Professor and Librarian Build Penn’s Mongolian Collection from Scratch

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Christopher Atwood (R), Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and Chinese Studies Librarian Brian Vivier survey Penn’s Mongolian collection.

In less than one year, Penn’s collection of Mongolian literature grew from just 600 titles held by Van Pelt-Dietrich Library to the fourth largest collection in the United States. All it took was a professor on a mission, an intrepid librarian, a serendipitous conference, a late-night browsing session, and an excursion to Inner Mongolia.  

The determined professor was Christopher Atwood, who joined Penn in June 2016 as a professor of Mongolian and Late Imperial/Early Modern Chinese history in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. He teamed up with Brian Vivier, Chinese Studies Librarian and the coordinator of area studies collections at Van Pelt Library.

Atwood saw an opportunity in the International Association of Mongolian Studies Conference last August in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital. “The event is every five years,” says Atwood. “And academic booksellers come out of the woodwork to unload stock.” He and Vivier traveled to conference, connecting with a vendor who had a bulk supply of books stockpiled in an Ulaanbaatar apartment. From 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., Atwood and Vivier sorted through some 10,000 books roughly categorized in banana boxes. In the early morning hours and with waning energy, they counted 1,492 books in their “yes” pile. “We figured the books were going to the new world, so 1,492 was a good place to stop,” laughs Atwood.

All told, after the conference and travel to Inner Mongolia for more acquisitions, Atwood and Vivier sent home 37 boxes of books weighing 1,453 pounds. The collection now includes an Inner Mongolian atlas and an extensive compilation of ethnographic field notes, as well as reference books and documents printed before 1945, which was when Mongolia stopped using traditional Mongolian script in favor of Cyrillic.

Their effort had many champions, including Penn Arts and Sciences, the Wang Kang Fu Mei Travel Fund, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, and Nancy Steinhardt, Chair of East Asian Languages, who Atwood says “has been visionary in cultivating a Mongolian Studies program.” 

Recruiting Atwood and establishing the Van Pelt collection are recent milestones in a growing relationship among Penn, the City of Philadelphia, and Mongolia. A few years ago, the American Center for Mongolian Studies set up its U.S. office two floors below the East Asian languages department in Williams Hall. Last year, Mongolia’s president made a state visit to Philadelphia and spoke at Penn. This summer, the Philadelphia Orchestra will be the first Western orchestra to perform in Mongolia. Atwood will speak to the ensemble about the country’s history and culture before the music-makers head to Ulaanbaatar.