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Columbia's East Asian Library Shines


"The account of a pulgasari in the last years of Songdo," Yongson (1936), C.V. Starr East Asian Library. The mythical creature depicted on the cover of this popular Korean novel eats metal.

Colorful posters from around the world featuring the ferocious Japanese movie monster Godzilla aren't the usual decorations found in a tranquil university library. But the posters, which adorn the walls of Columbia's C.V. Starr East Asian Library as part of an exhibition celebrating the film's 50th anniversary, are emblematic of the institution's goal to foster awareness of the literary and cultural artifacts of Japan, China and Korea. "Godzilla is a symbol of East Asian popular culture," said Amy Heinrich, who specialized in modern Japanese poetry at Columbia and has been the library's director since 1991.

Founded in 1902 and located in Kent Hall, the library holds one of the world's largest East Asian collections outside Asia, with almost 800,000 volumes of East Asian and Western-language books, as well as periodicals and videos. With its vaulted ceiling, wood-paneled walls and soaring columns -- and a large stained glass window depicting Justice, a remnant of the building's Law School days -- the library is a quiet, elegant refuge that serves students and scholars from the department of East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALAC), the entire University community and the city.

"It is one of the most important libraries of its kind in North America , and therefore in the world," said Heinrich. "Outside of Shanghai, we have the best collection of Chinese genealogies. We have an archive of letters from all major post-war Japanese writers. This is one of the great resources of knowledge about a part of the world that is central to 21 st century. Combined with the East Asian studies department, the library is a powerhouse and one of the University's great strengths."

Amid the book stacks and racks of Asian-language newspapers and magazines are also myriad East Asian cultural artifacts. Besides the Godzilla posters, which belong to EALAC Professor of Japanese History Greg Pflugfelder, there is a late 18th or early 19th-century gilded wood carving depicting a bodhisattva, an individual destined for Buddhahood, on the main floor. Nearby is a large, ornately carved wooden cabinet built for the Japanese pavilion of the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

Some of the most beautiful and fragile works, however, are rare books and artifacts that can only be seen in the subterranean reading room where they are stored. The oldest are Chinese oracle bones, dating from 1200-1027 B.C.E., whose inscriptions are considered to be among the first examples of Chinese writing; and from Japan, eighth-century Buddhist charms, one of the earliest examples of Japanese printed material. There are also two volumes of an epic Korean poem dating from 1500 that demonstrate the history of printing in Korea.

Donations from a variety of sources helped establish the library's collections and also reflect Columbia's deep involvement with the intellectual and cultural life of the region. China's Empress Dowager contributed a 5,044-volume encyclopedia in 1902; in 1927, the library received 5,000 volumes from Japan's Imperial Household Ministry. Korean students at Columbia donated nearly 1,000 books in 1931; since then, the Korean collection has expanded to over 51,000 volumes.

The library's growth parallels the burgeoning popularity of EALAC and the number of East Asian students attending Columbia, as well as the growing political and economic interest in Asia. As power shifts away from Europe to Asia, Heinrich says, "Kids are more aware of the future than the past, and that future is how East Asia goes."

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Published: Oct 20, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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