Top of page

Red Christmas card with details of white flowers in a vase and a red bird on green plants, from Tan Xiangjin at the National Library of China, Beijing, 1979.
Christmas card from Tan Xiangjin, deputy director of the National Library of Beijing (now the National Library of China), Beijing, China, 1979. Box 13, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Intern Spotlight: Without Borders: Warren M. Tsuneishi’s World of Knowledge

Share this post:

This is a guest post by Chelsea Liu, a processing intern in the Manuscript Division.

From World War II veteran to chief of the Asian Division at the Library of Congress, Warren Michio Tsuneishi led the storied life of an American hero. Born to Japanese immigrants in California on the Fourth of July, 1921, he was named for U.S. President Warren G. Harding. Early in life, he proudly identified as a “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” All the same, when in 1942 Executive Order 9066 authorized the forced removal of Japanese Americans to incarceration camps, Tsuneishi and his family were incarcerated at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Cody, Wyoming. Yet, guided by the belief that “America is a nation in the process of trying to live up to its dreams,” he volunteered for the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Service Language School. There he joined thousands of Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans, who used their Japanese language skills to translate captured documents and aid in the war effort. Tsuneishi trained in the jungles of Oahu, aided in the Battle of Okinawa, and saw the surrender of Japanese forces in Seoul, Korea. He described his experiences in interviews conducted for the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center. Just as extraordinary, however, are the stories that Warren M. Tsuneishi gave to the world through his later work as a librarian, building bonds across nationalities and languages through love for the book.

Now discoverable through a newly published finding aid, the Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers in the Manuscript Division offers insights into this long and illustrious chapter of Tsuneishi’s professional life. Tsuneishi served at the Library of Congress for three decades, as chief of the Orientalia/Asian Division in 1966-1978 and 1989-1992 and as director of Area Studies in the Research Services Department from 1978 to 1989. Materials from the collection, which date mostly from the 1960s to the 1990s, cover seminal periods in the field of international library relations and the development of East Asian collections in the United States. They detail Tsuneishi’s travels across China, Japan, and India, and a lifelong dedication to border-crossing relationships of mutual learning, exchange, and cooperation.

An influential leader, Tsuneishi steered the Asian Division through times of great change in the political sphere and the library profession, overseeing mounting challenges and rapid innovation. Pushed to new heights by the expansion of foreign area studies programs on American campuses during World War II, the nation’s East Asian library collections experienced a period of “exuberant growth” that reached its zenith in the 1960s. Yet this growth was accompanied by a host of conundrums, including questions of how to standardize cataloging practices, integrate new technologies, and recruit and train qualified staff versed in Asian languages.

Tsuneishi standing with the American delegation at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 1979.
“American delegation at the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China,” September 17, 1979. Box 13, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. 

Tsuneishi’s library career coincided with a time of profound change in international relations as well. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon visited mainland China, setting the stage for the normalization of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States. In September 1979, a twelve-member delegation of American librarians visited the mainland at the invitation of Liu Jiping, director of the National Library of Beijing (now the National Library of China). Led by William J. Welsh, the Deputy Librarian of Congress, the delegation was comprised of representatives from the Committee on East Asian Libraries of the Association for Asian Studies, American Library Association, Association of Research Libraries, and Library of Congress, including Tsuneishi. The delegation visited libraries, universities, and research institutes across Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Guangzhou, as well as treasured sites like the Great Wall, the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, and the tomb of Qin Shi Huang.

This trip would be instrumental in establishing contacts and partnerships, most significantly an exchange of publications between the National Library of Beijing and the Library of Congress. After the Cultural Revolution’s disruption of the publishing industry had sharply reduced foreign acquisitions of Chinese material, the exchange was a pivotal step in resuming the flow of publications to American institutions. More than that, it commenced a new era of educational and cultural exchange between the two nations. In his report on the trip, Tsuneishi remarked on the climate of warm hospitality he had found, the enthusiasm for exchange or gifts of material previously banned and forbidden, and the embrace of lasting friendships. He wrote that a “theme of present backwardness combined with an overpowering drive to modernize recurred throughout the trip,” citing an interview with Vice Premier Fang Yi. This “tremendous eagerness” to advance with the aid of U.S. librarians would galvanize further trips and exchanges from 1983 to 1985, though both Chinese and American institutions had much to learn and gain.

Members of the American delegation at the National Library of China, Beijing, China, including Alice Bennett Thrig, Warren Tsuneishi, and Tao-tai Hsia,1979.
“Members of the American delegation at the National Library of Beijing, Beijing, China, including Alice Bennett Thrig, Warren Tsuneishi, and Tao-tai Hsia,” September 11, 1979. Box 13, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The rhetoric of “catching up” with the West was also pervasive in U.S.-Japanese library relations of the time, which had their modern origins in a political agreement entered into by President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato in 1961. Building upon the aims of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the two nations agreed to form a binational committee to promote cultural and educational cooperation. Tsuneishi, however, resisted the paternalistic tone of this discourse from the start. Artfully countering the view of the United States as Japan’s benefactor and superior, he asked in 1969, “Has there been no contrary flow of Japanese library experts to advise American librarians on matters on which they happen to be uniquely qualified? Has it been entirely a one-way street running from West to East; has there been no contrary flow of Japanese library consultants to the United States?”

In answer, he argued that the “obvious fact here is that these collections could not have developed without the direct and indirect assistance of Japanese scholars, bibliographers and librarians.” By 1992, in a speech before the 5th Japan-U.S. Conference on Libraries and Information Science, Tsuneishi found himself commending the maturation of this arrangement. U.S.-Japanese library relations, he observed, were no longer a “mentor-student relationship” but rather a partnership of equals, engaged in mutual learning. He closed with an appeal to his colleagues “to honor the American eagle and the rising sun of Japan working together under blue Pacific skies in a spirit of harmony and respect.”

A Christmas card from Liu Jiping with a red border and detail of two yellow birds sitting on a branch above a gnarled tree trunk and foliage, 1979.
Christmas card from Liu Jiping at the National Library of Beijing (now the National Library of China), Beijing, China, 1979. Box 13, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Key to Tsuneishi’s philosophy as an internationally minded librarian was the desire for mutual understanding, which motivated his tireless advocacy to bridge American and Asian libraries. In a presentation for the Chinese Library Association in 1979, Tsuneishi identified the rich representation of world literatures in American libraries as reflective of the American people’s diversity. “More directly,” he wrote, “[i]t is a reflection of the systematic attempt by American scholars in the past 50 years to develop broad foreign language and foreign area studies programs going beyond the scope of the traditional American curriculum based on Western European foundations.”

Tsuneishi intimately understood the importance of thinking, reading, and collecting outside of Eurocentric systems of knowledge, and he also recognized the important labor of the scholarly and library communities in shaping more expansive ways of knowing and relating to one another. At the 1979 Japanese Literature in Translation Symposium, he argued, “I think that those of us who have engaged in this endeavor have failed to understand one of the most important indirect results of our efforts, and that is that in our attempts to exchange views, ideas, emotions, across linguistic and cultural barriers, lie opportunities not to understand alien cultures, but to understand ours more perfectly.” By regarding Japanese civilization as a mirror, he suggested, American librarians might “see clearly reflected some of our owns strengths and our own weaknesses.”

Tsuneishi could be unsparing in taking American librarians to task for how they had “tended to pay lip service to cooperation while spending most of their time, energy and resources in building local empires.” Yet he remained hopeful that advances in technology and shifting economies would draw American libraries into ever greater interdependencies with the rest of the world. Tsuneishi conceived of libraries as living, breathing entities that functioned as “the nerve centers of an increasingly information-oriented society” and flourished most in “an organic network of institutions.” He noted, “It has been my experience that librarians tend to be universalist in outlook, perhaps because they live immersed in books created by, and illustrative of, all civilizations. Academic librarians especially are attuned to the whole world of knowledge, regardless of subject, linguistic, temporal, or geographic boundaries, as a visit to any great university or national library will attest.” This appreciation for all cultures and civilizations is evidenced in letters to colleagues and travel journals, which also include journeys through Egypt, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Thailand. Written with characteristic wit, warmth, and wonder, they capture a roving mind and boundless heart, from his impressions of the Taj Mahal by full moon to his evocation of Tang Dynasty poetry to express his sadness upon parting from a new friend in China.

Attendees of the First Conference on Asian Library Cooperation at Tamkang College, Taipei, Taiwan, 1974.
“First Conference on Asian Library Cooperation at Tamkang College, Taipei, Taiwan,” 1974. Box 26, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Tsuneishi laid the groundwork for the collections of the Asian Division at the Library of Congress today, which holds over 4 million items in an estimated 200 languages and dialects from across the Asian continent. This ever-growing legacy is living proof of Tsuneishi’s dearly held belief “that knowledge and books know no artificial boundaries of geography or nation.”

Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!

 

“exuberant growth…” Warren M. Tsuneishi, “East Asian Collections in North American Libraries: Some Recent Developments in Cooperation” (paper presented at the library seminars of the 32nd International Congress of Asian and North African Studies, Hamburg, August 25-30, 1986), folder 6, box 29, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“The delegation visited libraries…” Warren M. Tsuneishi, “U.S. Librarians Visit the People’s Republic of China,” report A of “U.S. Library Delegation to China,” in “Special Reports,” Journal of East Asian Libraries Vol. 1980, No. 61, Article 12 (February 1980): 50-53. Available online. Warren M. Tsuneishi, “The International Outreach of American Librarianship: Historical Notes on Some Initiatives in Asia,” Journal of East Asian Libraries Vol. 1993, No. 101, Article 7 (December 1993): 16-17. Available online.

“This trip would be instrumental…” Chi Wang, “Reflections on 90 Years of Cultural Exchanges: The Library of Congress’ Chinese Section,” Washington Journal of Modern China 14 (Spring 2018): 3-34. Available online.

“theme of present backwardness…” Warren M. Tsuneishi, “U.S. Librarians Visit the People’s Republic of China,” 52.

“tremendous eagerness…” Warren M. Tsuneishi, “U.S. Librarians Visit the People’s Republic of China,” 50.

“catching up…” Warren M. Tsuneishi, “Remarks made at the closing of the 5th Japan-US Conference on Libraries and Information Science in Higher Education, Tokyo, Japan, October 6-9, 1992” (lecture, Tokyo, Japan, October 6-9, 1992), folder 2, box 23, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“binational committee…” “Japan-U.S. Security Treaty,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, accessed October 9, 2023; John F. Kennedy, “Joint Statement Following Discussions With Prime Minister Ikeda of Japan,” online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

“Has there been no contrary flow…” Warren M. Tsuneishi, “The Exchange of Librarians: Past Practice and Future Prospects,” March 11, 1969 (paper presented at the First Japan-U.S. Conference on Libraries and Information Science in Higher Education, Tokyo, Japan, May 16-19, 1969), p. 5, folder 7, box 29, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“obvious fact here…” Tsuneishi, “The Exchange of Librarians: Past Practice and Future Prospects,” p. 6.

“to honor the American eagle…” Tsuneishi, “Remarks made at the closing of the 5th Japan-US Conference.”

“More directly…” Warren M. Tsuneishi, draft, “Foreign Area Studies and American Libraries” (paper presented at the Conference with Chinese Library Association, China, September 14, 1979), folder 6, box 13, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“see clearly reflected…” Remarks by Warren M. Tsuneishi, “Japanese Literature in Translation Symposium,” transcript of meeting at Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., May 17, 1979, cassette 1, folder 2, box 25, Warren M. Tsuneishi Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“tended to pay lip service…” Tsuneishi, “East Asian Collections in North American Libraries: Some Recent Developments in Cooperation.”

“the nerve centers of an increasingly information-oriented society…” Tsuneishi, “The Exchange of Librarians: Past Practice and Future Prospects,” p. 2 (first quote); Tsuneishi, “The International Outreach of American Librarianship” (second quote).

“It has been my experience…” Tsuneishi, “The International Outreach of American Librarianship,” 15.

“over 4 million items…” Library of Congress, “Asian Collections,” accessed October 9, 2023.

“that knowledge and books…” Tsuneishi, “The Exchange of Librarians: Past Practice and Future Prospects,” 16-17.

Comments (3)

  1. How cool to learn about past Library employees in the Library collections!

  2. At this moment in time when the US needs a knowledge of China in order to compete with it is there any information in these materials that would be of help and have members of Congress made use of them?

    • Thank you for the comment. The scope and content of the Tsuneishi Papers is described in a finding aid that is linked to in the catalog record for the collection (see the link in the second paragraph above). The collection is open to all registered researchers, 16 years of age and above, in the Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.