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Phong Tran pictured in the Islamabad Overseas Office in 2023. Photo credit: Md. Fakhar-uz-Zaman

A Long and Dedicated Journey Through Libraries: An Interview With Phong Tran

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

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 also 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.

Phong Tran is one such individual. Phong has worked for the Library since 2003, first in Washington, D.C. as a librarian, and then as a manager in shifting to the New Delhi Overseas Office in 2017. Phong’s poignant connection with libraries began well before his time at the Library. This interview traces the sustained personal connection he has had with libraries since he and his family left Vietnam after the Vietnam War and landed in northern Indiana. As he stated in our conversation, “Libraries have always been there for me.” The other interest that nearly rivals his love of libraries is his deep intellectual interest and connection to the South Asian subcontinent which began back in his college days at the University of California-Berkeley.

Could you tell me a bit about how you first became interested in librarianship and what eventually led you to the Library of Congress?

My family is originally from Vietnam, and we first came to the United States in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. We were staying with some relatives in a small town in northern Indiana. During that summer of ’75, there was this library bookmobile. It was in one of these vans, and they came out to our neighborhood. It was a lending library on wheels. It was very basic. There weren’t that many titles.  We were in this new place, new environment, new culture, and we’re just soaking it all in. It was fascinating to be able to use that collection. But it was something I always remembered and cherished. There was just a world of information to be devoured. And this feeling has totally progressed, especially towards college and university days, spending as much time at the library as possible. I just loved being there. The atmosphere was that you could just spend the whole day there lost in thought and information, chasing down threads of information.

Speaking of university days, could you go a bit into your time there? Was that where you got your professional start?

I remember an anthropology class at university, in which we were studying a Buddhist community in Myanmar. It struck something in me. The class eventually led me to want to be able to read original religious texts in original languages, such as Sanskrit. Theravada Buddhism was of particular interest to me.

At Berkeley there is a wonderful South and Southeast Asia Library. I had a student job at that library. Just being there, the atmosphere, the wonderful collection – I really enjoyed being there. I don’t even think it was a paid position. I was studying Sanskrit at the time – then Hindi, then Urdu.

The turning point was getting an American Institute of Indian Studies grant to study Hindi in Banaras, India. That was a huge eye opener. I was just really wanting to be there and didn’t want to leave. At the end of that summer, I met with my sitar teacher. He was from Jaipur and he offered me the opportunity to study with him. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I ended up traveling there after the Banaras program ended and stayed until the following spring or summer. I stayed in this old haveli [historical manor house] with a Rajasthani family. I went to my teacher’s house for lessons. It was an incredible experience.

Phong Tran in Peshawar, Pakistan during the Berkeley Urdu Language Program in 1994. Photo used by permission, copyright Christopher Lee.

That sounds amazing! What happened when you returned to the US?

This was in ’93. I had to go back and start graduate school. That’s when I started learning Urdu from Bruce Pray. There was an opportunity to study in Lahore for 9 months with the Berkeley Urdu Language Program in Pakistan and that was amazing. It was very different from being in India.

Back at Berkeley after the program, I continued with graduate studies, with emphasis in Sanskrit. It was rough, and during that time I just tried to find my way through it. But then a friend who had graduated at the same time and from the same department, received a job offer to work in Kashmir as an Urdu interpreter. They called me as well, so that opportunity happened.

I have this passion for languages, and this time created an interest for me in Kashmir in general. I wanted to study Kashmiri more deeply. There was an Indian government program in Panjab that taught Kashmiri so I went there. I was doing it on my own. Following that program, I went back to Kashmir for another 6 months. After 2 years away I felt that I needed to go back home, see my family. I was missing home so I went back. I had to figure out how to pick up my life from where I left it.

From then, what led you back to libraries?

I was looking for a job, and I ended up in a library again. It was a public library. I was helping people with the computer, printer, and photocopier. Doing things like checking in and out books. My next job was in Sacramento, California. I kept looking for other positions, and the next one that opened was the position at the UC-Berkeley library. That’s almost like the phase two of me going back to Berkeley. I was working on processing the PL 480 books.

It’s so funny how this seems to be so many people’s origin story in South Asian librarianship, working on PL 480 books.

They were all bound in the golden-colored binding. You could tell it was coming from India also through the scent of the books.

After a couple of years, I knew I wanted to do more. I was cataloging but wasn’t a librarian yet. The degree was necessary. Unfortunately, Berkeley no longer had a library science program and the closest library science program was San Jose State. I commuted there while working full time. Online classes were starting to be taught at that time, so I was able to take classes that way as well. Right when I finished with my masters, there was an opening at the Library of Congress, in what used to be the South and Southeast Asia Section in what is now the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate. That was in 2003. To this day I feel very lucky to have gotten that opportunity. Twenty or thirty of us were hired at once. Cataloging sections were very robust then. And Shantha Murthy was there even before my time. I was cataloging materials coming from Delhi. At the time, Delhi staff were not doing full-level or shelf-ready cataloging of books yet, so most of the materials would have to be finished by staff in Washington and that would usually be me.

I love cataloging, but I was also loving the materials that I was cataloging. It was a perfect fit for me. Eventually I got to the level of senior cataloging specialist and was able to give feedback to Delhi catalogers.

At one point, I went to Delhi with my family and did some training at the Delhi office. It’s such a large operation there. It was amazing to see how many people were doing this work. The possibility of working there, it was always in the back of my mind, but there were only managerial positions: director and deputy director. There was no cataloging position overseas. To change to a position like that, I always think of myself as a doer. Even now it’s hard for me to delegate, even if someone else will do the work better than me.

Out of the blue in 2017, I was asked if I wanted to go to Delhi for a four-month detail, there was a need to be filled, on an acting or interim basis. When I arrived, everyone was so welcoming. The staff were amazing. It’s like a big family.

We kept extending the interim period. Eventually the position was posted and I was hired permanently in 2020. One of my main duties is reviewing and signing off on titles to be added to the collection. It’s an interesting thing, to balance the stuff I really want to do and then all of the other managerial things I need to do. Anyways, as you can see, libraries have always been there for me.

Could you tell me a bit about the out-of-station trips you go on?

The director and I make annual trips to the three suboffices: Colombo (Sri Lanka), Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Kathmandu (Nepal). We meet with our staff and the embassy officers to let them know what we’re up to. We go out with our librarians and meet with some sources. Each day something could pop up out of nowhere and you must have contingency plans. It could be environmental, political, or economic; you must be very flexible to deal with different situations. But I feel comfortable being here in this situation. It’s not for everyone. For India and South Asia, though, I feel more a part of it than not a part of it.

Phong Tran pictured in the Islamabad Overseas Office in 2023. Photo credit: Md. Fakhar-uz-Zaman.

What do you envision your future to be? Do you see yourself staying in Delhi or are you looking for a way back to the US?

No, I love being here. There are always challenges. It’s a really great fit for me here, both in terms of the work and the environment.

Does it still satiate your desire to work with languages given that much of your work now is administrative and managerial?

The work is continuing! When I was in Washington, eventually I taught myself enough of the scripts of North India so I could read and process more of the material – also, Tibetan, which I was trying to teach myself enough of to catalog.

But after being here in Delhi, on a few occasions the need to learn a language was more forced upon us. For example, we were able to start acquiring Odia publications again after a gap of several years. However, we had lost our Odia cataloger due to retirement. So as part of that work I started to learn how to read Odia. It’s fun and challenging. It takes time. There’s always that opportunity for growth for all of this curiosity about South Asia. There’s just so much more to learn.

Want to learn more about the South Asian collections which staff like Phong Tran contribute to every day? Please contact a reference librarian via the Ask-a-Librarian service.

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Comments (5)

  1. Congratulations, Phong, on your journey and career!

  2. Wonderfully produced biographical profile. Great to hear about you after not seeing you for a few years, Phon. Your linguistic, people, and other skills are truly remarkable.

  3. Great journey…! You can only connect the dots looking backward.

  4. Such a pleasure to communicate through your photo.
    Stayed in Plum Village in the late eighties with TNH
    and lots of time in India. I am sure you know of Choyki
    Ningma Rinpoche;s University and success in teaching’
    Tibetan to young people from all over the world. What a
    life, huh.

  5. Congratulations, old friend! 🙏🏼 Feels like a true blossoming of destiny.

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