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Berkeley Home to New East Asian Library


Over the past century, the University of California at Berkeley has assembled a vast collection of East Asian treasures. Now in their new home on campus, the museum-quality materials are available for students to see, touch and study.

In the middle of the Berkeley campus stands the four-story C.V. Starr Library. "This is the first freestanding building ever constructed to house an East Asian collection in the United States," says library director Peter Zhou.

The new $46.4 million facility brings together under one roof collections of wood-block prints, rare maps, scrolls, manuscripts and much more.

"We have over 900,000 volumes in our collections, covering all fields of humanities and social sciences," Zhou says. "We collect materials from primarily 3 countries: China, Japan and Korea. In terms of languages, all collections are in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, some Mongolian and some Manchu."

"We have items that simply couldn't be purchased today no matter at what price tag," says Deborah Rudolph, executive manager of the library.

"A lot of these books have annotations, which may give a scholar insights into the way a particular work was received at that time," Rudolph says.

The library also has a lot of manuscripts that have never been published, some by well-known intellectuals, she says. "We have other items that are simply unique. They have never been reprinted, like some of the rubbings. Many of the objects these rubbings were taken from no longer exist. So, they are unique records."

The library is named after the late Cornelius Vander Starr, a UC Berkeley alumnus with a deep interest in Asia. Starr made his fortune in the insurance industry and the Starr Foundation contributed $8 million to the project.

Since it opened two months ago, the library has attracted scholars from universities across Asia, visitors from the Asian American community, and many of Berkeley's professors and their students.

Art History professor Patricia Berger brings her class to the library for a weekly seminar. She says they focus on two particular categories.

"First, a group of books and albums that have some of the great plays and novels that were written in China from the 15th to the 18th centuries," she says. "Also we looked at rubbings taken from stone engravings. Some of the great sculpture monuments in China are represented here in rubbing form. It's wonderful. This is an early way of producing things before photography."

Graduate students Sung Lim Kim and Michelle Wang say visiting the library with their professor adds to their understanding.

"It really helped me to learn from my professors, from librarians, for example, how to unroll and roll a hanging scroll, how to flip over pages, how to cover my breath when I look at these thousands-year-old books and paintings and stuff," Kim says.

"I never had an opportunity to be up-close and personal with these objects," Wang adds. "In Taiwan, when I was in the National Palace Museum, you know, there are very thick glasses between you and the object. But when I came to Berkeley, it became this unique opportunity to actually see or handle some of the materials."

Having all the university's East Asian collections in one place benefits students like Louis Habbersted, who is working toward a doctorate degree in Chinese History.

"Before, there were three libraries where the materials were, all scattered around the campus," he says. "So sometimes you might look up something in the main library, but find you have actually to walk across to the other library, which was really frustrating. Here you can get to all materials, which makes it a lot more convenient."

The library's reading hall has large windows overlooking a grove of oak trees that let in plenty of light. The space attracts many students who are not majoring in East Asian studies. Randal Brown, who is studying South East Asian Political Economy, is one of them.

"The atmosphere is very attractive, the natural lighting," he says. "It's a new facility on campus. It also provides kind of a unique intellectual connection. The groups of young intellectuals that are attracted here, I think this is appealing."

Library Director Peter Zhou is delighted by students' feedback. He says he hopes the facility will continue to support research and the exchange of ideas, and be the place where the West meets and understands the East.