As the Librarian for South Asia at the Penn Libraries, I am responsible for collecting all intellectual and literary content about and from South Asia. This involves selecting information resources in over three dozen languages, across geographically and culturally diverse regions from Afghanistan to Myanmar, including Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, and the Maldives. The building of research collections has to balance short-term needs with a long-term vision. Of course, we need material that supports teaching and research of the faculty and students, but we cannot lose sight of material that might be increasingly relevant in the distant future. As members of various,resource-sharing networks we also have a responsibility to acquire content that is unique thereby adding greater breadth and depth to regional, national and international cooperative partnerships.
While it is important to engage with academics who study societies and cultures, it is also important to have direct interaction with the peoples and societies themselves. Travel enhances an understanding of knowledge-generation in South Asia, and also how the ‘authentic’ sources of that knowledge are produced.
It is not always the content alone that makes a book valuable. Very often, as books get older, and we are distanced in time from the production of the item, the material artifact itself is of scholarly value, for all the social and economic values of knowledge production that the physical object itself embodies.
It is in this context that travel allows for many kinds of acquisitions that are not ordinarily possible. They range from the obscure and rare material unavailable through regular channels to occasional serendipitous discoveries. The great variety of material acquired in the field is unified only by its relative unavailability elsewhere.
Here I outline some of the types of library acquisitions that we would never be able to collect had it not been for a visit to the field. These are the highlights out of almost two hundred books that are now part of the collections at Penn, many of which are not available in any library in North America, or sometimes, nowhere in the world of libraries as represented by WorldCat, a global catalog of library collections representing some two billion items! In other instances, Penn’s copy joins a single copy held only by the Library of Congress (LC) or the British Library (BL). I categorize the acquisitions in various classes based on their availability or specialty: