By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Yuki Shiotani was the star of his high school. He led the fight song, wearing white gloves and twirling his arms around, as his upper lip twitched back in a smile. Everyone knew it was the same school where the emperor had gone.
But coming to the U.S., as a student at the University of Washington (UW), he was lost.
He gazed at the flood of pink cherry trees in the Quad, but they only seemed to draw his sick heart homeward.
His home sickness progressed. He was utterly alone and feared mental health problems.
Then he discovered the university’s East Asia Library.
A Japanese subject area librarian took him under her wing, and together with the director found him a job sorting through Japanese language reading materials for language classes.
With the flood of faculty, students, and community members all interested in East Asian Studies coming into the library every day, he gradually loosened his heartsick ties to his home and found a new home here.
So when Shiotani learned that the UW library administration had decided to move almost the entire 13 staff members out of the library, leaving it with only a director and two desk attendants, he was speechless.
“Words cannot describe how sad I feel,” he said in an email from Japan, where he now helps lead a high-tech company. “This is like the destruction of my hometown.”
He is not alone.
Almost 1,500 people—faculty, from both the UW and other institutions that rely on the library, students, and community members—have signed a petition that went out to the UW leadership on March 8, after the changes were announced.
The end of the East Asia Library?
The recently hired dean of libraries at the UW, who instituted the changes, says that the community has been misled by the petition and that no changes in service will result from the removal of 75% of the staff from the premises.
But experts in East Asian libraries say that the changes could very well result in the end of the library, which has widely been recognized as one of the best in the world and one of a handful of true East Asian libraries with real depth, not to mention significant outreach and community programs in the country.
Moreover, the removal of the staff, which is unprecedented, comes at a time of massive tensions between the U.S. and China and an increasing focus on East Asia as the next battlefront and arena of engagement and competition for the West.
Scholars, experts, and community members are outraged and perplexed at what they call the “degrading” of this valuable resource.
UW libraries dean Simon Neame, in response to questions from Northwest Asian Weekly, characterized the community response as a “clear lack of understanding” of East Asian librarians and their role within the UW system.
He further said that in this day and age, most librarians work online and handle complex questions through appointments and email.
But interviews with multiple scholars and library experts suggest that Neame may be working from a model that does not include the needed hands-on resources provided by an East Asian library, where many of the most important resources are not online and subject librarians serve as liaisons between faculty and collections development.
At a crossroads
At the UW, the Tateuchi East Asia Library (TEAL) is the cornerstone of one of the leading East Asian Studies programs in the world. Reviewers have evaluated its collections as among the finest in the world for research and its activities as a “cultural magnet” for users—both locally and globally.
But retiring faculty and the need for fundraising, among other challenges, has put the program at a crossroads. According to a 2021 evaluation by leading experts from the University California at San Diego, University of Southern California, Stanford, and Columbia, these and other crises could lead to “the potential collapse of East Asian Studies at UW.”
In fact, the entire UW is facing challenges—among them, financial. The university is receiving $800 per student less funding than other similar schools. At the same time, its tuition for 2022-2023 remains $1,600 lower per student than its peers.
A shining star in fundraising
But this is an area where the TEAL (renamed in 2020) has really stepped up. During a 2017 evaluation by Berkeley’s leader of its East Asian library, the UW’s East Asian library was highly praised. But it was strongly encouraged to capitalize on its strong collections and community activities to increase its fundraising. What followed were several seemingly miraculous gifts from community donors, including $6 million in 2020 from the Tateuchi Foundation, in honor of which the library was renamed.
This was the second-largest gift in the history of the UW libraries.
The 2021 report said the TEAL was now “primed” to do even more stellar fundraising.
For instance, an innovative oral history project, drawing upon the broad East Asian community in this region, was said to be “perfect” not only for developing the library’s collections in new directions, but also for continuing fundraising.
“Seattle has one of the biggest Asian American communities in America and is the hub for high-tech companies. TEAL could find potential donors for personal and institutional archival collections related to East Asian and Asian American studies,” stated the report.
Fears of plundering resources
In his response to questions from Northwest Asian Weekly, Neame criticized the distinction between fundraising on behalf of TEAL and the rest of the libraries at the UW.
“TEAL staff are part of the UW Libraries, operate from a central budget, with shared policies and practices,” he wrote. “Individual libraries are not tasked with fundraising for their units.”
At the same time, however, he also stated that the staff at the TEAL, “have been integral to fundraising for the Tateuchi East Asia Library.”
In response to community concerns that the UW library system was seeking to plunder the financial resources of the TEAL, Neame stated that the $6 million gift will be designated solely for that library.
But, he added, “Other gifts and funds are designated to support a wide range of services and programming not tied to a specific library or subject area.”
Repeated expert evaluations have warned against moving subject and technical librarians out of the TEAL and into back rooms at the central library. Neame stated such a move helps build working relationships with central librarians and does not compromise service.
But the 2017 evaluation called the prospect of such a disintegration of library staff “alarming,” and said, “It would split up a fine library with a long history and destroy the synergy and flexibility that have allowed the East Asian Library to do much with little.”
At the time, the then-dean of the library vowed that would never happen.
A different organization
Neame stated, however, that the 2017 report represents only one perspective and that the TEAL is “a completely different organization in all aspects than that of 2017.”
Cheng Hong, the president of the Council of East Asia Libraries in North America and the Chinese Studies senior librarian of the UCLA East Asia Library, said that it is true that East Asian libraries across the country, including that at the UW, have changed. But the changes have only made the presence of specialized librarians on site even more important.
More undergraduate education involves using physical reading materials in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean in East Asian libraries. Asian American studies has expanded, including oral history. Audio-visual resources and a turn to material objects to study history are also now prevalent.
“We have evidence to prove these are national trends,” he said in an interview.
What is the gain?
Neame, on the other hand, said the national trend is to integrate East Asia library technical services staff with their counterparts in the central library, effectively moving them out of the buildings where the East Asian resource materials are held.
“This trend has also meant that subject librarians spend more time consulting via email, chat, and zoom (post-pandemic, many instruction classes are now via zoom),” he wrote. Librarians are also working on “more complex questions” with faculty and staff such as “data management, grant compliance, publishing impact, digital scholarship, and so on.”
Experts in East Asian libraries, however, say that tying East Asian librarians to functioning as online respondents will ultimately lead to the death of the TEAL since its attraction and value is determined by its collections, which must be grown, like a flower garden, requiring the cooperation and tending of expert librarians. Without this growth, users from around the globe will stop coming, they say.
As if in proof of this, no other first tier libraries in the U.S. have reduced the staff of their East Asian library to a single director and two desk attendants.
Similar East Asian libraries, such as those at Stanford, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Chicago, University of Toronto, the University of Michigan, and University of California, Berkeley, have retained their technical services—that is, subject librarians and catalogers—inside their libraries.
For their part, Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia have moved staff into central locations. But these are private Ivy League schools with staff whose expertise and duties overlap, and in some cases, duplicate each other.
The UW TEAL does not have any duplicate roles. The single Japanese librarian and the single Korean librarian, for instance, have both been moved out of the building.
Several leading experts on East Asian libraries asked pointedly what was the point? What was the gain?
A retreat of librarians?
In a second series of responses, Neame acknowledged that many users have had “enriching experiences” working with staff in the TEAL. But he said, “over the past two decades,” changes have ensued so that “far fewer patrons enter the physical library to ask a question or even consult materials.”
(Neame, in previous positions, has led the digitization of “the voices and stories of underrepresented communities,” according to the UW).
But library experts said while this is true for libraries in general, East Asian libraries are an exception.
In his book, “The Theory and Practice of the East Asian Library,” Hong said the development of collections requires subject area librarians and technical service staff to be on site. Among multiple ways to grow its collections, staff need to do their own research in cooperation with each other.
A supportive environment
One thing that is not contested is what the TEAL has meant to hundreds of thousands of users and generations of faculty and students—up until it temporarily closed for renovation last year, funded with more than $1 million of the Tateuchi Foundation gift (it is scheduled to reopen next month).
For graduate students, the guidance that area specialist librarians have given has helped launch careers. One former graduate student. who is now a professor of Chinese history at another institution. said the Chinese librarian had coached her in using both the physical version of the si k’u ch’uan shu (si ku quan shu) series—a Qing Dynasty compendium of all knowledge that occupies almost an entire room in the stacks—and an electronic searchable version.
This scholar asked for anonymity for fear that she would be seen as supporting the TEAL simply because of her ethnicity, which could hurt her career, a fear voiced by other graduate students interviewed.
Janet L. Upton, in signing the petition, wrote that she could not have completed her doctorate in Sociocultural Anthropology with a focus on Chinese and Tibetan culture and history without the “resources and supportive environment” of the TEAL.
Faculty reliance on the TEAL
For faculty, the TEAL has been essential not only for research—it draws scholars from around the world—but for making the UW a top tier organization which allows the attracting of grants, resources, and colleagues.
After the staffing changes were announced, department chairs in the East Asia Studies program wrote a joint letter to Neame saying the changes would threaten the identity of the UW as a top tier institution.
Neame told Northwest Asian Weekly that when some faculty had been told that services would not be affected, some expressed “regret” in signing the petition.
But there was no question about the need for librarians with special knowledge and expertise to be present for educational purposes among many faculty members, both inside and outside the UW.
Emily Marie Anderson, who teaches Korean civilization courses in the UW history department, in signing the petition, said she could not have completed her dissertation or continued to teach effectively “without the support of the East Asia Library staff.”
She added, “They have assisted me countless times and many of my students, as well as in their projects. An understaffed East Asian library would undoubtedly negatively affect the quality of education at UW.”
Killing “the flow of learning”
Neame said that anyone can still make an appointment and ask for help, even in a foreign language.
“Students who want to consult a subject librarian in their own language will still be able to consult with those librarians—again, much of this work naturally happens online, or in a consultation appointment—not ‘on demand’ at the service desks.
Timothy Brook, a professor in the history department at the University of British Columbia, one of the leading historians of East Asia of this generation, and a user of the TEAL, however, questioned the very principles that seemed to animate the reorganization.
Turning librarians in this area into what amounts to online customer service agents destroys learning itself, he said.
“Reducing contact through online queries or appointments kills the flow of learning that happens when librarians and library patrons interact. Keeping that connection live is vitally important for supporting the learning process in subjects that require specialized knowledge, and for encouraging students who have a dedicated interest in acquiring that knowledge.”
Learning, itself, is “an intensely social process and should be encouraged to be so,” he said. “Learning is not a matter of acquiring fixed knowledge, especially learning about foreign cultures.”
“Everything worth knowing is on the Web”
Although the federal government has recognized the importance of increased study of Chinese and other East Asian languages and cultures, there is still a backlash in the United States against those studies.
While the U.S. military is increasing funding of Chinese language for officers, the rise of an authoritarian China has brought about a rapid increase in hostile American attitudes toward China, according to widespread research in the social sciences. At the same time, emerging areas of research, that are crucial to U.S. security interests, can only be accessed in East Asian libraries. These include physical materials on West Pacific islands, such as those disputed with China.
Another concurrent trend is the belief that all knowledge will ultimately be placed online. In comments on the petition, Michael Nylan, a library user, wrote, the “rationale” for the staffing changes is “that everything worth knowing is (a) in English and (b) on the Web, and downloadable.”
Community programs under threat?
Neame said, “It is understandable that the community would have concerns based on the misinformation in the petition and in communications outside of our official public communications. We believe most people signed the petition without knowledge of the Libraries official position or explanation of the changes.”
However, even with assurances that staff will still be able to respond to online queries, make appointments, and do cataloging of East Asian books at a location not where those books are housed, community members still expressed dismay at what seemed the inevitable loss of community programs that, according to outside evaluators, have made the TEAL “a cultural magnet” for the local and global community and drawn a steady stream of visitors to the UW.
These include classes and presentations for local K-12 schools and community colleges, Korean book talks, Japanese cultural events, and the ongoing oral history project, among others.
A home and a thank you
Just ask Utako Kase, another international student from Japan. Adrift at the UW, her classmate Shiotani introduced her to the East Asia Library. She got to know the director and the Japanese librarian.
“While I was working on the oral history project, I was getting to know the Japanese librarian and the director. The library was a community. That is not an easy thing to find. It was different than my other experiences studying abroad. The library was one central area where I could go and share my experiences.”
To thank the staff at the East Asia Library for making a home for them, they produced a video.
To view the “Thank You” video, go to the Tateuchi East Asia Library home page and scroll down to, “About.” Then click on the link for “Oendan & Song to the Tateuchi East Asia Library.” The “Thank You” segment begins at 6:34.
The Tateuchi East Asia Library home page can be found at www.lib.washington.edu/east-asia.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.