A Library Set in Stone

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In our age of digitisation and data it is easy to forget that past cultures faced exactly the same problems regarding retrieval of information, reliable source material and quality of data that libraries face today but that they had to find quite different solutions.​..


The monumental Legal Deposit system in Britain, for which BDS creates records through its CIP contract, is our modern answer but in Tang dynasty China the solution was monumental in a different sense. At the same time as King Alfred was creating his library in Wessex, Emperor Wenzong had the writings of Confucius carved on huge stones and erected in the Imperial College in Xi’an.

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At that time Xi’an, today famous for the Terracotta Army, was the capital of China. Wenzong’s project took over 6 years, consisted of 114 pieces of stone with both faces carved and comprised 650,252 characters. It was the beginning of the centralisation of reference standards in China. After 837 AD, if you needed to be sure about what Confucius really said, you would visit the stone tablets.

The project continued. The works of Mencius followed Confucius. The various Chinese scripts – pictograms used as written language – were codified. Buddhist scriptures in parallel Sanskrit and Chinese translations were carved onto 3 metre high stone tablets while tablets from earlier eras, dating back to the Emperor Qin Shihuang c.220 BC, were collected and stored.

Eventually a building, or library complex, had to be built to house the stones. In 1087, Lu Dazhong, a transport minister of the Song dynasty, moved all the tablets to the place they are stored today, near the South Gate of the great walled city of Xi’an.

An inventory was created, and a map, the equivalent of an indexed catalogue. The librarian, researcher or member of the public often has to walk a long way to find what they are looking for. There are seven large pavilions and many smaller ones set in beautiful grounds.

The Xi’an stones are a fascinating solution to the age-old problem of archiving and cataloguing. Unlike deposits on paper, they are durable and difficult to alter without leaving clear evidence of tampering, hence they are reliable and a foundation for all future reference.

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As you walk through these forests of stone, the intellectual and creative vigour of a nation is around you. Just as with our library system today, the great Emperors of Tang dynasty China knew that quality reference material and data is essential to safeguard a culture’s heritage.