What is now one of the United States’ largest collections of East Asian literature was born in 1937 as nothing more than a small purchase of Chinese texts. In the eight decades since that purchase was made, the UW’s East Asia Library has evolved into one of the most impressive libraries of its kind in the world and owes much of its success to Eugene Wu.
Wu, 95, returned to his alma mater on a snowy Friday to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the library’s founding. The celebration was attended by Wu’s family and several distinguished faculty members from the Jackson School of International Studies, each of whom shared fond memories of the library’s history.
Wu was invited back to the UW to serve as the primary speaker for the anniversary celebrations, and he expressed gratitude for the invite and excitement at the wintry weather. Wu now resides in California and said he had not seen in snow in nearly two decades.
The UW first became a home for Wu in the fall of 1946, after a stint fighting for the Chinese army during World War II. Following the war, Wu found himself in the United States and decided the next year to attend an American university.
When Wu and four of his army contemporaries arrived at the UW, they found themselves to be outsiders on campus. The group could not find another Chinese student until they found two living in the old International House, which no longer stands.
“The two were stranded by the war and couldn’t return,” Wu said. “So all of a sudden, the population of students from China went up from two to seven.”
It was shortly after his arrival that Wu became the first student assistant at the East Asia Library, which was known at the time as the Far Eastern Institute. Despite its name, the “institute” was no more than a pile of uncatalogued boxes.
As the modest collection grew, it was Wu’s job to carry the boxes from a dusty Suzzallo Library shelf to a makeshift shelter behind Thomson Hall that was lovingly referred to as “the shack.”
From there, Wu began cataloguing the collection by hand, before typewriters or computers came into common usage. Wu suggested that such technological frustrations might have been shared by his classmate Kenneth Allen, who later became better known as the father of Paul Allen.
“You don’t realize how good you have it today,” said Wu, only half joking.
In 1950, the library vacated the shack and moved into a cramped Thomson Hall basement, the first space of its own. As the collection kept expanding to include Korean and Japanese materials, Wu’s work increased.
The modest space was lined with heating pipes that descended from the ceiling, often striking students and staff in the forehead. Wu and several alumni laughed as they remembered the frustrated librarian placing signs on the pipes reading “鬼懃” (watch out). Long after Wu left, the signs remained to warn people of potential headaches.
A year after the Far Eastern Institute moved into its basement residence, Wu left the UW and continued his pursuit of a library education. Wu attended Stanford during his post-grad years and worked as the first East Asian curator at the school’s acclaimed Hoover Institution Library.
Wu remained at the Hoover Institution until 1965 and helped amass its collection of Chinese literature, one of the largest in the world. He only left when Harvard came calling, inviting the UW alumnus to serve as the director of the Harvard-Yenching Library, the largest East Asian library at any university in the Western world.
If not for his time assisting a fledgling UW collection, Wu may never have gone on to make such an important impact on East Asian studies in the United States. Wu helped found the Council on East Asian Libraries (CEAL) in 1958 and spent over 30 years at Harvard before retiring in 1997.
Since his retirement, Wu has found little time to relax, as he has continued to write and conduct research well into his 90s. At the East Asia Library’s 80th anniversary celebration, Wu continued to advocate for the importance of libraries.
“Libraries are the foundation on which scholarship is built,” Wu told an eager and engaged crowd. “The stronger the foundation, the more solid the structure.”
Although Wu has been unable to visit the UW as often as he might like, he said he has been amazed to see how the library has evolved from a pile of boxes in a shack to the vast collection of over 780,000 items that now occupies the third story of Gowen Hall.
While Wu attended classes on the same campus and read the same newspaper this story is printed in, he marveled at the change that has come to Seattle over the course of seven decades.
“Life was much simpler,” Wu said. “I was taken around campus this afternoon; it has changed so much and there are so many new buildings.”
Most of all, Wu was touched at what has become of his work. The UW Dean of University Libraries Betsy Wilson introduced Wu to the crowd, referring to the East Asia Library as “the jewel in the crown” of UW libraries.
“It has a very humble beginning,” Wu said about his old project. “Now it’s one of the major East Asian collections in the country, and that is to be commended.”
Reach reporter Alex Visser at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @thealexvisser