Collecting for Global Diversity

This prefatory blog post to a series exploring the role of international collections and their collectors in promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion was contributed by Sean Swanick, Luo Zhou, and Ernest Zitser, respectively the Chinese, Middle Eastern & Islamic, and Russian, Eurasian, & East European studies librarians, in the International and Area Studies Department of Duke University Libraries.

One can think of the variegated research materials (foreign-language books, journals, databases, photographs, postcards, etc.) acquired by the staff of Duke University Library’s International and Area Studies (IAS) department in at least two ways.  For some, they are the relatively poorly-circulating counterparts of the bread-and-butter titles in a predominantly English-language, general collection. For others, they are a unique, difficult-to-acquire, distinct, and special collection (with a small “S”) in its own right. However, regardless of how they are described, their provenance, or their eventual location within the library (on- or off-site, general- or special collection), international materials serve as conduits of ideas and identities across linguistic boundaries and cultural barriers. In this way, international collections are both transgressive and transformative.

This diversity applies not only to the material resources that IAS librarians collect to further the research and teaching of international topics at Duke University, but also to the core mission, organization, and composition of the department itself.  Not surprisingly, IAS is structured by geography and seeks to represent as many different parts of the world as possible: Asia (inclusive of the Middle East, South & Southeast Asia), Eurasia (Russia and former Soviet countries), Eastern and Western Europe, Africa (northern and sub-Saharan), as well as Latin America & Iberia. Nor is it surprising that IAS librarians are as diverse, multi-lingual, and international as the collections that they curate.  Only two of IAS’ current eight members were born in the US. All the rest moved from their home countries to work here at Duke University Libraries. Regardless of their differences—ethnic, linguistic, or religious—they all serve as intermediaries between one culture and another.  And they all share the unpleasant experience of dealing with border guards and customs agents, that is, the authorities who control the flow of goods and people into and out of a country and who are responsible for collecting government tariffs—the duties or taxes imposed on imported or exported goods and, before the abolition of the international slave trade, also on commodified human beings.

Smyrne, Les quais et le bureau des passeports = İzmir, the Docks and the Passport Office.
Smyrne, Les quais et le bureau des passeports = İzmir, the Docks and the Passport Office. İzmir (Smyrna) postcards and photographs collection. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

The French word for customs is douane—a variant on the Arabic word دیوان (dīwān), which likely came to Arabic from Persian/Farsi.  This word is thought to have arrived in France via the Mediterranean island of Sicily (the “toe” of Italy’s “boot”), which at one point in time hosted a significant Arab population. Although the etymology of the mellifluous-sounding French word hints at a process of cross-cultural fertilization (Persian to Arabic to French via Italy), in practice, a customs house serves as an architectural embodiment of the process by which established, governmental authorities label and domesticate the “Other.” A douane, in other words, is a stark reminder of the fact that you are crossing a demarcated border and entering a foreign country, a land where you do not really belong and where you are the unwelcome stranger.

Anyone who has ever travelled internationally knows that every time you enter a foreign country, you have to engage in certain social conventions: show a valid passport and (entry) visa, then explain why you are entering, why you left, where you went, and for how long. Even if you are just a librarian returning from an international book-buying trip or book fair, you are bound to be stopped at the border: “Welcome to the US, Mr. Swanick: Have you ever been to Yemen? When was the last time you visited Syria? And what was the purpose of your visit?” Or else: “I don’t recognize this visa, please come with me”—a phrase that sends chills up and down a global traveler’s spine, no matter which country’s customs agent pronounces it.  International borders, like the customs houses and checkpoints built alongside them, affirm your identity and nationality, whether you like it or not. They are meant to exclude the “Other,” to limit diversity, and to demonstrate your inequality vis-à-vis the natives of the country you are visiting. They are, in a word, the polar opposite of the global perspective cultivated by IAS.

Yichang (Ichang) Customs Station = 宜昌海关站 (1917). Sidney D. Gamble Photographs. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Yichang (Ichang) Customs Station = 宜昌海关站 (1917). Sidney D. Gamble Photographs. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

As the international border-crossing experience painfully demonstrates, the world and its inhabitants could stand with a little less “othering” and a lot more diversity. But what does “being” diverse mean for the international and area studies specialists of Duke University Libraries? Over the course of the next several months, a series of blog posts by different members of IAS will attempt to examine how our work as builders and curators of the library’s international collections contributes to the on-going, campus-wide conversation about equity, diversity, and inclusion.  We hope you will read our entries in the spirit in which they were intended and contact us if you have any comments, criticisms, or (we hope) compliments.

Stay tuned!

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