Larry Ashmun, Bibliographer for Southeast Asian Studies, is clearly passionate about what he does. Larry’s dedication to the ongoing development of the collections has helped UW—Madison to become one of the leaders in Southeast Asian and Hmong studies. Read on to learn more about Larry and his latest projects and achievements.
News: Can you tell me a little about what you do as the Bibliographer for Southeast Asian Studies?
LA: “Bibliographer” sometimes doesn’t mean anything to anybody—really, I’m a librarian. I’m constantly working to identify resources to further develop the collections. I do this through whatever means possible, whether that be through the Library of Congress program, commercial vendors, personal contacts, or exchanges. Along with Southeast Asian Studies, I also put Hmong Studies on the card. When I first applied for the position twelve years ago, Hmong Studies wasn’t part of the job description and I don’t know if it ever really got changed officially, but I am very involved with that area too. Here at Wisconsin, we’ve always been strong in Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand—those are the big three. My own specialty is Thailand; even though we’ve been strong on Thailand, we’d never had anybody in the library that was really a Thai specialist before I came. I’ve lived in Thailand and my wife is Thai, so essentially I’m “tied to Thailand.”
As far as the Hmong Studies side goes, although it’s not officially my responsibility, I feel a sense of obligation as a public institution to connect and focus on it somewhat. I even took Hmong language classes to try to strengthen and gain more knowledge on the culture. Our focus on the Hmong began after I arrived here and has developed greatly over the years. We now have special collections that no one else has related to the Hmong. I don’t cover everything that’s relative to Hmong America per se, but if the material is somehow related to Wisconsin I try to figure out a way to incorporate it. I’ve developed a little contact network. So if it’s education-related, maybe MERIT Library would be interested, or if it’s related to social work, I’ll get in contact with the Social Work Library. Speaking of which, there is a new Social Work professor who is Hmong, and while I won’t be his primary contact, I want to be able to be responsive to anything that’s relative to his needs. I think that this connection, by extension, will serve to strengthen our Hmong studies program.
Another big thing I do is outreach. I try to connect to the Hmong Community both within Wisconsin and beyond. I am also involved with Thai-related things—for instance, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens Thai Pavilion. Since the June 2002 dedication of the pavilion (or sala, as it’s called in Thai), we’ve had three Thai Fests which were open to the public. I am on their committee so I like to help with events like that. Visiting Thai officials and Thai journalists sometimes come through and every year for the past seven years a small group of Thai students visit Wisconsin during their summer (which is actually April and May) and we always make sure they go see the sala. I try to help them feel at home while they’re here and answer any questions they may have.
Each summer, I help with SEASSI, an intensive Southeast Asian language program. I lead the library orientation and meet with the students to discuss their research so I can kind of keep them in my “thinking cap” while they’re here and help them make any useful connections. Sometimes it even spins off into them coming to graduate school here (but if they’d visit in January, it might have been a different story!).
And then, of course, there’s the work with SEAiT (The SouthEast Asian Images & Texts digital collection project), which keeps me pretty busy. SEAiT has kind of developed a life of its own and has really proven to be popular, so I am happy to oversee its continued enhancement.
News: What is your favorite part of your job?
LA: Helping people! My key operative word is always “service.” I think that’s why I got into being a librarian. The interaction with people is always interesting because we have some students going all the way from undergraduate degrees to PhDs, and in some cases you actually kind of go along with them, helping them along the way. It’s satisfying to see them achieve that final goal. The School of Library and Information Studies always has their own graduation ceremony, and several times I’ve attended because I knew a student or two. Every once in awhile they actually acknowledged me when they gave their little speech and it’s nice because they didn’t have to do that. I mean I wasn’t their advisor, but I helped them to some degree and it feels good to know that.
News: I hear you were awarded a Fulbright last year. That’s wonderful!
LA: Yes, last year I was fortunate to get a special Fulbright (they call it the Fulbright Specialist Program) which gave me the opportunity to spend six weeks in Thailand, the maximum amount of time they grant. I’ve been over there before, of course, but my time there for the Fulbright opened up some more recent opportunities: working directly with the director of the Thammasat University Libraries and other high-level officials, being introduced to other people that I may not have ever met before at other institutions, and getting a chance to make presentations in Thai to primarily (but not exclusively) librarians about various aspects of the things that they asked me to speak about or that we were working on.
Next year I’ll be going over to not only Southeast Asia, but also a major conference in Australia that deals with Thai studies. While I’m there, I hope to be able to follow up on some of the connections I made during my Fulbright last year. Some librarians (like me) really need to be in the field to make connections with potential collaborators periodically. I’ve found that it’s all about establishing personal relationships. The value of the interaction isn’t measured quantitatively, in the sense of checking something off, but hopefully for me the spinoff will be that I will strengthen some contacts I may have started particularly last year.
News: How long did you live in Thailand?
LA: I always tell people if you add it up it’s about seventeen years. Peace Corps first took me there as a volunteer, and I kind of “fell in love” with Thailand, as we say. But after Peace Corps, I had no particular plan for what I wanted to do next. I majored as an undergraduate in philosophy, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking about that as a career at all. It was a nice liberal arts degree that allowed me to take a lot of different subjects, at Beloit College here in Wisconsin. But I didn’t have any particular plan to go right from Peace Corps to graduate school. My academic interest was developing along the lines of Southeast Asia, but I didn’t know what subject area I wanted to pursue. I was able to find other employment in Thailand and eventually wound up in a different part of Thailand working at a brand new college where I stayed for six years. That’s where I met my wife to be, and we both decided after we married to head back to the U.S. for graduate school.
I hadn’t planned on becoming a librarian. As an undergraduate I didn’t even work in the library. I always look back and wonder why I didn’t do that—I worked in the kitchen at the College’s commons (which was great at the time because I got extra food!). But I’ve always been an “informational” person, and several things led me to think about how I could utilize this in combination with my interest in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
Shortly after getting my library degree at Northern Illinois University, I was signed on as a librarian there for a special project. I later wound up going to work at Cornell for a contract period. By the time my contract was up, ten years had passed since we came back to the States and we had always said we’d eventually go back to Thailand. Our daughter was turning four, and we figured it was a good time to get her into the school system in Thailand, so we moved back after a decade in America, from 1980 to 1990.
I was still in Thailand when I was applying for this job. We had visited Madison in the summer of ’95 and had kind of (again) “fallen in love” with it. So when I heard that this position was open I said, “I cannot not apply.” I think that this job here at UW—Madison is the right one for me. Though moving here meant that my wife had to give up a lifetime position as an assistant professor at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, Madison is a good place for us.
Thailand will always be special to me personally, but it’s also special to me in the sense that Thai Studies is one of our major programs and our appeal here at UW—Madison. Our studies program is in many ways more Thai-based now than it has ever been.
News: Now, for the “typical librarian” question… What are you reading?
LA: I always gravitate to non-fiction. I’ve just never been much of a fiction reader! I basically read non-fiction connected to the work I’m doing. I recently read the autobiography of Gordon Young, who wrote The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. I enjoyed reading it because it told me more about him. I would love to meet him someday. We’re in correspondence by email because I am interested in the pictures from The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand as a potential SEAiT project.
I’ve also read books about some of the missionary things from Laos, I’ve read some Hmong-related things, some Secret War-related things, things related to Thailand—The King Never Smiles by Paul M. Handley, which was banned in Thailand because it was criticizing the king. I like to read about things that really happened, real people. That’s just my nature. And that even goes back to probably when I was in high school and junior high. I read several books by Dr. Tom Dooley, a doctor who worked in Vietnam and Laos in the late fifties. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to join the Peace Corps, indirectly. Those books still resonate with me today because we have pictures of Dr. Dooley in the Halpern Collection! Again, these connections…
Now if you asked me to recommend fictional books, I could recommend a few various things. One book that I would especially recommend if you were going to Thailand is called Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind by Carol Hollinger. “Mai Pen Rai” is a Thai word which means something along the lines of, “Never mind, don’t worry about it, no sweat.” The book kind of “decodes” some of the things about Thai culture—like why people don’t cry at Buddhist funerals, the craziness of traffic in Thailand, etc. It’s a nice cultural entrée kind of book.
- To learn more about SEAiT’s background, the individual collections, and forthcoming additions, check out this Archive Profile by Larry Ashmun: The SouthEast Asian Images & Texts (SEAiT) Project at The University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Visit the Thai Pavilion at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens and read about it here
- Explore upcoming events and resources available through the Center for Southeast Asian Studies
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