9 May 2022
Hao Phan.

Northern Illinois University is a Carnegie 2 research institution tucked away in DeKalb. It has the distinction of being home to Illinois' only Center for Southeast Asia Studies.  The Founders Memorial Library holds a distinctive collection of materials to support the work of the Center. In addition to his responsibilities as the collection's curator, Hao Phan, has made significant contributions to preserving and providing access to primary research materials in Southeast Asia. I talked with Hao about his work with the Southeast Asia Collection at NIU.

Thank you for sharing about your work at NIU, Hao. What led you to pursue a career in this area of librarianship?

After graduating with a MLIS from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2000, I worked at a few different places, including a public library, an IT company, and even an advertising agency, before taking the job of Bibliographer for Southeast Asian Studies at UCLA in 2003. I was hired for the position partly because of my language skills and cultural background since I originally came from Vietnam. The job fitted me very well. In 2006, I moved from UCLA to Northern Illinois University and have been enjoying working as the Curator for Southeast Asian Studies at NIU since then. The Southeast Asia (SEA) collection at NIU, https://libguides.niu.edu/sea, established in 1963, is one of the best Southeast Asia collections in the country, and the only Southeast Asia collection in the state of Illinois.

Tell us about the work you do with the SEA collection on behalf of the Center.

As the Curator for Southeast Asian Studies, I acquire library materials for the SEA collection, including materials in English and in SEA languages. I provide reference services to library users, and work on library projects, such as digitization projects for the Southeast Asian Digital Library, https://sea.lib.niu.edu/. Started in 2005, the Southeast Asian Digital Library is an ongoing collaborative project between NIU and many institutions in the US and in Southeast Asia to digitize research materials and makes them freely available on the internet. My priority is to collect library materials that serve the teaching and research of people in the Southeast Asian Studies Program at NIU. In return, I receive strong support from the NIU Center for the SEA Studies. They provide additional funding for books, acquisitions trips, and student workers that are important in building an excellent SEA collection. For example, since last year, the Center for SEA Studies has provided funding to hire two student workers to work with the cataloger Mary Burns to catalog the backlogs of materials in Thai and Khmer.

You're active with CORMOSEA, the Committee on Research Materials on Southeast Asia. Could you tell us more about this group?

CORMOSEA, Committee on Research Materials on Southeast Asia, https://cormosea.wordpress.com/, is the organization that includes all librarians and staff working on Southeast Asia collections in the US, plus a few people from international institutions. It is a relatively small group, so we know one another well, and have done a lot of collaborative work over the years. One important collaborative work is the Southeast Asia Materials (SEAM) Project, https://www.crl.edu/programs/seam, which preserves periodicals through microfilming and digitization. Another important collaborative project is the Southeast Asian Digital Library, which I have mentioned above. CORMOSEA members meet in person once a year at the Association for Asian Studies Conference, where we hold the annual meetings on collection development, SEAM, cataloging, and the Southeast Asian Digital Library.

Throughout the year, members also meet in smaller groups for specific projects and issues. I currently serve on the executive committee of SEAM, which evaluates the proposals for microfilming and digitization of SEA materials.

You've been the recipient of two grants from the British Library. Tell us about the work you have done with these awards.

In 2014, I received a grant of $60,000 from the Endangered Archives Programme of the British Library to help preserve the manuscripts of the Cham, a minority people living in Vietnam. The Cham once had their own kingdom called Champa, which was eliminated by the Vietnamese in the 19th century. There are only about 162,000 Cham people living in Vietnam today, concentrated in Central Vietnam and in the Mekong Delta region. The Cham possess a fascinating history and unique culture within Southeast Asia, still appreciated today through their ancient temples, ritual practices, and especially their manuscripts. Thousands of Cham manuscripts are still available in the villages of Cham people. Most of these manuscripts are in deteriorating conditions and urgently need to be preserved. The project digitized the manuscripts and provided acid-free archival boxes to the manuscripts owners for storing the materials. This project digitizes 504 manuscripts, including 29,451 pages. In 2017, I received a second grant of about $60,000 from the British Library to continue the work. This time, we digitized 473 manuscripts, including 28,375 pages. In total, the two grants allowed me to digitize 977 Cham manuscripts, including 57,826 pages. The project helped preserve an important cultural heritage of Cham people and provided valuable primary sources for Southeast Asian Studies, specifically in the field of Chamic Studies.  

Are there other outreach activities you would like to share with us?

Through working collaboratively with the libraries of University of Washington (UW) and Arizona State University (ASU), funded by the Henry Luce Foundation grants, I have done a few training programs for librarians from Southeast Asia. In June and November of 2014, we brought six librarians from Myanmar (Burma) to NIU for training for ten days on each trip. In March 2017, we invited two librarians from Myanmar to NIU for training for one month. With a focus on preservation, cataloging, and collection development, the training program at NIU involved many librarians and staff who generously took time from their busy work to train the visiting librarians. I also travelled to Myanmar to hold training workshops. In July 2016, I held two workshops at Yangon University and Yadanabon University for a total of 53 local librarians and staff, focusing on preservation. In May 2018, I again held two workshops at Yangon University and Yadanabon University for a total of 60 participants, with a focus on Open Access. I also provided training sections in Vietnam and Cambodia in 2014 and 2019, respectively, as part of the digitization projects conducted in these countries.

Our guest blog post today is by Mary Burns, Special Collections Catalog Librarian at NIU. Many thanks to Hao for sharing about his work as the Southeast Asia Collections Curator at the NIU Library!