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New Director of East Asia Library: Dr. Regan Murphy Kao

Dr Regan Murphy Kao at the East Asia Library


(From the Stanford Libraries ReMix: a Monthly Newsletter)

Dr. Regan Murphy Kao has been selected as the new director of the East Asia Library at Stanford, where she has served since 2012 as the Japanese Studies librarian and more recently as acting director and head of the library’s Special Collections.
University Librarian Michael A. Keller announced the appointment: “The search committee winnowed the applications to a final group of three well-qualified candidates from which they recommended Dr. Murphy Kao as the scholar-librarian to become the third director of our East Asia Library. The committee noted her involvement in numerous projects and exhibitions, in professional and academic roles at peer institutions, and in the donations of significant collections. Known for her collaborative workstyle, frequent engagement with patrons and alumni, and rigorous published scholarship, she expressed an inclusive approach to collection building and a promising vision for the East Asia Library at Stanford.”
In this conversation, Dr. Murphy Kao discusses several key points made during her job presentation, which emphasized the vital role of Special Collections as a repository of diverse voices and complex stories.

Why did you entitle your recent presentation “Complex Stories”?
These are the stories of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean-speaking people and their various experiences at different times and places. Stanford’s East Asia Library has complex collections that go beyond general, standard histories to encompass great stories of transpacific travel and the movement of teachings and technologies across wide expanses of land. The collections include voices of communities at the fringes and among disempowered groups and minorities speaking against dominance. Together, they comprise a longstanding literature that speaks against the grain and gives historical context to the present.

What are some examples of complex collections?
Some collections reveal historical complexity. One example is a small collection of maps of two mountains, both named “Mount Diamond” (Keum-gang-san in Korean; Kongosan in Japanese), which I worked to acquire with our Korean Studies librarian. The name derives from a shared history of Esoteric Buddhist teaching, known as the “diamond” or “adamantine” teaching. While the common name of the two mountains highlights a shared past, the modern history of these mountains, one in North Korea and one just south of Osaka, Japan, has diverged.
Sometimes complexity derives from the methods used in cataloging, leading to challenges in integrating disparate collections. Examples of this type are the extensive Harvard-Yenching and Nippon decimal collections transferred from the Hoover Institution. These collections were catalogued in a different way than our current Library of Congress Classification System. I am organizing an effort to identify the rare materials within them and increase their discoverability. The Hoover transfers included amazing twentieth-century materials!
An example of materials that we were able to make infinitely more discoverable by adding detailed metadata is the vast collection of more than 13,000 missionary postcards, written in multiple languages and documenting missionary activities in about eight countries in East and Southeast Asia. We have digitized the postcards and created metadata to allow the users to focus on their areas of interest within the collection.

An old photograph of missionaries with children in China: From the Missionary Postcards

 Where can researchers find an overview of these collections at the East Asia Library?
Our website highlights many notable collections, such as the recently donated Thomas S. Mullaney East Asian Information Technology History Collection. The Magario Family Diaries and the Ashizawa Family Collection are historical treasures. Our Special Collections are organized by themes that span East Asia and the world rather than by boundaries created by languages and geographies.

Open book with Chinese text

How does the East Asia Library promote scholarship and community?
We invest in knowing the faculty and students so that we can support their research and teaching. Occasionally, we offer grants and travel awards for visiting scholars to study our collections. We connect with peer institutions locally, nationally, and internationally through collection sharing.
On campus, we have hosted readings from our fabulous Japanese children’s book collection for young children of the local Japanese-speaking community and of visiting scholars in residence at Stanford. Our collections are fun as well as complex!
What are some other uses of the Special Collections?
Exhibitions can be highly effective outreach. As a member of the consortium for the International Image Interoperability Framework, we can share images of our unique materials and gain access to rarities elsewhere, such as at Japan’s National Diet Library. We are also selecting materials for an upcoming exhibition in Green Library on the topic of women and medicine.
It is important that we not only create our own new online exhibits, but also educate about the online collections of our partners in East Asia. We also inform scholars of digital tools designed to help them achieve more by using the latest technologies and drawing upon multiple collections in their research.

A graduate student looking at a book

 What are your immediate goals as the new director?
Our digitizing queue includes the North Korean poster collection, the Japanese medicinal history collection in conjunction with the exhibit in Green Library next fall, and the rare materials in the Harvard-Yenching collection. As we document the present as well as the past, we are implementing new technologies such as web archiving software and artificial intelligence programs, not yet perfected but nonetheless useful, to convert handwriting into digital text.
While our materials have traditionally been used by graduate students, faculty, and researchers, we are planning several programs tailored for undergraduates. The unifying goal of the East Asia Library is to support teaching and research at Stanford by collecting and making accessible important stories that might otherwise disappear from the historical record. Each staff person plays a crucial role in this storytelling.

Regan Murphy Kao presenting an item from East Asia Library's locked stacks at the collegium