Chinese Rare Books in a Union Catalog

This activity is now closed. The information on this page is provided for historical purposes only.

In the 1990s and into the present century a collaborative effort among RLG members, other East Asian collection-holders, and experts in the fields of Chinese cataloging and rare book bibliography created an international catalog of Chinese rare books within the RLG Union Catalog.

The initial five-year project received over one million dollars in funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Henry Luce Foundation, the Starr Foundation, and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation. This generous support enabled us to:

  • Arrive at the cataloging guidelines needed for uniform, online access to information about rare editions of books and bound manuscripts produced in China before 1796. 
  • Catalog widely dispersed copies of these rare works in the RLG Union Catalog. 
  • Establish an ongoing operation that continues adding to this international catalog, with more participants and a coordinating editorial office at Princeton University.

These online descriptive records provide information about rare Chinese materials that historically have been difficult to locate.

  • Scholars can discover the existence of these rare materials as well as their library locations.
  • They can collate information about different editions of a given text.
  • Researchers can make fewer expensive "fishing expeditions" to survey the holdings of repositories.
  • Libraries can export these records for cataloging copy in their local online systems.

Ongoing cataloging

Since the project's Central Editorial Office moved under the auspices of Princeton University's East Asian Studies department in 1996, the number of Chinese rare book records has continued to grow. The number of libraries represented has also increased. In 2007 all the Chinese rare books in the RLG Union Catalog were migrated to WorldCat.

Invitation: Any research library in North America with Chinese rare book holdings is encouraged to participate. To learn more, contact Sören Edgren, Director, Central Editorial Office, International Chinese Rare Books Project,

All records follow the rules documented in Cataloging Guidelines for Creating Chinese Rare Book Records in Machine-Readable Form. This is a softbound book, bilingual in Chinese and English; see RLG Programs Books and Reports.

Each record includes collation data (such as the number of columns per page and the number of characters per column), standard Chinese terminology for physical description, and both Library of Congress subject headings and the traditional siku classifications.


Recognizing the scholarly value of shan pen and concerned with improving control over and access to these rare and valuable materials, RLG established a Task Force on Rare Chinese Books in March 1986. This group's work spanned more than 15 months of deliberation and investigation, including a survey of membership holdings of rare Chinese materials, analysis of the shortcomings of existing printed catalogs, preliminary analysis of issues to be addressed, and individual discussions with rare books specialists from the Shanghai Library.

The task force recommended that RLG create an online international union catalog of Chinese rare books in the RLG Union Catalog. It recommended that this include, ultimately, the holdings of key libraries in North America, the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, Japan, and Europe. It proposed that work be based on the first online rare book catalog ever produced—the National Central Library catalog—and the first union list of rare books ever created—the PRC catalog.

Funding for the project through various stages has been generously provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Starr Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation through the Yenching Education Foundation, and the Chiang-Kuo Foundation, as well as a significant anonymous donor.

Pilot project 1989

The goal of the pilot project was to establish source copy in the RLG Union Catalog for participants to use in cataloging their rare book holdings. RLG converted records for the Chinese rare books in the Ching-pu ("classics") division of the National Central Library to RLIN MARC format. Librarians from Peking University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, working closely with local staff, cataloged holdings at the Gest Oriental Library at Princeton University and the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University.

The pilot project also provided for the identification of the problems and issues in cataloging new titles; the development of time and cost estimates; and testing of cataloging guidelines as they were developed.

RLG convened the first meeting of an International Advisory Committee of Chinese rare book specialists, which continued as a resource for the project as it continued.

Progress from 1990 to 1995

Following the pilot project, work continued through a series of funded phases. By September 1995, 5,836 full bibliographic records were online for 14 libraries, included five in China.

A central editorial office housed in Princeton University's Gest Library became responsible for entering records from the North American participants, taking advantage of a specialized staff for all the authentication, verification, cataloging, and inputting. The central editorial office also tested and refined guidelines and standards that other collections could use, and provided information about issues ranging from hit rate to the reference notes used in authentication.

Accomplishments from 1996 to early 2004

In 1996 the administration of the project was moved within the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University.

In 2001 the project published the bilingual Cataloging Guidelines for Creating Chinese Rare Book Records in Machine-Readable Form, establishing a North American standard. These guidelines help to:

  • Reconcile Anglo-American cataloging rules with centuries of traditional Chinese rare book cataloging practices.
  • Apply these rules to the MARC 21 format.
  • Allow libraries to integrate such records in online catalogs, enabling researchers to locate Chinese rare books in the context of other editions, reprints, commentaries in various languages, and even translations.

(Record examples, created using RLIN®, include transliteration in Wade-Giles, predating the transition to Pinyin.)

As of early 2004, 34 libraries in China, North America, and Europe were participating, with more than 21,000 records produced. These represented more than 18,600 individual editions, and cover the complete collections of 16 of 24 East Asian Libraries in North America.

  • "Progress Report for the Chinese Rare Books Project"
    RLG Focus 66

    Please note: Archived versions of RLG Focus are available from the OCLC Corporate Library Collection in the OCLC Digital Archive. Choose the preferred index and browse from here.

Related projects

Pinyin Conversion