Printing at the Shanghai Municipal Archives

The Shanghai Municipal Archives is the most open, accessible, and pleasant archive I’ve researched at in China so far.

What makes it so great, relative to other archives in China? There are clear and transparent procedures for obtaining a researcher’s card. You are allowed to use your laptop in the reading room. The catalog is fully searchable and many of the documents are digitized. It’s easy to find what you are looking for and to do so quickly. And it’s right on the Bund, offering great views of Pudong across the river.

But everyone who has researched there knows it’s not a perfect place. The SMA now requires letters of introduction from researchers—a barrier to entry. Staff are also busy removing documents from the database, so a file you used last year might not be accessible any more. No cameras are allowed. And, as I will discuss here, you can’t just print willy-nilly.

The current rules for printing at the Shanghai Municipal Archives are well known and have been in effect for a few years now:

  • You may request to print, free of charge, up to 50 pages per day.
  • No more than 1/3 of any given folder can be printed. This means that if a folder you are looking at contains 99 pages, you can print no more than 33 of them.
  • Not all requests will be approved (you will not be given an explanation).
  • You cannot print microfilmed documents or make photocopies of paper files.
  • All successful requests take five business days to process and be ready for pick up.

Due to these procedures, rules, and limitations, if you want to get as many materials out of the Shanghai Municipal Archives as possible, you need to game the printing system.


When you submit a request to print several files, you can expect that a few of them will not be approved. The 50 pages requested will shrink to only 25 pages printed.

It is hard to know why some requests are granted and others are denied. My friend Chen Tao jokes that it’s based on the weather, or the approver’s mood on a day-to-day basis. (Perhaps the approver broke up with their significant other the night before? Everything will be denied the next day…)

You may think a document is sensitive, but in the end the SMA will still print it for you. You may also think a document is completely benign, and yet your request won’t be successfully processed. I’ve had both scenarios happen to me and I still have no idea what gives. The only way to find out is to hit “print” and wait a few days to know the verdict.

Keep Tabs

The first step to printing effectively at the SMA is to develop a system to keep track of all of your print jobs. This is important for a number of reasons.

First, it helps to avoid redundancy if you are organized. Why try to print the same document twice?

Second, you can budget your time better. You will have a ledger of denied print requests, a record that reminds you which files to transcribe.

Third, you may start to see patterns. For example, you might see that you’ve requested to print five files from one folder, and every request was denied. That might mean the entire folder is off limits and it’s not worth trying to print any more from there. You might also get a sense of what some “sensitive” terms are. Is every document with the word “reform through labor” in the title denied?

The archive does provide a detailed list of everything you’ve asked to print. After you login, on the homepage select “My Print Requests” (我的全文复制请求). You will be redirected to an entire listing of every print request you’ve ever made at the Shanghai Municipal Archives. From here, you can distill the list down by print requests still in processing (等待处理), requests processed and printed (确认打印), and requests denied (取消打印).

I still suggest developing your own Excel file to keep tabs on all of this information.


For maximum results, you will want to hit that 50 page limit every day. If you come to the Shanghai Municipal Archives six days a week (Monday through Saturday) and submit full requests every day, you’ll have asked for 300 pages. Conversely, if you come to the SMA every day and submit print requests for 40 pages each day, that’s only 240 pages total. That’s a lot of wasted potential, especially considering the high rate of attrition.

But hitting 50 pages exactly can be a challenge in itself, especially if you are requesting things ad hoc. Five pages from one folder, seven pages from another, and so on—it can be hard to get the numbers to add up perfectly to 50.

My suggestion is to carefully plan what you are going to request to print each day. Don’t just browse the digitized holdings at the SMA and casually hit “print” when something looks of value.

Lately I have been experimenting with another Excel sheet where I keep track of everything I want to print. I have columns for archival number, page range, and page count. Using this information, I can quickly tabulate full 50-page requests for several days in advance. No wasted potential, because I am asking for 300 pages a week.


The draw back to this method is that it treats all of my print requests as equal. Of course, there are some files I would like to get my hands on more quickly than the others, but since I have ample time in the Shanghai archives, I’m not as rushed as, say, a research who is only here for a week.

Making Wise Choices

Because of the page limits at the folder-level (no more than 1/3), you need to make wise choices about what to print.

Before you print a document, make sure to review the entire folder’s contents. Check for other files from the same folder you might want to print. If it turns out there are several, add up the pages and see if you will exceed 1/3 of the entire folder.

Below that threshold? Good, carry on. Above it? Better start developing a printing hierarchy.

There are different ways to approach this problem. Are there any short, single page files? Might as well type those up. Is there something visually or aesthetically important about a document? Then print that. Are the contents of a document strikingly similar to something else you already printed? Skip it. Is a file handwritten and will require more time and patience to interpret? Print it and take it home.

Budget Your Time

If your print request for a particular file is denied but you still want to have access to it from outside of the Shanghai Municipal Archives, you will need to either transcribe it in full or take very good notes.

Although it does take five working days to receive successful print jobs, you can usually know the verdict within two to three days through the abovementioned drill downs in “My Print Requests.” For example, by browsing “My Print Requests,” using the “denied” drill down, and sorting by date, I was able to tell on October 23, 2015, that four of my requests submitted on October 21, 2015, were denied. (Conversely, by selecting the successfully processed filter, I also saw that four of my requests were granted.)

With this information in hand, on October 23 I worked on transcribing the four files which were denied. I didn’t bother transcribing the successful requests, because I will have the chance to view these files from home or anywhere else I bring them.


I don’t suggest using up an entire day’s quota to print contents from a single folder. If it turns out the folder itself is blacklisted, well, you won’t get anything! This happened to me several times: I tried to print a number of files from B25-1-7 and everything was denied; another time I tried to print 50 pages from C21-1-1021 and didn’t get a single page.

If you request print outs from a number of different folders, you’re more likely to get at least something. I call this hedging. If you are organized and plan (such as by using an Excel sheet mentioned above), it is easy to make sure you submit requests from a number of folders each day.

Try Again

Was one of your requests denied? In all likelihood you will need to transcribe it or simply take good notes, but it may be worth going back to the SMA database and searching for that specific document again. Because of intra-bureaucratic communication in Communist China, you may find that the file is actually available in several different folders in the archive. If you so desire, you can try printing again from one of the different search results.

For example, my request on October 21, 2015, to print a file titled “市委批转劳动局党组、团市委关于加强对社会青年的管理教育工作的请示报告” from C21-1-1047, was denied. However, I know that this is exact same document is also available in the folder C21-2-2529. I am going to try printing again from C21-2-2529 and see what happens.

This same strategy also applies when you’ve already printed 1/3 of a folder and can’t print anymore. Search for the file you want to print and hope that it appears elsewhere in the archive.

Have a Friend Help

Because of the five day waiting period to retrieve successful print requests, what do you do during your last week in the archives? Or what if you are only at the archive for five days total?

Even when time is limited, I still submit print requests every day. I will then ask a friend to retrieve my documents on my behalf. All they need is your name, researcher ID, and the dates you made the requests. So if you make a friend in the reading room, or know someone at a nearby university, ask for their help.


Watch the “big board” (the electronic screen towards the reading room exit gate) for your name/research ID. If you see your name, you have a print job ready. But in reality, the “big board” is not always up to date. Your best bet is actually to watch your successfully printed requests (确认打印) via the online portal.

If you exceed the 1/3 threshold, you will not be allowed to submit additional print requests from the same folder. An error dialogue will stop you from even trying.

Denied requests still count against you in the 1/3 request limit for each folder. So, for that hypothetical 99 page folder, if you requested 33 pages worth of stuff and the archive only gave you 15 pages, sorry, you can’t request another 18 pages. That folder is dried up for you. Get typing!

Some (but not all) digitized folders are sub-divided into individual documents when you search. For example, if you type B244-2-25 into the search field, you will see results for B244-2-25 (which, if you open, will display the entire folder) as well as B-244-2-25-3, B244-2-25-24, B244-2-25-30, and so forth, each of which will only open one individual record if selected (the record itself might include various draft versions, however).

If you want to request to print multiple documents from the same folder on the same day, I suggest that you request by using the sub-divided individual records if possible. Why? That way you can be sure each file requested will be treated as an individual request and adjudicated separately.

If you request mutltiple files all through B244-2-25 (such as pages 3-6 and pages 24-28), “My Print Requests” will only show one request. However, if you request to print B244-2-25-3 and B244-25-24 (effectively the same request as just described above, pages 3-6 and pages 24-28), “My Print Requests” will show two distinct requests. I have no idea if this makes a difference, but it might. My thinking is you don’t want one bad apple to ruin them all.


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