Chinese American Archives, Collections, and Librarians

By He, Yan | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2016 | Go to article overview

Chinese American Archives, Collections, and Librarians


He, Yan, Chinese America: History and Perspectives


Chinese Americans have endured a long history of migration and settlement, including more than sixty years of legal exclusion beginning in 1882. With the lifting of legal bans on Chinese immigration in 1943 and the enactment of the 1965 immigration legislation, the number of Chinese immigrants increased dramatically. According to the 2010 U.S. Census data, the Chinese American population is approximately 3.8 million, which represents 25.9 percent of all Asian Americans, making Chinese Americans the largest Asian ethnic group in the United States.

As Chinese immigrants and their descendants have come to play an increasingly important role in American society, Chinese American Studies has correspondingly received more attention. Public and academic libraries, museums, nongovernmental organizations, individual collectors, and researchers are all working on promoting the accessibility of archival materials that are related to Chinese American Studies. Thanks to these efforts, existing collections and archives now contain a wide range of topics from the early records of Chinatowns to the contemporary stories of new immigrants. The valuable materials have been collected in a great variety of formats as well, including personal diaries, photos, genealogical records, oral histories, correspondences, personal documents, restaurant ephemera, and more.

Many Chinese American collections are well established. For example, the University of California at Berkeley holds a collection of primary source materials and photographs featuring Chinese immigrants in California from 1850 to 1925. The collection of the Chinese Immigration and the Chinese in the United States at the National Archives is a major source for the study of Chinese immigration and Chinese American travel, trade, and social history from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. These records document how Chinese exclusion policies were made and how Chinese Americans reacted and struggled against those policies. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Chinese American collections include photographs and objects, which illustrate how these immigrants tried to maintain their cultural identity. Its manuscripts and photographs document the experiences of Chinese Americans in Philadelphia and beyond.

Meanwhile, oral history has also served as an important method to record and create firsthand materials. The Chinese Historical Society of Southern California's oral history project, lasting from 1978 to 1991, collected oral histories from 165 Chinese residents who discussed their lives in Los Angeles up to 1945. In addition, the Minnesota Chinese Immigrant Oral Histories (Minnesota Historical Society), the Year of China Oral History Project (Brown University), and the Oral History Project for Seattle Chinese Immigrants (University of Washington East Asia Library) have also taken steps to record oral histories. …

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