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Building a Collection: Giok Po Oey and the John M. Echols Collection

The John M. Echols Collection as a Collection of Record

Evidence of the success of Giok Po Oey and John Echols’ work to build a world-class library collection can be found in an early 1970’s partnership between Cornell and the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) to film the collection’s holdings on Indonesia in order to help build a national collection in Indonesia itself. Giok Po was invited to the Netherlands to give a speech at the conclusion of the first part of the project on March 17, 1972. In the speech, he said:

"The request did not come as a complete surprise to us. We had for a long time understood that some day, in one form or another, some of the Indonesian materials we had been collecting, would be returned to Indonesia. We had understood that this country, which had been struggling through one of the most difficult periods of its history, was preoccupied with more pressing problems of the day, and could not for many years be expected to devote its attention to the seemingly minor problem of the systematic preservation of its printed publications. Yet minor as the problem may seem, history has shown how important the printed word, and therefore its preservation is. It was precisely to ensure that at least one copy of each Indonesian publication be preserved that has become one of the guiding principles in the building of Cornell’s Southeast Asia Collection" (quoted from a copy of his speech held in Giok Po Oey’s personnel file maintained by Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program).

In further proof of the accuracy of this statement, not long after Giok Po Oey’s retirement, the collection undertook another project to film its entire holdings of publications from Cambodia to rebuild the national collection there after years of devastation under the Khmer Rouge regime. This work continues even today as researchers from Southeast Asia regularly travel to Ithaca, NY and Cornell University Library to do research on their own countries in a collection that holds material often impossible to access in the region.

Giok Po’s daughter, Sally Oey, wrote on December 17, 2020, that her father’s collection development work often happened under often difficult circumstances. “He once said that his proudest acquisitions were obtaining materials from North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. As with his other work, this was accomplished by cultivating personal connections, patience, and creativity in evading the limits on communications under the circumstances” Mary Crawford, Giok Po’s assistant, said in an interview on January 27, 2021, that, “it was very difficult to get books out of Burma. They had a closed door policy. But somehow we got a connection in Burma, someone to look for books and send them. This person said, 'You don't have to send me money. Just send me neckties or other things.' It was hard to explain to the library administration why we needed money for neckties! It was another example of Giok Po's creative solutions.” These quotes, perhaps better than anything else, describes the work of a special librarian and the amazing collection he worked so long to build.