History of Asian collections

Asian Collections at the National Library of Australia:
Forty years of history. Article by Andrew Gosling, originally published in National Library of Australia News, vol. 3 (11), August 1993, pp 19-21

The National Library houses the largest and most actively developing research resource on Asia in Australia, with holdings of over half a million volumes. The following is not intended to be a comprehensive coverage of Asian collections at the National Library of Australia. The aim is to provide an historical overview concentrating on areas and languages given a high priority by the Library, while also referring to other parts of the region. The Library has emphasised East Asia, namely China and its periphery, Japan and the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, consisting of the ASEAN and Indochina countries as well as Burma. Within Southeast Asia the Library has placed greatest stress on its Indonesian and Thai collections. Thus this article refers particularly to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Thai resources. South Asia, comprising the Indian sub- continent and adjacent island states is also considered. While the National Library has concentrated most of its staffing, acquisition and other resources for Asia on Asian language materials, this discussion also includes the Library's extensive Western language holdings from and about the region.

The current strengths of the National Library's collections and services on Asia owe much to farsighted policies in the 1950s. At that time, under National Librarian, the late Sir Harold White, systematic acquisition of publications from and about Asia began.

Asian studies and Asian library collections have developed comparatively recently in Australia. Prior to the Second World War, Asian studies were virtually confined to one department at the University of Sydney which taught the Japanese language and Asian history. There were no significant collections of Asian publications and no Australian library was regularly acquiring current publications from the region.

This situation changed in the 1950s as the importance of Asian studies was gradually recognised. The National Library and the Australian National University Library, in particular, started acquisition programs which have made them the major Asian research collections in this country. The University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne libraries also began to build significant Asian language collections at that time.

The fact that the National Library's Asian collections have only been developed since the 1950s has partly dictated the nature of these collections. While some old and rare items are held, the real strength is in contemporary materials, serving the research needs of government, academia and the general public with emphasis on the social sciences.

During the 1950s and 1960s, a number of formed collections in Asian and Western languages were acquired from scholars and bibliophiles. These contained valuable retrospective holdings. They range from the Coedes Collection on the history and culture of Indochina to the Walter Simon Collection on the Chinese, Tibetan, Manchu and Mongolian languages; from the Braga Collection on the Portuguese in Asia to a set of original documents from the Japan Socialist Party. Reprints and microforms of older works have also continued to be purchased. Nevertheless, neither the National Library nor any other Australian research library is ever likely to replicate the archival collections of European colonial nations, such as Britain, France and the Netherlands based on their long involvement with the region.

On the other hand, during the past third of a century the National Library has been obtaining contemporary research materials in certain key Asian languages more actively than all but a few of the major European libraries. These languages are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Thai. In the case of Indonesian, the National Library has built up one of the world's most significant modern research collections outside Indonesia itself. The Library's other Asian holdings do not equal the vast resources of the Library of Congress but may be compared with other significant North American research collections.

The 1950s saw several important initiatives. In 1955 the National Library and the Australian National University Library formally agreed to divide responsibility for collecting Chinese and Japanese materials. Broadly the National Library was to emphasise the social sciences and modern history for both languages. Collecting on Indonesia, India, Korea and Thailand also started during this decade. Since then the Asian collections have been mainly developed through the purchase of current books, journals and other resources. Major exchanges of publications with national libraries in the region also began at this time. For example since its inception in 1957 the exchange with the National Diet Library in Tokyo has provided an extensive collection of Japanese government documents, including parliamentary proceedings, laws , statistics,diplomatic records and white papers.

During the 1960s the Asian language collections were given a formal structure and a permanent home.In April 1962 the Orientalia section was established to control Chinese, Japanese and later Korean and Thai resources. After three temporary locations around Canberra between 1956 and 1968 the collection and its reading room were finally housed on the Third Floor of the National Library building, where they have remained ever since. Meanwhile in 1964 a senior East Asian librarian, Mr Sydney Wang, was appointed to develop the collections. This he did with great skill and energy for twenty-one years until his retirement in 1985. He was subsequently awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for outstanding service to Asian librarianship in this country.

Further consolidation of the Asian collections took place during the 1970s. In 1971,after earlier pilot projects, the Library established an Indonesian co-operative acquisition scheme serving several university libraries and itself through a staff member stationed in Jakarta. This was to overcome the considerable difficulties in maintaining an effective supply of current Indonesian publications. The Library also created a specialist position for South and Southeast Asian reference in 1974, following a report commissioned from Mr Stanley Sutton, formerly of the India Office Library in Britain. In 1979 a new section called the Australian International and Ethnic Library (AUSINTEL) was set up to cover both the Orientalia and South and Southeast Asian subsections as well as other foreign language collections and services. During the following decade the section changed its name twice, to Area Studies in 1982 and to Asian Collections in 1987. Since this latter change the section has concentrated solely on Asia. At the same time Orientalia was renamed the East Asia subsection, more accurately reflecting its coverage of Chinese, Japanese and Korean resources.

This period witnessed the most rapid growth of the Asian collections. This reflected an increasing emphasis on Asia as expressed in the Library's published selection policies of 1981 and 1990. It also coincided with a publishing boom in the People's Republic of China after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) during which comparatively little from China was available to overseas libraries.Between 1980 and 1990 the Library's Chinese language collection doubled in size. The other Asian collections also expanded, though at a more modest rate.

A setback occurred in 1982 when the Government's cost-cutting Review of Commonwealth Functions required the Library to reduce its presence in Jakarta, despite widespread recognition of the national importance of the Indonesian cooperative acquisition scheme. After a decade of effort to reverse this decision, in 1993 the Library is now able to create a new position of Regional Officer, Asia based in Jakarta. This will have an expanded acquisition and liaison role in the region.

The 1980s and early1990s have seen major changes to bibliographic control of and access to the Asian collections. Coverage of the Library's Asian language holdings on the Australian Bibliographic Network (ABN) has gradually improved so that all current Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and Indonesian monographs and serials are on ABN. Increasing numbers of older works including all catalogued Japanese books have also been added to the database. Since May 1992 the Library's online catalogue including its Asian component has been accessible electronically in Australia and overseas through the Internet. As ABN has not been able to display Asian characters, card catalogues containing script have been retained for Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai materials. A recent grant from the Australian Research Council to a consortium of university libraries and the National Library will fund the selection and implementation during the next two years of a nationally shared automated library system for the East Asian script languages.

What continuities and changes would be apparent to a visitor returning to Asian Collections a quarter of a century after the National Library building opened ? The elegant reading room with its light wood furniture and catalogue cabinets would be recognisable immediately. In 1993 as in 1968 the reader would be served by staff with specialist language and library skills. However the collections once largely confined to two areas on either side of the reading room now fill much of the Third Floor stacks, not to mention newspapers, films, maps,microforms and other Asian resources housed elsewhere. The visitor would also be struck by how busy the reading room is today; readers checking Asian titles for themselves on the online catalogue; and the heavy demand from across Australia for loans and photocopies of Asian materials.

During the next forty years all libraries are certain to change profoundly. Nevertheless the Asian collections developed by the National Library since the 1950s are likely to continue playing a vital role in the growing exchange of information between Australia and Asia.

Andrew Gosling
Chief Librarian, East Asia
Asian Collections