of strokes, the two are ordered according to the shapes of their first strokes, such as a horizontal stroke before a vertical one.

Chinese characters are logographs, each of which expresses the meaning of one morpheme. The sound of each character is the sound of the morpheme it represents, which is usually one syllable with a tone. A morpheme is a smallest meaning-bearing unit, and a word can consist of one to four morphemes. For example, zhong (1, “middle”) + guo (1, “nation”) = zhongguo (2, “middle nation,” or “China”) + ren (1, “person”) = zhongguoren (3, Chinese). The numbers of characters for the morphemes is shown in Arabic numerals. (By contrast, in a phonetic script, a morpheme is represented by a string of letters each of which codes a sound, either a phoneme in an alphabet or a syllable in a syllabary.)

Pinyin (Roman alphabet)

Almost every Chinese morpheme is pronounced in one syllable with a tone. The character for "work" is gong with a level tone, and so is that for "merit"; these two are homophones. Tones vary in four ways in mandarin or Putonghua, standard Chinese: level, fall-rise, rise, and fall. Characters are inadequate in indicating their sounds, including tones. Their phonetic components provide only unreliable clues to the sounds of composite characters. Compare the tone syllables of three characters shown in Appenix B: they share the phonetic component gong (level tone), but the third is pronounced as xiang (falling tone). Thus, to indicate the sounds of characters reliably, the People's Republic of China in 1958 adopted the Roman alphabet, calling it Pinyin ("spell sound"). (There have been several other schemes for phonetic scripts, including the one now used in Taiwan, the Republic of China.)

Pinyin uses the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet plus ü /iu/; v is not needed to write Chinese words but is retained to write foreign ones. Three Pinyin letters have uncustomary sounds: c (like ts in cats), q (like ch in chip), and x (like ss in sissy). Pinyin is taught in primary schools as an aid to learning sounds of characters. It is used also to write the Chinese language for foreigners, but it is not used in ordinary texts for Chinese readers. Educated Chinese people should be familiar with the Roman alphabet, both because they learn it as Pinyin and because they learn it as part of studying English, usually at secondary schools. Pinyin is becoming a popular medium of input to computers.

As we have seen, the letters of the alphabet are used as labels for subject categories. Increasingly, the titles of books and names of authors are beginning to be ordered alphabetically according to the sounds of their characters. In the process, the Chinese people encounter the problem of the language's many homophones. One tone syllable can represent many different meanings—in a few cases as many as a hundred—but each meaning tends to have its own character. To try to solve the problem of homophones, librarians order morphemes having the same syllable by their tones: level, rise, fall-rise, fall, in that order. Should morphemes share the same tones as well, then they consider the number of strokes of characters for these morphemes, as described earlier.

About Chinese names: only around 400 different surnames are used for over one billion people; thus, many people have to share the same surname. A quarter of the Chinese population shares the surnames, Wang, Li, Zhang, and Liu. Wang (Wong in Cantonese) in particular is extremely common. When several authors share a surname, their first names (which typically have two characters / tone-syllables) must be considered. Perhaps because of such problems with authors' names, library cards tend to list them after the titles of books. In some old books, the authors' names are not even listed.

Because of all of these problems, ordering items based entirely on the sounds of morphemes and words requires careful consideration.

Libraries in Korea

Until early in the 20th century, books in sKorean libraries tended to be classified in four subject areas (Confucian classics, philosophy, history, belles lettres), following the Chinese tradition, as seen in three royal libraries established in the 12th, 15th, and 18th centuries by the Koryo dynasty (918–1392) and the Yi dynasty (1392–1910). In the late 19th century, when Korea was exposed to Western culture, the inadequacy of fourfold classification became apparent. In 1920, a few university libraries in the capital city adopted the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC).

Today, most government, public, and school libraries use the Korean Decimal Classification (KDC) modeled in the 1940s on the DDC and adopted by the Korean Library Association in 1964. Most university and institutional libraries use the DDC, and some libraries in science and engineering use the Library of Congress Classification.

Books, after they are classified for their subject matter, must be ordered according to their titles and authors, based on their sounds as written in the Korean phonetic writing system, Han'gul.

Han'gul (Alphabetic syllabary)

Han'gul ("Great letters") was invented in the mid-fifteenth century by King Sejong of the Yi dynasty, with the assistance of his scholars. Before, and even after, Han'gul was invented, the Korean language was written with Chinese characters, with great difficulty.

Han'gul is an alphabet consisting of 24 letters, 14 for consonants and 10 for vowels, which are seldom used as they are; instead, two to five letters are packaged into a syllable block to present a simple or complex Korean syllable (see Appendix B). Such a syllable block is the actual unit of reading and writing. The individual letters as well as syllable blocks are systematically arranged in a chart showing their interrelation and order. This order is followed in arranging titles and authors in a library or entry words in a dictionary.

For a few centuries, Han'gul was not widely used either as a script or as an ordering scheme. As a script it became popular only after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. As an ordering scheme, it was first used in 1880 by a French missionary in his Korean-French dictionary, and eventually it was used by Koreans in ordering books in libraries starting in the early 20th century.

As in other East Asian notions, titles come before authors, as shown in the following sample catalog card. Explanations are given in [ ]. Note that the call number is given in the bottom row.

Arranging books by Han'gul order

By Yi Jaechol.

—Seoul [place]: Asian Culture Co. [publisher], 1972 [year of publication].

79p.; 26x34cm. [size of book]

3,500 won [price]

024.53 [call number]

The information in this Korean book (e.g., title, author) is written in Han'gul and Arabic numerals. Information on Chinese books is given in characters whose sounds are given in Han'gul on the bottom row of a card immediately before a call number. Information on Western books is written in the Roman or other alphabets. A foreign book has an ISBN number (International Standard Book Number).

The Roman alphabet for Korean

As seen above, the Roman alphabet is used to list English books and also is used for English words such as page (abbreviated as p.) and centimeter (cm.) even in Korean books. It is used to list Korean books stored in Western libraries to help foreigners who search for them. Representing the Korean language in the Roman alphabet is complicated because Korean sounds are complex and contain some sounds and sound combinations not found in English. Today, the McCune-Reischauer romanization system is often, though not always, used. It tends to express Korean words as they sound, disregarding Korean morphology. For example, kuk (“nationally”) + rip (“established”) is romanized as kungnip as it sounds; neither kung nor nip is semantically relevent to the compound word “national(ly established).”

Korean names, which are modeled on Chinese names, have typically three morphemes/characters/syllables (see Appendix A). Many Koreans share surnames. For instance, one-fifth of all Koreans has the surname Kim. Even a full name (surname + first name) may be far from unique. Then, Korean authors tend to use their own romanization for their names so that one name can be spelled variously as Yi, Lee, Rhee, and so on. Han'gul, which should have a breve over u in the McCune-Reischauer Romanization, is spelled variously as Hankul, Hangeul, Hankeul, and so on, with or without a breve.

Libraries in Japan

In the late 19th century, Japan was the first nation in East Asia to modernize itself along Western cultural lines. Three libraries were established: the Imperial Library in 1897, and the Imperial University Library in Tokyo in 1887, and in Kyoto in 1899.

After the end of World War II in 1945, many public and institutional libraries were established, including the National Diet Library, which eventually absorbed the Imperial Library to become the largest library in Japan. It serves the Diet and other branches of the government, and also the general public. It is in the vanguard in computerizing library operations in Japan. It keeps its catalog cards in alphabetic order, unlike most other libraries in Japan. Except for this and other large university libraries, libraries allow readers access to stacks.

In most libraries, books and other materials are classified according to the Nippon (Japanese) Decimal Classification and also Charles Cutter's Expansion Classification (1891–1893). First, all materials are divided into ten classes, to which the numbers 0 to 9 are assigned, as follows.

0. General Works (encyclopedias, etc.)

1. Philosophy


3. Social Sciences


8. Linguistics

9. Literature

To each number 00 is added. Each class is further subdivided into ten and given the second-place numbers, as follows.

300 Social Sciences

310 Politics

320 Law

330 Economy


390 National Defence, Military

Then, each of the second-level divisions is given a third-level division into ten area, as follows.

310 Politics

311 Political Theory and Thought


314 Diet, Election


319 Diplomacy, International Affairs

Further subdivision is possible using decimal numbers, as follows.

311 Political Theory and Thought

311.1 Political Philosophy


311.14 Political Psychology

311.15 Political Ethics

In addition to a call number, a catalog card contains the following information on a book: title, author's name, place of publication, publisher, year of publication, number of pages, vertical size, and (optionally) price. It also contains an "author code" which gives a part of a surname in the Roman alphabet along with a number, such as Ta21 for Tanaka. Each card is prepared in triplicate, one for subject, one for author, one for title; so three kinds of files are kept. A reader can find a book by consulting the name or author or title file. Subject cards are arranged according to their numbers, while authors and titles are arranged either alphabetically or by "aiueo."

Japanese Syllabary

To explain "aiueo" it is necessary to describe a Japanese syllabary called Kana. The syllabary consists of 50 different basic graphs, plus 25 secondary and 35 modified graphs, each coding a Japanese syllable (see Appendix B). The 50 graphs are arranged in a chart called the "50-Sound Chart" consisting of ten columns and five rows. (The actual number of the basic signs used today is 47.) The secondary and the modified signs are often included in the 50-Sound Chart. The first column contains the five graphs for the five Japanese vowels /a, I, u, e, o/, hence the term "aiueo order." The second column contains the five signs for the next five Japanese syllables /ka, ki, ke, ku, ko/, and so on.

A Japanese name is typically written in four Chinese characters, two for a surname and two for a first name, in that order, as in Tanaka Hanako. When several authors have the same surname and first name, the first characters in their names are examined, and the one with fewer strokes comes first. Authors' names pose problems: they sometimes include common (or uncommon) characters with unusual sounds, sounds unfamiliar to ordinary readers. Helpfully, nowadays an author's name in a book is often annotated with the Japanese syllabary.

Japanese people use the Roman alphabet for special purposes, as in Korea. Romanizing the Japanese language, with its simple sound structure, is relatively simple.


In classifying books by knowledge or subject areas, most libraries in East Asia today use a Western system, usually the DDC or the LCC—if with modifications. In future, they could harmonize more closely with the West on this task. After all, people everywhere have, or are coming to have, similar knowledge of the world.

In ordering books by authors or titles, East Asian nations have to use their own writing systems: the number of strokes in Chinese characters is used in all the three nations; the alphabetic order of Pinyin in China; the order of Han'gul syllable blocks in Korea; and the order of syllable graphs, or occasionally of the Roman alphabet, in Japan.

In this age of information explosion, everywhere funding for public libraries is shrinking instead of increasing. Yet East Asians must redouble their efforts to catch up with the West in three critical tasks: computerizing library operations, establishing library networks, and setting up neighborhood libraries.


Fujino Yukio and Araoka Kotaro. Introduction to Library Science. Tokyo: Yubikaku, 1985. (in Japanese)

Liu Suya. Cataloging Chinese Documents. Beijing: Shumu and Wenxian Publishing House, 1994. (in Chinese)

Taylor, Insup, and Taylor, M. M. Writing and Literacy in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1995.

The World Book Encyclopedia, v. 12. London / Chicago: World Book, Inc., 1996.

Yi (or Lee) Jaechol. Problems in Information Science for Korean Documents. Seoul: National Trading Co., 1994. (in Korean)

Return to top of page