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Why China wants 36,000 pounds of US university dissertations

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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.

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