The South/Southeast Asia Library

Where All the World Meets in One Nest

from Bene Legere Spring 1997 (no.43) issue
Kranti Magazine Rabindranath Tagore Borobudur King Chulalongkorn
in Ghadar Collection at U.C. Berkeley Buddhist Monument of Thailand (1868-1910)

For the motto of his university at Santiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Prize-winning author, chose an ancient Sanskrit verse which means, "Where all the world meets in one nest."

Located within Doe Library, the South/Southeast Asia Library is the Berkeley campus library reference center for South and Southeast Asian social sciences and humanities. Because of space restrictions, the South/Southeast Asia Library includes only the reference collection, a small non-circulating collection of basic works on the South/Southeast Asia region, and a collection of high-use periodicals. The rest of the South Asia and Southeast Asia collection, more than 400,000 titles, is housed in the Main Stacks and various specialized service libraries on the Berkeley campus.

South Asian resources include material from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka; Southeast Asian resources include material from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Suzanne McMahon, South Asia specialist and head of the South/Southeast Asia Library Service (S/SEALS), describes the mission of her library: "I think Tagore's motto could just as aptly to the University of California at Berkeley, with its distinguished area study programs and library collections. Here at the close of the 20th century the focus of education is global, and the South/Southeast Asia Library Service provides a key to an increasingly important part of the world that is at once dynamically modern and profoundly ancient."

The S/SEALS staff answers more than 3,000 reference questions annually, with questions as varied as "how do I wrap a sari," to a high school student from Nevada asking what university she should attend to become the prime minister of India! On one occasion, the Indian consulate called and asked for the rules and a diagram of the playing field for the Indian traditional game called kabadi, which is similar to rugby; the consulate wanted to stage a game for an Indian heritage event. Reference librarians were asked to help a Vietnamese immigrant who came to the Library looking for a map of his native village, and assisted Hollywood movie design stylists in researching the details of armour of Hindu and Muslim warriors in the 16th century. The reference questions are as varied and diverse as the contents of these unique collections.

Both McMahon and Shih have extensive education and background in their respective subject areas, have lived and traveled extensively in South and Southeast Asia, and between them speak more than eight South and Southeast Asian languages. The two librarians are assisted by a full-time operations manager, Rebecca Darby-Williams; a half-time curatorial assistant, Vanessa Tait, provided by support from the Center for South Asia Studies; and additional part-time student assistance.

The S/SEALS Library collection supports the Department of South and Southeast Asian studies at UC Berkeley, which offers programs of both undergraduate and graduate instruction and research in the languages and civilizations of South and Southeast Asia from the most ancient period to the present. South Asian studies have long been important at Berkeley, beginning in 1904 when the first professorship in Sanskrit was created when Arthur Ryder, celebrated scholar and translator, joined the Berkeley faculty. The Southeast Asia studies program began in 1959.

An extensive list of South Asian and Southeast Asian language and area courses is distributed among a broad spectrum of academic departments and groups in all areas of the humanities and social sciences as well as natural science programs and professional schools.

In describing her role as collector and specialist for Southeast Asia, Shih is personally committed to learning other Southeast Asian languages, and "to the maintaining and enriching the library collections through national library consortium participation and various library gift and exchange agreements from outside the Library with other Southeast Asian institutions in the U.S. and Southeast Asia, as well as professional collaborative endeavors and contributions to the Committee on Research Materials in Southeast Asia (CORMOSEA).


Among the treasures of the South Asian collections and the core of larger collection material that reflects the South Asian immigrant experience are the papers of the Hindustan Ghadar Party, an Indian nationalist party based in northern California from 1900 through the 1920s. The Ghadar collection includes primary source materials, such as photographs, pamphlets, party literature, etc., in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and English. The acquisition of the Ghadar Party collection has led to a focus on South Asian immigrant communities in California and the United States. McMahon, with the help of South Asians in the community, is building an archive on the South Asian diaspora. Another jewel in the crown are the Indian court stamps of the princely states, official stamps used in court transactions from the 1700s to the 1940s, when India became independent.

The South Asian holdings also cover the Nepal and Himalayan Region, a collection begun by Professor Leo Rose with extensive purchases made in Nepal on politics, history, and law in the 1950s. The collection continued to grow with purchases under the Himalayan Border Countries Projects from 1960 to 1969, and is currently enhanced by acquisitions under the Library of Congress Acquisitions Program. This unique collection, which is particularly strong in the 19th and early 20th century, includes microfilm of portions of the holdings of the India Office Library, London and the Nation Archives in New Delhi on the Himalayan region, with a concentration on Nepal.

Among the most prized in the Southeast Asian library holdings, historically the strongest research collection of that region on the west coast and one of the finest collections in the United States, is the Philippine collection. Begun at the turn of the century when many Philippine studies were initiated, the collection provides strong holdings on the Spanish, American, and Republic periods of the Islands, and contains more than 40,000 volumes of monographs in western and regional languages, and subject areas include languages and literature on the Philippines, history and politics, government, among others.

Other Southeast Asian special collections include: the papers of the ninth President of the University of California, David P. Barrows, a collection of books, diaries, manuscripts, photographs, maps and papers, including materials on the Philippines from 1900 to 1909, during which time Barrows held important government positions there; the McFarland Family Gifts, one of the earliest and most important American missionary families in Thailand, material dating from 1860-1950 and including numerous photographs, some taken at Angkor and other archaeological sites in Cambodia and Thailand, as well as journals, diaries, scrapbooks, and notes written by various McFarland family members; and the Swift Family Collection of Buddhist palm leaf manuscripts from Thailand. Not part of the University's collection, but located close to campus and heavily used by scholars is the Vietnam War Collection of former U.S. foreign officer Douglas Pike of more than 250,000 items on the history of the Vietnam war and contemporary Indochina. Librarian Shih has focused her collecting and fundraising activities on Vietnam studies and hopes the Library will become a national resource.

The South/Southeast Asia Library is located in 120 Doe Library. The Library is open from Monday through Friday 10 am - 5 pm and Saturday 1 pm-5 pm. Hours vary during holidays. For further information, please call 510/642-3095, or look at the S/SEALS Website at:

Go to Southeast Asia Resources Page
Copyright (C) 2010 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Document maintained on server: by
Last updated 2/2/2010. Server manager: Contact