The Library Curator's World: Jonathan Spence in Conversation with Ellen Hammond

Jonathan Spence, April 2004

Ellen Hammond Anyone as technologically backward and conceptually nostalgic as myself is likely to be scared about the survival of libraries as we know (or knew) them. My father’s library in the house in southern England where I grew up was an awe-inspiring place to a child: quiet, filled with the fragrance of pipe smoke, one huge and comfortable armchair in the middle of the room, a foot stool, a standing lamp, and floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books arranged by my father’s personal (and to me impenetrable) system. Children’s books tended to be those from an earlier generation, but could be supplemented from those in the lending libraries of two nearby towns. When I was sent off to British boarding schools, the libraries were the only havens of tranquility and concentration, opening up their silent presence to worlds of history and literature never dreamt of before. The University Library at Cambridge, where I went after military service, was equally welcoming, with what seemed to be every book in the world catalogued in thick folio volumes. Merely to flip through those catalogues seemed a journey of total exploration. And that was before I got my reader’s pass to the British Museum; entering that giant rotunda always took my breath away. Finding a chair at a desk with the right aura, reading through the vast bound catalogues at leisure, putting in one’s book orders on printed slips, reading the treasures as one by one they slowly appeared—what more could one have asked?

“Just about everything,” we are now told: computer outlets at every seat, total access, instant downloading, trans-lingual communication, off-site storage with climate control. It had never occurred to me then that anything was missing, but there was, apparently. And we now live in a world where these new elements are taken for granted by people of all ages and occupations. So are libraries secure in their identities and practices or are they in some ways challenged or even threatened? Are fundamental shifts taking place? What were the international dimensions to all this? I had asked Judith Schiff about the archives (see the March 2004 issue of Perspectives). Why not ask our curator for the East Asia Library, Ellen Hammond, how she viewed her own experiences, as she navigated with such apparent ease and confidence through the world of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean holdings? How did she come to be where she was, and how did these many innovations appear to her?

Ellen Hammond: My own path to a position in East Asian libraries was, perhaps, unusual, both in my choice of career and the way I came to it. I grew up in a Wisconsin of the 1950s and 1960s, a place with absolutely no appreciable Asian influences. I do remember, however, being fascinated by letters written in Chinese to my mother, who sponsored a “foster child” in Hong Kong during these years. This may have been what led me into East Asian studies at Oberlin College, which has a long history of connection with China. At Oberlin, which I attended in the 1970s, the focal point of campus life was its new, bright, modernistic library. Unlike the library of your childhood, with its aroma of pipe smoke, Oberlin’s library was rather more redolent of plastic, with the latest molded furniture in eye-popping colors. However, full of study nooks scattered throughout the stacks, it afforded the same opportunity for peaceful study. This atmospheric place perhaps inspired me to go on to study for a master’s in library science.

Immediately after getting my library science degree from the University of Wisconsin, I began graduate work in Japanese history, intent on a career as a Japanese bibliographer. After graduate school, I spent 17 years in Japan, first doing research (in many of the libraries I now advise graduate students to use), then working as a librarian for the United Nations and later a U.S. investment bank, and finally, teaching history at a Japanese university—traveling back and forth between the two strands of my future career. Each of these experiences was invaluable when I returned to the United States in 1998 to take up a job as a Japanese studies librarian at the University of Iowa.

Jonathan Spence: What would you say were the most important problems in taking over such an East Asian collection today? Are there some problems that are unique to your subject area? Or are you facing just the same problems as your fellow curators in other collections at Yale, and at libraries elsewhere?

Hammond: East Asian librarians in the past tended to be outside the mainstream, struggling with issues incomprehensible to many of our university library colleagues. There are still some issues that make my area different from those of other librarians. For example, for China and Japan it is difficult to use “approval plans” (operated by book vendors, these plans bring books to the library from North America, Europe, Latin America, and so on, based on a profile established by Yale). The title-by-title book selection still going on in the East Asia Library may be considered inefficient, but to me it is one of the chief joys of East Asian bibliography. Also, despite the new text display systems based on Unicode, which have finally allowed Roman and non-Roman script languages to occupy the same digital world, there are still obstacles preventing the seamless use of East Asian languages in our library catalogs.

In general, however, I now grapple with precisely the same cutting-edge problems as my colleagues in the main library. At times, of course, the East Asian librarians are still followers, and are fortunate to learn from prior struggles and successes in the wider library community. More and more, there are also times when our experiences presage events in the U.S. information environment. Overall, I find that the concerns that preoccupy me during the workday are not so different from those of the library profession as a whole … but with important international nuances. These key issues include access to and preservation of print and digital resources, copyright, and staffing our libraries in the future.

Spence: Could you tell us about these in turn, and how you handle the main problems? For instance, has access been completely transformed by new technologies? And how would you subdivide the concept of “access” in the world we are now entering?

Hammond: Librarians like to talk about access, and my field has seen tremendous successes in the recent past, some achieved through the exploitation of new digital technologies and others by dint of old-fashioned strategizing and networking. First, obtaining physical access to library materials identified in a literature search often no longer requires a trip to East Asia; obtaining journal articles and even borrowing books from some East Asian countries is now possible. Access to the historical record through library and research collections has also improved greatly. China has recently opened a number of archives, and microfilms of the collections are becoming available to researchers.

Second, improved intellectual access to the content of texts and other publications due to digitization has allowed researchers to deepen their understanding of sources and improve their ability to identify relevant information. For example, one of the great canons of Chinese literary and historical texts compiled during the Qing dynasty, the Siku quanshu, is now available in electronic format. The keyword search facility in the electronic version was used by one graduate student at Yale to track the historical use of a particular Chinese term, something impossible in the printed text.

Finally, and most obviously, electronic access to library home pages; library catalogs; the sites maintained by archives, research institutes, corporations, and government agencies; and the host of other research tools such as bibliographies and other reference works to be found online is transforming research and teaching. In the world of Chinese information, however, we have had a preview of what can happen when Internet resources are denied, a sobering lesson in the potential perils of the digital age. At Yale, as at a number of other major U.S. universities, all access to web sites in China was suddenly and inexplicably disrupted during a period of several weeks last fall. There were various theories for this disruption (technical difficulties in China, deliberate jamming by the Chinese government as part of an anti-Falun Gong campaign, jamming as an unintended consequence of an anti-spam effort, etc.). While the cause was unclear (and impossible to ascertain), what was very clear was the disruption to the teaching and research of faculty and students, who now depend on reliable web access to do their jobs.

Spence: You mentioned preservation. Are there massive differences between preserving the older print materials (that I am so fond of) and preserving the new digital materials that seem to me to exist already in a bewildering variety of forms?

Hammond: Partly because the range of sources used by historians has expanded so greatly, however, a huge problem still exists—print and digital materials that should be preserved for researchers now and historians in the future are not being systematically collected. For example, I attended an international conference in Tokyo late in 2001, at which a historian interested in architectural history held up a glossy advertising insert from a Japanese newspaper—one example of a ubiquitous advertising format used for urban manshon (condominiums). He bemoaned the fact that no one was preserving these inserts. This particular example reflects two issues: the fact that so many print materials are still being overlooked as important primary source information and second, the fact that the type of research for which this professor wanted to examine uses of space in contemporary housing is not something of current interest to researchers in Japan.

As with the world of print, there are myriad examples of Web resources that are not identified as worthy of preservation or, even if identified, not systematically collected. Web archiving standards and technologies are still being developed; while there are some major projects underway (many of them undertaken by national libraries around the world), many problems remain. In the meantime, one form of self-expression favored by contemporary Japanese youth—the personal home page—is a here today, gone tomorrow phenomenon, much to the detriment of future historians vainly searching for the equivalent of a 20th-century diary format in the lives of 21st-century individuals.

Another example comes from China, where government censors are never more than one step behind the community of gay rights activists, shutting down their web sites almost as soon as they appear. An innovative project based at the University of Heidelberg, the Digital Archive for Chinese Studies (DACHS), which has already archived web sites, electronic discussions, and other digital ephemera, would like to preserve these electronic tracks of the progress of the gay community in China as a future project. This, however, is just one drop in the flood of digital information that is created and lost daily.

Spence: Anyone studying China is constantly reminded of the overlapping problems in the area of intellectual property, and I assume this may become worse before it gets better. Are there parallel problems with Japanese materials? Is there going to be some universal solution that will guarantee unfettered access for users and yet protect the authors’ or the libraries’ own rights?

Hammond: Web archiving and other efforts to provide ready electronic access to texts face a huge hurdle, one that is confronting librarians in many aspects of their jobs—copyright compliance. This is an issue that increasingly concerns the library profession, and lessons from East Asia are not reassuring. East Asia librarians in the United States have joined their mainstream colleagues in successfully confronting many of the complicated legal issues involved when licensing electronic products. However, all of us have begun to hear the term Digital Rights Management (DRM) with greater frequency. At present, protecting the rights of “content creators” (authors, for example) through a system—DRM—to guarantee recompense for all public use of their work is a concept more embedded in the entertainment industry. While not a concern in China at present (where blithe disregard for copyright is still common), copyright in Japan is a loaded issue and present-day controversies suggest where DRM might be leading us.

In Japan, authors of manga, the genre usually translated as “cartoons” but running the gamut from child and youth fictional series of all types to nonfiction for adults, have begun a political movement to obtain for authors of print publications the right to royalties every time their work is lent commercially (there are bookstores that allow use of manga for a fee). At the same time, literary authors, through their professional associations, are pressuring libraries on similar issues, arguing that library purchase of multiple copies of bestsellers infringes on their right to commercial gain from their creation. In other words, the potential for librarians to be caught up in the management of copyright payments for all uses of a print or e-book is not outside the realm of possibility. In Japan, copyright is construed in terms that protect the author first and the public’s right to access content a very distant second. It is the primary reason why few full-text academic journals are available in Japan and important sections of daily newspapers are excised when distributed electronically. When librarians talk about DRM, I imagine this kind of digital future—one designed to benefit primarily private interests and taking up a lot of the time of my colleagues and the resources of our libraries as we struggle to keep our information use legal.

Spence: This new world you are describing is so different from the one I grew up in! Are there many people with the requisite skills to solve all those problems that you have presented, not to mention the many others out there that I can only guess at? Is there going to be a functional knowledge gap in library management of holdings, or is there a new generation all primed to take over?

Hammond: A modicum of understanding of contract law on the part of bibliographers has become necessary now. More than ever, finding people with the knowledge and skills to handle the range of activities going on in our libraries is difficult. This is true for all university libraries, to the extent that the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has given priority to the issue and developed a postdoctoral fellowship for scholars in the humanities. A major goal of this program is to encourage graduate students to consider careers in libraries. Yale University is participating in the CLIR postdoctoral fellowship program and has gone one step further, creating a fellowship for current Yale graduate students, who receive stipends to work in the library instead of being TAs. The winner of the competition in this, the first year of the program, was a history department graduate student from Korea who is studying Chinese history. He is now working with me in the East Asia Library, learning what is involved in the role of bibliographer as we continue to improve our Korean collection.

If this graduate student ultimately chooses a career as a librarian, he would be an unusual find. As a veteran of several searches for professional staff for the East Asia Library, I know that candidates who can read more than one East Asian language and have the education in Asian studies to understand the field and the needs of researchers are very rare. More common are native speakers of Chinese or Japanese with little academic training beyond a BA (often in English or American studies), emerging from library school with the ability to construct web pages and a theoretical understanding of information systems but often little else—certainly not the ability to have a meaningful conversation with a faculty member about his or her research. Our ideal candidates for bibliographer positions would have an educational background in traditional sources, be able to read classical Chinese or Japanese, be conversant with research trends and the needs of researchers, have traditional library education (including in-depth knowledge of cataloging principles) and still be versatile enough to train users in how to search the latest online Chinese or Japanese database and negotiate the license for the database like a seasoned international attorney. In other words, East Asian librarianship needs staff with the depth and breadth to handle an increasingly complex set of demands in the library setting—something that is true in the larger world of libraries, as well.

—Jonathan Spence (Yale Univ.) is president of the AHA.
—Ellen Hammond is curator of the East Asia Library at Yale University.