UC Berkeley’s South/Southeast Asia Library celebrates 50th anniversary with vibrant exhibit

SSEA exhibit in Doe Library
Visitors walk through Doe Library’s Brown Gallery, filled with an exhibit celebrating 50 years of Berkeley’s South/Southeast Asia Library. (Photos by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

It was a vision that emerged, as so many did, in the 1960s.

Robert Goldman was a graduate student studying in India. When the temperatures climbed, he and a friend would retreat to a bungalow in the hills. They’d while away the evening hours by reading aloud. But their book of choice was hardly a breezy summer read: It was a tome — the Ramayana, a sprawling, ancient Sanskrit epic passed down over centuries, originating with the sage-poet Valmiki. Over its 50,000-odd lines, the Ramayana follows a prince’s journey to save his kidnapped wife, with the help of an army of monkeys.

Somewhere along the line, an idea surfaced.

“We thought, ‘This work is so critical to our understanding of South and Southeast Asian civilizations,’” Goldman said in a pre-pandemic interview in his cozy, book-lined office, tucked away in the alphabetized maze of Dwinelle Hall. Someone should do a serious scholarly, and fully annotated, translation of its as-yet untranslated critical edition, he remembered thinking.

“So when I got to Berkeley, I decided we’ll do it,” he said.

the Goldmans
Robert Goldman, left, and Sally Sutherland Goldman have completed the seventh volume in the Ramayana Translation Project, and a single-volume edition of the seven-volume work will be published in late October. (Courtesy of Vasugi Kailasam)

With his wife, Sally Sutherland Goldman, a senior lecturer in Sanskrit at Berkeley, he embarked on the journey — one that would result, over the course of decades, in the publication of a seven-volume opus, a painstakingly translated and richly annotated Ramayana, beginning with the first volume, released in 1984.

While working on the project, the Goldmans and their collaborators relied upon mountains of primary and secondary materials from the South/Southeast Asia Library and the South Asia collection, carefully collected over decades. By the time their project ended, with the publication of the final installment, in 2017, they had borrowed so many materials that they had to return them in suitcase after heavy suitcase.

“Until we finished that project, our shelves were filled with books from the South Asia collection because they were texts we couldn’t find in most places,” said Goldman, who came to Berkeley in 1971 and retired this year from his post as the Catherine and William L. Magistretti Distinguished Professor in South and Southeast Asian Studies.

The couple has just completed a fully revised, unabridged, single-volume edition of the original seven-volume work for students and general audiences, which will appear in paperback from Princeton University Press at the end of October. Soon after, it will join the collection of the South/Southeast Asia Library.

The tightly intertwined processes of collection and creation, embodied by the Goldmans’ mammoth project, is but one thread in the exhibit that now fills Doe Library’s Brown Gallery — the first in the space since Doe reopened, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a lengthy closure. The exhibition, called Celebrating South & Southeast Asia Scholarship and Stewardship at Berkeley, 1970-2020, honors 50 years of the South/Southeast Asia Library by highlighting some of the crowning gems from the library’s collections and the scholarship at the heart of it all.

The Ramayana is on display in the exhibit.
The exhibit includes an edition of the Ramayana, a sprawling, ancient Sanskrit epic passed down over centuries, originating with the sage-poet Valmiki.

Preserving a legacy

Exploring the South/Southeast Asia Library’s materials is something of a treasure hunt.

In 1998, the library moved from the fourth floor of Doe Library to its current home, 120 Doe. Its collection is vast, with more than 700,000 items in over 30 languages from a total of 19 countries in the South and Southeast Asia regions. The materials are spread far and wide, with homes in Main Stacks, The Bancroft Library, the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, subject specialty libraries across campus, and the Northern Regional Library Facility, in Richmond.

The Brown Gallery exhibit mines the depth of this collection. It’s a vibrant symphony of colors and textures, featuring maps, textiles, and a host of artifacts.


Among the Southeast Asian treasures on display are distinctive Javanese puppets made of buffalo bone, for casting shadows in dramatic Indonesian performances; a one-of-a-kind Thai leporello, or folding book, used in funerals and other Buddhist rituals; and eye-catching woodblock prints from Đông Hồ village in Vietnam, wishing luck and prosperity in the new year. South Asian materials on display include a Hindustani dictionary from 1810; a rare, first-edition copy of Parīkshāguruh, the very first novel in Hindi; and an early-19th-century Urdu manuscript of the narrative poem Siḥrulbayān, with stunning calligraphy and hand-painted illustrations.

The exhibit also celebrates some of the prominent scholars who left their mark on South and Southeast Asian studies at Berkeley; the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies; the Institute for South Asia Studies and the Center for Southeast Asia Studies; and recipients of Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award and the Charlene Conrad Liebau Library Prize for Undergraduate Research.


Virginia Shih, curator for the Southeast Asia and Buddhist studies collections, and Adnan Malik, curator and cataloger for the South Asia collection, put the exhibit together with support from Vaughn Egge, reference and user experience specialist at the Library, in hopes that it would pique the interest of people who are already familiar with South and Southeast Asia and bring into the fold those who have yet to explore the history, politics, languages, religions, and cultures of the regions.

“I hope that the two things they get from it are the range and quality of the scholarship and the scope and breadth of the collection,” Malik said.


The exhibit is a retrospective of sorts. But the curators are also looking ahead — to the future of South and Southeast Asian studies at Berkeley.

“I want to sow the seeds of goodwill — of nurturing new generations of scholars for Southeast Asia studies for another 50 years,” Shih said. “Although I won’t be here, … I’d like to preserve a small part of that legacy for Berkeley.”

A balancing act

The South/Southeast Asia Library is indispensable to students, who rely on its materials to deepen their understanding of the regions, and its physical space as a peaceful oasis for learning and studying.

“As an undergraduate I found the Main Stacks very intimidating, so I always preferred to study in the South/Southeast Asia Library,” said Kashi Gomez, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies who specializes in Sanskrit literature.

The library has been a steady presence for Gomez: She studied for her first Sanskrit exam in the library, wrote her Library Prize-winning undergraduate honors thesis at the table in the back, and prepared for graduate fieldwork between the shelves. “The library holds many memories of my intellectual and personal growth,” she said.

To Thiti Jamkajornkeiat, also a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies, the library is “special and irreplaceable,” thanks to the devoted collecting of its curators.

“The (library) embodies the transgenerational and collective spirit of South and Southeast Asian researchers at Cal as well as globally,” said Jamkajornkeiat, whose research focuses on left internationalism in Indonesia from 1943 to 1966. “It is a tiny but mighty space whose significance extends far and wide beyond the corner of Doe.”

A book and a puppet from the exhibit
The exhibit includes, at left, a folded paper book called Krabūan Phayuhayāttrā, a pictorial presentation of a royal procession held during the reign of Narai, king of Siam, and, at right, a Javanese shadow puppet.

That level of collecting — which makes the library a destination for students, scholars, and researchers — requires a deft hand, a sharp eye, and a critical mind. Balancing current needs while anticipating what materials scholars will look for in the future, all while operating under a strict budget, can be a delicate balance, Malik said.

But the work of Berkeley’s scholars is the North Star, guiding and informing decisions of what to collect.

“We have a very strong scholarly tradition of South Asia studies — a strong and venerable one,” Malik explained. “And so the library resources, of course, have to match that. In the process we’ve come up with a very strong, comprehensive, and deep collection.”

So deep is that collection that patrons find materials at the library that they can’t find anywhere else. “I have people who say, ‘I can’t find this in India — but you have it,’” he said.

It’s not enough to sit idly by, relying on other institutions to fill in the gaps of the library’s collections through interlibrary lending and the like, Shih said.

For interlibrary lending to work, the library needs to play its part, she said. For her, that means continuing to bolster the library’s already extensive collections.

Handmade Đông Hồ woodblock prints
Handmade Đông Hồ woodblock prints by noted Vietnamese artist Nguyễn Đăng Chế hang along the Brown Gallery’s east corridor. Only two families in Vietnam have the expertise to produce them.

Shih collected the 12 handmade Đông Hồ woodblock prints, hanging along the Brown Gallery’s east corridor in the exhibit, through extensive coordination with a vendor in northern Vietnam. The prints, by noted Vietnamese artist Nguyễn Đăng Chế, are considered timeless, with only two families left in the entire country with the expertise to continue the tradition, Shih said.

“I conduct acquisition trips whenever possible, because if you don’t collect right at that moment, you won’t have anything,” Shih said.

It’s that unwavering dedication — the commitment to fueling the engine of scholarship — that has made the South/Southeast Asia Library a vital resource for more than half a century.

Just ask the Goldmans, who were recently awarded the prestigious A.K. Ramanujan Book Prize for Translation, for the final volume in the Ramayana Translation Project.

“If you were at a four-year liberal arts college, (this project) would be a difficult thing to do if you had a heavy teaching load and no research support,” Robert Goldman said. “You wouldn’t be pushing anything like this through.

“But if you’re at a place like Berkeley, which has the resources, which has that reputation, which has the support in that way — and the library — it makes it possible.”