UC Berkeley libraries retain global, political focus since founding

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Karen Chow/Staff

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Among UC Berkeley’s 25 libraries, the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, the South/Southeast Asia Library and the Ethnic Studies Library stand out because of their globally conscious and politically driven histories, which make their current collections increasingly meaningful and intriguing.

A tradition of East Asian studies

The history of UC Berkeley’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library has strong roots with the founding of the University of California. In the early years of the university, San Francisco lawyer Edward Tompkins recognized that if commerce between the East and West was to develop, California must teach its university students Asia’s literature and language.

Soon after his realization, Tompkins endowed the Agassiz Professorship of Oriental Languages and Literature, and the first Agassiz professorship was offered to Englishman John Fryer, who had lived in China for 35 years, translating Western texts in the sciences and engineering into Chinese. Fryer went on to establish what is now called the UC Berkeley Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. His personal collection of more than 2,000 titles, which he deposited at the university, started the first Chinese library west of the Mississippi — it’s a collection that now has more than one million books.

The C.V. Starr East Asian Library and the Chang-Lin Tien Center for East Asian Studies, directed by Assistant University Librarian Peter Zhou, finds it home in an architectural beauty across from Doe library.

The building’s namesake, C.V. Starr, was a former UC Berkeley student who dropped out of school to sell insurance in San Francisco. Because of his interest in Asia, he took a trip to Shanghai and realized that the insurance business would thrive there. He then founded the American International Group in Shanghai until he relocated to New York. Starr was an American entrepreneur, UC Berkeley student and benefactor to what is now one of the most important East Asian collections in the western United States. As of recently, the East Asian library is also home to the largest Chinese film archive in North America.

‘We’ll never stop collecting’

The East Asian Library was founded to help California find a foothold on trade with the East, and years later, the South/Southeast Asia Library was established after increasing public interest in Southeast Asia after World War II.

In the early 1950s the South/Southeast Asia Library was simply the reading room for the Centers for South and Southeast Asia Studies. The library, formerly located on Channing Way, was targeted by anti-war demonstrators in the 1970s after the center’s faculty members accepted grants from the Pentagon for counterinsurgency research in the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. The library promptly relocated to Doe Library, and the library materials remained distributed around a variety of other campus libraries. Today, the library covers 19 countries and collects more than 33 national and regional languages from the regions of South and Southeast Asia to support academic teaching, research and learning on campus and beyond.

Virginia Shih, the librarian for the Southeast Asia Collection at the South/Southeast Asia Library, explained that it’s important to continue building the collection — prospective graduate students and faculty always check the strengths of the library, or even make a stop at it, before committing to the program. According to Shih, growing collections foster publicity to attract world-class scholars —  “We never stop collecting,” Shih said.

Shih explained that her job is to create a library that has an “international fullness and awareness.” To do that, she needs to have expertise on Southeast Asia and surrounding regions to be able to make referrals for students and academics.

Smaller institutions rely on UC Berkeley’s South/Southeast Asia Library for materials they cannot afford. Shih, along with her colleague Adnan Malik — who is the curator of the South Asian collections — coordinates with other libraries in California and nationwide to provide access.

“The aim is to build a well grounded collection that provides general coverage for the ranges of areas and develop deep pockets of specialization,” Malik said. “It’s been an energizing challenge to represent (South Asian) communities that are huge.”

A foundation of activism

Unlike the East Asian and South/Southeast Asia libraries, the Ethnic Studies Library uniquely came into being because minority groups and student activists wanted representation on campus in library collections and in faculty positions.

With the start of the Third World Liberation movement and an eventual compromise between the university and the Third World Liberation Front, the ethnic studies department was established. It combined the departments of African American studies, Native American studies, Asian American studies and Chicano studies. Lacking a joint library, students created reading rooms, which later grew in size and eventually came together in 1997 under one roof: the Ethnic Studies Library on the ground floor of Stephens Hall.

The students who advocated for a separate Ethnic Studies Library thought it was important because they were not seeing themselves represented in staff, faculty or classes, according to Lillian Castillo-Speed, head librarian and Chicano studies librarian at the Ethnic Studies Library.

“More pertinent to the libraries, they were not seeing the books, articles and journals that were coming out of this big social unrest of the ‘60s,” Castillo-Speed said. “They were saving it on their own, because they didn’t think the big libraries would do so.”

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Third World Liberation Front strikes, and the 50th anniversary of the ethnic studies department, a watershed moment not unnoticed by Castillo-Speed: “If they hadn’t done it then, we might not have it now.”

While the South and Southeast Asian collections are representing and attracting global spectators, the Ethnic Studies Library recently embarked on a hyperlocal project: the transcription and analysis of the H.K. Yuen Collection. Castillo-Speed said Yuen was a former UC Berkeley student who returned to campus after John F. Kennedy’s assassination to observe and document political unrest. The collection includes Yuen’s tapes from Sproul Plaza in the 1960s, ‘70’s and ‘80s. Speakers such as Mario Savio, César Chávez and Noam Chomsky appear in the recordings, alongside political radio clips. There are an estimated 30,000 hours of reel-to-reel and cassette audio tape, with anywhere from 10-15 hours on a single tape.

The Ethnic Studies Library, after receiving various competitive grants and hiring undergraduate researchers, is collecting metadata from the tapes, such as the names of people and organizations, then comparing it to records from the time.

While the greater community of libraries and librarians has seen a big push for digitization and the release of metadata, the Ethnic Studies Library has carefully protected the property and identity of its subjects.

“We’ve taken a different approach: quality over quantity,” said Melissa Stoner, the Native American studies librarian. “We are being really careful about we put up from the start, especially when there are ethnic communities involved.”

Although diverse in history, the three libraries show a distinct commitment to global understanding, community access and activism. As our contemporary social and political culture grows ever more fragmented and tension-filled, campus libraries — and their histories — become increasingly important to UC Berkeley’s intellectual and political landscape.

Contact Ella Jensen at [email protected].