UC Berkeley Retains South Asia Library After Academics Protest

After proposing to remove the library to accommodate office cubicles, the university finally withdrew its proposal.

Updated
The S/SEAL library.
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The 51st year has proven to be auspicious for the South and Southeast Asia Library at the University of California in Berkeley.

After proposing to remove the library and merge it with the Doe Library, which archives a majority of the academic literature at UC Berkeley, the university finally withdrew its proposal to close down the rare space used by scholars of South and Southeast Asian studies, in a victory for thousands of academicians in the US and abroad who signed a protest petition to save the library.

“Earlier this month, the UC Berkeley Library issued a call for comment to a proposal to integrate the South/Southeast Asia Library’s collections and services into those of Doe Library and Main (Gardner) Stacks. And you responded. You shared fond memories of studying in the South/Southeast Asia Library. You told us how the library and its dedicated staff came through for you. You emphasised the library’s value as a beacon of inclusion. And we listened,” the university administration said in a statement.

Research Scholars and Faculty Thrilled

Sohini Pillai, a scholar studying a 15th century Tamil version of Mahabharata and a retelling of its pre-modern-Hindi account for her PhD, was overjoyed at the news.

“I’m relieved and delighted that students will continue to be able to learn about the rich and diverse history, literature, and culture of South and Southeast Asia in this beautiful and safe space on our campus,” she said.

Pillai was introduced to the South and Southeast Asia Library on her orientation day. “One of the 3rd year PhD students needed to check the Valmiki Ramayana for a translation project and took me along to the South Asia Library – a warm, welcoming place. Impressed, I knew that I had made the right decision to come to UCB,” she fondly recalls

The South and Southeast Asia Library has material in more than 30 languages, spanning 19 countries that represent 30 percent of the world’s population – with texts from some of the oldest and diverse civilisations. This includes a ‘real wealth’ of material on Mahabharata and Ramayana in the ‘only dedicated space in North America for researching these epics.’
UC Berkeley Retains South Asia Library After Academics Protest
(Photo: Savita Patel/The Quint)

With the library now accessible once again, students, researchers and faculty of South and Southeast Asian studies at UCB will be able to continue referring to the rare non-digitised books in the library.

Most importantly, they will be able to consult the curator-librarians, Virginia Shih and Adnan Malik again – better known as the ‘walking-talking encyclopaedias on South and Southeast Asia texts’ by scholars.

Lauding the two librarians, Professor of Chinese Literature and Chair of Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies at UCB, Dr Paula Varsano says:

“Scholars who do South and Southeast Asian studies are by definition interdisciplinary scholars. They know many languages. The texts in this space are in indigenous languages for the most part. Imagine, you are a scholar studying Burma – you go in there and find these essential Burmese texts, and right around the corner are relevant Thai texts. You can turn around and ask the welcoming librarians, Adnan and Virginia, when you need something specific. They are no words to describe what the curator Virginia has done for South and Southeast Asian studies on the campus. Any student that walks into that library, she just grabs you, and gives you a tour of the treasures of this library. Scholars from other institutions in US and even abroad consult this library.”

Dr Robert Goldman, a professor of Sanskrit at the Department of South and Southeast Asian studies at UC Berkeley, also had a good word for the librarians.

“For me, personally, the long and distinguished librarians in charge of the service have been unfailingly helpful in assisting me with bibliography of difficult to find Indian publications and in being responsive to my requests for acquisitions,” he said.

Talking about the university’s plan to dismantle the library a number of times, he said “There were several efforts on the part of the Library and the administration to move it elsewhere or simply integrate the collection with the main stacks. We fought these efforts a number of times and managed to keep it in place.”

Recently, Dr Goldman and Professor Sally Goldman received the AK Ramanujan award for their 7-volume scholarly translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana.

In his 50 years teaching at UCB, he has been deeply involved with the development of South and Southeast Asia Library. “In a field such as ours, in which books published in South and Southeast Asia, often in one or another of the region's extraordinary number of languages can be very difficult to find without expert assistance, it is essential that we maintain—as do all of our peer institutions with strengths in our field as well as Berkeley units such as East Asian Languages and Cultures— a discrete and accessible library separate from the general collection,” he added.

The South and Southeast Asia Library which accommodates up to 30 people at any given time is not only an important space for scholars to drop in to consult with curators and access its special collections, but also helps in generating funds for research. UC Berkeley has an active ‘Institute for South Asia Studies’ (ISAS), which hosts numerous events, pulling many eminent American and international visitors.

Visitors who have spoken at ISAS on social and political issues include Kamala Harris, Zakir Husain, Mira Nair, Amartya Sen, Shashi Tharoor, Rahul Gandhi and Ravish Kumar.

The Executive Director of ISAS Dr Sanchita Banerjee Saxena knows that the library has been a selling point for South Asia studies at UC Berkeley, “In my 14 years, I have seen South Asian visitors - dignitaries, ambassadors, artists and authors - they request to visit it. A part of their visit was to attend or give a lecture at the institute, and part of their itinerary was to visit the ‘South Asia Library’. We have received a lot of competitive grants, because we speak about the collection and highlight that it is a dedicated library. It is different if the holdings are spread over the main library.”

Rallying for a Cause

South Asian scholars at UCB rallied to protect the South and Southeast Asia Library, as the university had proposed to dismantle it to accommodate more office cubicles. With no students and faculty on the campus because of the pandemic, there could not be any in-person efforts to save the library.

There are more than 20 libraries of various sizes on campus with Doe being the largest, in which the South and Southeast Asia Library is housed. Previously an undergraduate library, Moffitt is being converted into a special study space, which threatened the existence of the South and Southeast Asia Library.

The UCB had issued a ‘call for comment’ seeking suggestions for the proposed change to the South and Southeast Asia Library, as clarified by University Librarian Dr Jeffrey Mackie-Mason: “We always solicit comments from our users when we consider a major library reconfiguration.”

The reasons for the initiative included, “adding 25,000 square feet of engaging student learning space”. The administration proposed to close the smallest of campus libraries, and one that attracts low foot traffic, to support creating new, modern library space for students.

South and Southeast Asia researchers disagreed with UC Berkeley’s logic that ‘finding and reading relevant South and Southeast Asian materials will actually be improved, by moving the small reading room collection to the same location as our much larger collection.’

In a world where we are not running documents to each other by hand anymore, UC Berkeley’s proposal to make office cubicles to improve workflow, did not going down well with South and South East Asia scholars, who perceive ‘work flow and efficiency’ differently.

Dr Paula Varsano maintained, “I don’t know what they are talking about. When you have that mindset, this library has very little relevance for anything you care about – you have to remember what a university is for.”

The outrage among the petitioners demanding that UCB not dismantle the South and Southeast Asia Library, was not only about losing their ‘beloved space where they feel at home’, but also about going against Berkeley’s fundamental values. Known the world over as an upholder of democratic values, UCB’s guiding principles include a commitment to diversity and inclusivity, in maintaining it as a research university of the highest caliber, that serves not only California & US, but also the world.

Kashi Gomez wrote a comment while signing the petition: “It is also a home for students who are experiencing the alienation of a large university and a safe space amid increasing anti-Asian violence. Berkeley’s commitment to equity/diversity/inclusivity are meaningless if there is no support for concrete resources.”

A Win in These Strange Times

UC Berkeley reiterated its values in the statement along with the withdrawal of the proposal, “You emphasised the library’s value as a beacon of inclusion. And we listened.”

This is especially significant as it comes amidst a spate of hate crimes against Asians in US. The library continues to be relevant with the recent turmoil in Myanmar, and religion becoming more prominent in South Asian politics – issues that South and Southeast Asian scholars at Berkeley are concerned about.

The pandemic had stalled the South and Southeast Asia Library’s 50th anniversary celebrations, but with UC Berkeley’s decision to give it a new lease of life, celebrations are in order on its 51st year.

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