In 1977 the Southeast Asia Collection was named in honor of John M. Echols, professor of linguistics and literature in the Southeast Asia Program. Professor Echols devoted three decades to the collection's development, working closely with the first curator of the collection, Giok Po Oey. Both men set a high standard of devotion to the collection, a devotion that has been emulated by many other members of the faculty and library staff over the following decades. The roots of the collection, however, reach back further in time to Charles Wason's collection of western language books on the Chinese that he donated to Cornell in 1919.
About the same time, Jacob Gould Schurman, Cornell's president from 1892-1920, laid the foundation for our huge archive of private papers and documents. Schurman chaired the Philippine Commission, and had strong feelings about the need to prepare the Philippines for independence. Thus, a special relationship was established for subsequent generations of Cornell educators and researchers who worked in the region, and youths from Southeast Asia who attended Cornell and later rose to prominence in their respective countries.
The concept of Southeast Asia as a region arose during World War II. The area was conceived as extending from eastern India and southwestern China to the northern shore of Australia, then along the eastern face of the Philippines. Included in the region are the nations of Brunei Darussalam, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. This strategic definition is still used by the region's leaders in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Immediately after World War II, when most Asian scholars focused on China, Japan, or India, a few dedicated faculty members at Cornell began assembling and preserving Southeast Asia materials. The Southeast Asia program at Cornell gained a momentum of its own through a Rockefeller grant in 1951. While secured by faculty in East Asian Studies, Cornell President Deane W. Malott's personal commitment to match the grant with internal funds enabled Cornell to establish a distinguished Southeast Asia Program (SEAP) with powerful library resources. Cornell received the first Southeast Asia center grant, which has been renewed annually and makes it the oldest continuously supported National Resource Center (NRC) in the United States.
The Echols Collection has been the joint undertaking of the university, the library, and the Southeast Asia Program. Development was accelerated by the Farmington Plan, a book acquisition scheme designed by the federal government to use surplus foreign currencies for vernacular language publications. After the Farmington Plan was phased out, the 1958 National Defense Education Act established National Resources Centers for each region of the non-western world, with funds committed to buy publications in every subject. In the 1960s the Library of Congress began an Overseas Acquisitions Program. As its contribution to this national effort, Cornell agreed to acquire a copy of every publication of research value produced in the countries of Southeast Asia. The Rockefeller, Ford and Mellon Foundations have awarded endowments that continue to provide funding for library staff and acquisitions, a tradition that distinguishes the Echols Collection from not only all others at Cornell but also other Southeast Asia collections in the United States. As a premier resource on Southeast Asia, the Echols collection annually adds more than 9000 volumes to its collection. It is the most comprehensive body of material on a global region in the Cornell University Library system and the largest collection of its kind on Southeast Asia in the United States, and in the world.
Currently, the Collection holds a vast amount of material in a wide variety of formats, including monographs, microtext items, journals, magazines and newspapers, audio and visual materials, and a rapidly expanding set of electronic databases. Thousands of photographs and numerous archival collections dealing with Southeast Asia are held and serviced by the Rare and Manuscript Collection Division. The Echols map and visual resources collections, which are serviced and held in the lower level of Olin library, are also very extensive.
Bibliographic records for the collection are now accessible online from the CUL home page at http://www.library.cornell.edu/. Interlibrary loan services provide access to researchers beyond Cornell. In addition to Cornell students and faculty, the primary clientele for the Echols collection are the global community of scholars interested in Southeast Asia.
Text by Rohayati P. Barnard, updated by Gregory Green