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Thirty years of cataloging the South Asia collection: an interview with Shantha Murthy

(The following is a post by Charlotte Giles, South Asian Reference Librarian, Asian Division)

Woman, sitting at a desk in front of a computer, turning to face the viewer, smiling.

Shantha Murthy at her workstation. Photo by Cyndi. A Wood.

The Library of Congress is well known for its unique and rich collections. What is often hidden are those who share their expertise and knowledge with the institution to make these holdings visible to the larger world. This blog, 4 Corners of the World, hopes to highlight the background and work of some of these individuals. Conducting these interviews allows us to capture a piece of the institutional knowledge and history of Library employees who contribute to the International Collections, especially those who often work beyond the public eye. While staff work is what allows researchers to conduct research, their presence in the Library is foundational to the creation of the culture at the Library. The Library of Congress’ story and history is comprised of those from within and beyond North America.

Shantha Murthy is one such individual. Shantha is a librarian and cataloger working in the Middle East and South Asia Section (MESA) of the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access (ABA) Unit, with a particular focus on serials (magazines, newspapers, etc.) from South and Southeast Asia. She joined the Library in 1991 and has continued with ABA until the present. Her career as a librarian and educator is long, illustrious, and fantastically varied. This blog is an abbreviated version of a longer virtual interview with Shantha Murthy.

This interview evolved into an exchange focused on Shantha’s life and work before and leading up to The Library of Congress. It was amazing to hear Shantha view major chapters in her career as leading inevitably to her ideal and hoped for position at the Library of Congress. Her shift from living and teaching in Bangalore, India to New York City, and then to Washington, DC gives readers an idea of how each degree program and career shift impacted her trajectory that would eventually lead her to the Library.

Gia Định báo. Cover of August, 1865 issue. Library of Congress Asian Division.

You’ve been with the Library of Congress for quite some time, but you’ve worked in other places, including in India, where you’re from. What put you on the path to working at the Library of Congress? Before you moved to the United States in 1980, you visited in 1970.  Was this a trip that led you to decide that you wanted to be in Washington, DC?

My father was giving a lecture tour in 1970 and he asked me to accompany him. I was a teacher back then and I thought that one day I would like to work for the Library of Congress. I already had four children at that point too! My mother would take care of them while I was gone, so my husband, brother, father, and myself all left Bangalore, India, my hometown, through Madras, to go on this tour. That’s the first time I sat in a plane. I didn’t know how a plane flies. I thought it got stuck in the air! It’s not moving! I asked my father and the air hostess, on the flight to Madras, what happened to the plane. I was very worried that it had gotten stuck in the air. The hostess told me to look in the window, and she pointed to our arrival at the Madras airport!

From Madras we flew to Kuala Lumpur and we stayed there for almost a month. From there we went to Singapore, then Hong Kong, Bangkok, and then Taiwan. From there to Osaka, and then Tokyo, and then Hawaii. We flew to the mainland to Seattle, San Francisco, and then Washington, DC, near Maryland where my brother was working at the World Bank. After six months, I returned to India.

When I returned to Bangalore, I continued my education by receiving another master’s in linguistics and then, after working as a high school teacher at the Corporation High School, I became a lecturer in the Corporation Junior College. I taught literature and social studies. I was there for two years up until I left India. I kept doing these things in India, but my husband had stayed in the US to work and take a computer course. My father scolded me a bit for not joining him in the US, so I eventually took the visas with my children.

Over the years, for most of my life, starting on November 8, 1963 when I started work as a teacher, up until now, with a few gaps here and there, I’ve been working continuously.

 

Why did you decide you wanted to get into library work?

That’s a big question! I was in charge of the library in high school and college. All I was doing was keeping the books intact, giving the books to the students, taking them back, and then putting them back on the shelves.

Once in the US, I read in the India Abroad newspaper that the New York Public Library was looking for someone who knows Kannada and Telugu. Kannada is my mother tongue. All of the music I played was composed in Telugu. And my grandfather was a Telugu pandit [a learned scholar or priest in Hindu religion and philosophy]. From birth, I’ve had some inclination towards languages, so I thought, ok, let me take this job. I became a cataloger of Kannada and Telugu. And we had a Bengali cataloger and a Sanskrit cataloger. When they left, although I already knew Bengali a little bit, I started learning other languages like Oriya, Assamese, some Panjabi when I had to train a Panjabi cataloger, and some Tamil. I started learning languages on my own. I cannot read Sindhi, Urdu, and the Persian script. The others, including Sinhalese and Nepali, I can read. I would catalog in these languages in all of the formats, like microfiche and all microform. I have catalogued more than 10,000 materials altogether over my career. More than 1,500 business materials, more than 300-400 music and art books and items, and more than 400 Western music items.

There were two reasons: love of books and my accent made me a librarian. Here, in the US, I have a heavy accent. My New York Public Library colleagues used to make fun of me. So I decided I may not be able to be a lecturer or a teacher, like I was in India, because of my accent.

As I was doing the part-time job at the New York Public Library starting in 1981 when I arrived in the US, I was also going to Queen’s College in New York. It was the College that initiated me into the library course. I had a portable Indian typewriter with white-out! I didn’t have a computer! I was writing most things by hand. Throughout these courses at Queens College, I also had health difficulties that made it difficult to finish, but I did it. After I graduated I started working at the Wall Street Journal Library as well, alongside the other job. I catalogued over 1,500 titles of business materials there. And after that I went to the Brooklyn Museum library and cataloged arts materials. And then I went back to Rogers and Hammerstein Recorded Sound Archives, Performing Arts Research Center at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. Previously when I was at the New York Public Library I was just a cataloger, but after I graduated from Queen’s College, I was promoted to librarian at Rogers and Hammerstein.

 

Once you got to the Library of Congress, what was it like? What did you start out doing?

I was first interviewed by the Library in 1985. I had applied for US citizenship that had not been approved yet so I wasn’t able to work. I came back in 1991 when I was placed in the Serial Record Division. There was debate between two divisions – the South Asia Section in RCCD [Regional Cooperative Cataloging Division] and the Serial Record Division – over who was going to get to hire me! At that time, I was working as a music cataloguer, at the Rogers and Hammerstein Recorded Sound. Even the Music Division [at] the Library wanted me to catalog with them! But they can only pay me in one category. Both Music and Serials [divisions] wanted me to work for them.

When I first started, I was worried about what a complex system I was put in. The systems for cataloging have changed so many times.

For some reason they put me as an Australian and New Zealand specialist for serials. This is actually how I was introduced to serials because originally I was a monograph cataloguer. Also, because I was placed in divisions with different language needs, I tried to learn some of these other languages. I tried German but I was so bad my teacher laughed at me. I also tried Thai but stopped. I was able to learn Divehi and [a] little bit of Marwari!

 

You mentioned that you were originally a music cataloguer in New York. What was that time like and what was the work you were doing there?

I am actually a musician in Indian music, classical music, and I play an instrument called the veena.

When I started at Rogers and Hammerstein Recorded Sound Archives, there was a problem that needed to be solved. They had about 300 3×5 cards that needed to be catalogued in their system. They hired me for that position. It was here that I was actually first promoted to the position of “librarian.” The people funding the project were concerned that I, an Indian musician, had been hired. Does she know anything about Western music? How can she catalog it? But the Archives said, “She’s the best.” So they gave us four years to catalog. I finished it in a year and a half. I had a little help with the other European languages but I catalogued it all myself!

The Lincoln Center has four performing arts divisions at the New York Public Library: dance, music, theater, and sound recordings. I was in sound recordings. Their policy was that one person cannot work in more than one of these divisions. They eventually created a new position for me to work in all performing arts collections (Theater, Music, and Dance). At that time, the Library of Congress hired me and we really wanted to move here. So I turned that job down and moved to DC. My husband decided to stay in New York City. He liked the city a lot!

My interest in music helped me a lot. After I came here to the Library, Rogers and Hammerstein asked me to perform at the Lincoln Center, a demonstration, and give a lecture. Even after I came to Library of Congress they invited me to participate in this Asian Festival program. I gave a one-hour lecture, one-hour demonstration, and one-hour performance. I heard there was a local newspaper that wrote a beautiful article about it but I never saw it! This was one of my great achievements. I have performed all over the world and I performed at Lincoln Center, but the greatest thing for me has been to work at the Library of Congress as a cataloger, as a librarian.

Want to learn more about the South Asian and Southeast Asian collections, which staff like Shantha Murthy contribute to every day? Please contact a reference librarian via the Ask-a-Librarian service.