Review of Asian Studies Library Collection in Australia

Review of Asian Studies Library Collection in Australia

Asian studies and Asian library collections have developed relatively recently in Australia. Prior to World War II, Asian studies were restricted to one department at the University of Sydney which taught the Japanese language and Asian history. There were no significant collections of Asian publications and no Australian library was regularly collecting current publications from the region. This situation changed in the 1950s since the importance of Asian studies was increasingly recognised. The National Library and the Australian National University Library started acquisition programs which have made them the key Asian research collections in Australia. The University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne libraries also began to build substantial Asian language collections at that time.

One of the most important changes across the university libraries in Australia in the last decade or so, including Asian Studies collection, is the retreat of libraries from old-style collection development. Most libraries previously focused on expanding their collections and took pride in having unique collections and hosting specialist researchers from around the globe. Most libraries have moved away from this approach. Instead, libraries develop strategic plans in collection development and acquisitions policy, to ensure the collection best represents the teaching and research priorities of the university.

The focus on teaching and research priorities has also made academic libraries more involved in embedding targeted skill-development programs within coursework and graduate research curricula. Those skills include research skills, academic integrity and referencing, reading and note-taking skills, critical thinking, presentation skills, and writing skills.

Another important change is the shift toward online collections curated by commercial vendors and suppliers. This shift has been an enormous advantage to academics and researcher because it reduces travel costs and travel times, thus giving them a wider and easier access.

The current situation, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, presents us with some significant challenges:

  • It is difficult to measure how much funding for Asian studies collections has declined over the years because this information is not readily available. However, there is a growing trend towards e-preferred policy across academic libraries in Australia to maximise access and reduce cost.
  • Reduced perceived value of having specialist Asian collection librarians because libraries rely more on resources packages pushed by their vendors. Monolingual mindset in a lot of libraries at higher management levels contributes to the marginalisation of Asian studies collections within their institutions.
  • Apart from a very few academic libraries which still employ Asian Studies librarians, the majority of academic libraries in Australia do not have dedicated specialist librarians to develop and manage their Asian studies collections. A major restructure partly caused by the pandemic in mid-2021 at Monash University Library has left the Asian Collections without any dedicated specialist to manage them, including the Indonesian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese collections.
  • Those libraries which still have specialist librarians are expected to support teaching and research. This has opens up a good opportunity for librarians to diversify their skills but also put pressure on workloads.
The National Library’s Asian language collectionsThe NLA Asian Language Collection focuses on contemporary Asia from the 19th century onwards. Systematic collecting began in the 1950s and covers a range of subjects, such as history, politics, current affairs, society and culture. Books, journals, government publications, magazines and newspapers are supplemented by full-text article databases, e-books, maps, archived websites and ephemeral materials. The collections are strongest for the countries of East and Southeast Asia, and there are rich holdings of English language materials on Asia. By far, NLA has the most comprehensive Asian language collection including Burmese, Cambodian, Chinese, East Timor, Indonesian, Japanese, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese language collections, and many others.大般若波羅蜜多經–see the Library’s earliest printed book, a 12th century printing of the Buddhist scriptures in Chinese.    
Monash Library Asian CollectionsThese are specialist collections of Asian-language materials with a focus on Southeast Asia and East Asia. These collections form a leading research facility for Asian studies in Australia and are supported by a team of specialist Asian studies librarians. They consist primarily of Asian language materials with a focus on Indonesia and Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, and China. The Asian Collections house rare and archival materials, including the Norodom Sihanouk Archival Collection, the Suetsugu Collection, the Australia Tibet Council Collection, the David Chandler Cambodia Collection, the Balai Pustaka Collection, the Southeast Asia Pamphlets Collection and the Indonesian Historical Collection.  Monash has digitised some of its rare and unique collections, including Sin Po and Star Weekly (Indonesian newspapers)Japanese Fairy TalesJulio Jedres Cambodia Collection Norodom Sihanouk Archival Collection  
Melbourne University East Asian CollectionThis collection focuses in collecting books, journals, and electronic databases from China, Taiwan, and Japan.  The East Asian Collection is designed to suit the research and teaching needs of the Asia Institute and the broader University of Melbourne community.  Major strengths include print and electronic resources on arts and humanities, social sciences and architectural history. 
The Australian National University Menzies LibraryThe Library holds Asian scholarly materials to support Asia Pacific studies in the fields of history, anthropology, politics and international relations, literature and language, religion and philosophy. The major strengths of the Library’s collection include East Asia (China, Japan, Korea), Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam), South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), Pacific (PNG and Melanesia), Middle East and Central Asia.  Major strengths include China (250,000 volumes of Chinese publications), Japan (130,000 volumes), Indonesia (40,000 volumes).
Sydney University East Asian CollectionThe University Library’s East Asian Collection comprises material published in Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages, and is the third largest East Asian collection in Australia after the East Asian Collections of the National Library of Australia and the Australian National University. Areas of particular strength include literature, history, philosophy, religion, anthropology, arts, political science, and ancient architecture.The Library has recently purchased more than 1,700 electronic books on traditional Chinese medicine and health sciences in Chinese language.

Liaison Librarian - Business and Economics, Law (former Subject Librarian for Indonesian Studies Monash University Library
Library representative, ASAA Council

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