Why China wants 36,000 pounds of US university dissertations

The Library of Congress had a problem that weighed 36,000 pounds: What to do with duplicate copies of some 100,000 American university doctoral dissertations on microfilm covering the years from 1938 to 1977. Monetary value? Close to $1 million at today's prices.

But as a duplicate collection it was merely collecting dust and occupying much-needed space. If no other institution could use the collection, the only solution was to destroy it.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the National Library of China in Peking wanted just about any kind of scholarly works in English. As a result of the Cultural Revolution, China now has 12 million students hungry for knowledge about the contemporary world written in English. There is a shortage of English books of all kinds at all levels in China.

Enter a nonprofit organization known as the Foundation For Books To China. Since 1980, the foundation quietly has been collecting scholarly books, journals , and elementary texts - either duplicates or unwanted - and sending them to China.

''The Center for Research Libraries in Chicago temporarily housed the microfilm,'' says Dale Bratton, the executive director of the Foundation, ''and then looked around for someone to take the collection permanently, and we heard about it.''

Dr. Bratton knew that China would want the collection. But the challenge would be, as it has been in other foundation book projects, to meet the costs of getting the massive collection to China.

After many phone calls and letters, Bratton got support from two key sources - American President Lines, which agreed to provide ocean freight at 90 percent discount of the commercial rate, and the Exxon Educational Foundation in New York, which gave a grant of $8,200 toward the handling costs.

In addition, University Microfilms donated a complete microfilmed index of the collection. And in China the National Library built two air-conditioned rooms to house the collection. Summer temperatures in Peking can go above 100 degrees F. and humidity can take a rapid toll on microfilm.

''The total cost of getting the collection to China was a modest $15,000,'' Bratton says. In March, Bratton and Harold Martin, a San Francisco travel executive and the founder of the Foundation For Books To China, went to Peking for a ceremony at the National Library. Arthur W. Hummel Jr., the United States ambassador to China, was also there as the collection formally changed hands.

Mr. Martin, who got the idea of sending books to China from an American professor while traveling with him in China in 1976, says: ''Our objective is better communication between China and the US. The greater understanding we have of each other, the better are our chances for keeping peace. And because the educated people of China will be the leaders, we want them to know about us and how we think.''

''A lot of unwanted books are available in the US and going to waste,'' Bratton says. ''I estimate that probably 5 million books a year are being thrown out in this country. The Chinese are eager to receive these books.''

In a southwest province of China, the US Embassy sent a carton of books from the foundation to a local school. ''It was such an event that the entire school went to the post office to pick it up,'' Bratton says.

As of May, the foundation has sent a total of 366,500 books to China, with another 100,000 in various stages of preparation. The books cover subjects in medicine, scientific journals, selected fiction, popular culture, elementary school books, and teaching and research books.

''Censorship is not a problem,'' Bratton says. ''But we don't send anything that could be construed as religious or political propaganda. In the microfilm collection the Chinese will have a whole level of American research to study and see what our scholars have been interested in.''

Many surplus or outdated books have been donated by California school systems because of declining enrollments or shifts in policy.

Last year Rutgers University in New Jersey, in a university-wide book drive, collected 15,000 books for the foundation. Nine visiting scholars from China spent many long hours packing and crating the books for transport to Jilin University in northeast China, the sister school of Rutgers. Marjorie Li, a librarian at Rutgers and the East Coast coordinator for the foundation, awarded the visiting scholars with a matinee showing of ''E. T.'' and a steak dinner afterward.

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