Q&A: Ryan Perkins on his experience as Stanford’s first South Asian and Islamic Studies librarian

March 6, 2018, 12:00 a.m.

Stanford’s first South Asian and Islamic Studies librarian, Ryan Perkins, has traveled the world to collect some of the rarest materials related to Indian, Pakistani and Persian history. After coming to Stanford, Perkins used his expertise to stock the University’s libraries with some of the world’s oldest South Asian and Islamic texts. The Daily sat down with Perkins to talk about libraries in the digital age and his experience studying South Asia.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What has been your academic path? What brought you to Stanford?

Ryan Perkins (RP): When I was 20 years old, I traveled to Pakistan, India and Nepal for about a year and a half. I was teaching English to Afghan and Irani refugees in Delhi. I knew nothing about South Asia before going and picked up some Urdu (spoken in Pakistan) and some Dari (spoken in Afghanistan). Then, when I came back to the U.S., I finished up my undergrad and studied more formally Hindi and Urdu. I ended up going to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in their department of South Asian Studies. I came in with an interest in literature but the questions I was interested in were much more historical in nature, so I used non-traditional sources to write about cultural history and social history. I digitized a lot of materials through language materials from the late 19th to early 20th centuries from going to different libraries in Pakistan and India and then finished up the Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011.

Then, I went to the University of Chicago for a couple of years where I was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow teaching primarily on Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was there for two years in the department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations. After that, I went to Oxford. I was there for one academic year directing the M.Phil. program in South Asian Studies and teaching Indian history and culture. I grew up in Portland so ended up going back there for a bit and was about to go to UCLA for another postdoc where I was going to be looking at Persian and Pashto and the vernacularization of the Persian or the Persianization of the vernaculars. Stanford contacted me and offered me the position, so I ended up not going to L.A. and coming here instead in September of 2015 as the South Asian and Islamic Studies librarian.

TSD: How is being a librarian different from being a professor?

RP: There’s positives with each line of work. Before I took this position, there had never been a South Asian Studies librarian, so when I came in it was really to build something from almost nothing, which for me was very exciting. The library has a whole team on the digital side of things of programmers, software developers and people creating all the meta-data for exhibits.stanford.edu, where we digitize historical documents or archives and put them online so anyone can access them.

There [are] tremendous opportunities to do things on a bigger scale. For example, we’re working on the South Asian Human Rights Archive, which exhibits material related to political conflict. The idea is that we put interviews online to bring attention to different political conflicts and human rights abuses around the world, bringing more attention to needs. We’re doing that with Berkeley as well.

Also, for the library I get to travel and find cool stuff to buy that researchers get to use. When you are teaching and you have your scholarly focus, you tend to be very focused on a particular subject matter and I think with this librarian position you need to think broader, especially here, where a lot of students want data sets. We have a lot of students in political science and economics, so we order a national sample of survey data sets from India and we have census material. This isn’t the type of stuff I would do in my own research so it is expanding my own knowledge base.

TSD: What do you want undergraduate and graduate students to know about the collections at Stanford?

RP: One thing is why we collect the materials we collect. Sometimes I’ll purchase rare items and materials. One of the things I purchased last year was the first published book in north India by the East India Company’s printing press in Bengali. This was a foundational text in terms of the British colonial attempts to understand India. They end up turning Indian knowledge into European information that allowed them to govern and to understand society. That’s an example where people can go to libraries’ special collections and just look at it. They won’t use it as their main textbook if they’re learning Bengali, but historically, it is very important.

I think having students come and interact with these materials that are so historically significant that a lot of scholars have written about has a certain materiality — more than just looking at e-books. What I want students to do is look at some of these materials as not static objects by looking at the ways people over time have interacted with them. Sometimes, people have left their imprint on these materials, which allows us to not only understand the past more clearly but [to] also understand our present.

TSD: How has technology affected libraries and physical copies of books?

RP: I think sometimes in the digital age if you read something on a Kindle or something similar, you read it as a file. I remember I had been traveling to Pakistan and I was reading “Les Mis” at the time; if I look at that copy of “Les Mis,” I can see a page where I was reading it and it was raining and that’s why these pages are wet. There’s a story that is connected with these material objects that we often lose in the purely digital realm. I think the digital realm has amazing advantages; for example, with interviews or archival materials where we can make them available so researchers don’t have to travel all the way to the other side of the world to find them. Still, I think a lot of scholars still like to see the actual physical copy. Let’s say they’re not at Stanford, but we have something they want to look at — they get in contact with me and I can get them in contact with materials from Special Collections [at Green Library].

TSD: How does it feel to have all of these materials in one place?

RP: When I was in Oxford, I would walk to this bookshop and talk to the owner. I remember asking him, “In this digital age, are people buying books?” What he said was very perceptive. He said the books people have on their bookshelves aren’t necessarily things they have read but they are representative of their aspirations. If we think of the library as being a place that represents the potential of us as humans, it taps into this long history of us producing materials that we have at our disposal. Not many of us are familiar with all of them but it represents what we strive to be and who we strive to be. Having this understanding that is cross-cultural is why we have materials in all of these different languages; it represents humanity in the best sense of the term that we are all striving to be more fully human.

TSD: How many languages do you speak and what was the process like for learning them?

RP: I speak Hindi, Urdu, Pashto [and] Persian, and I studied Japanese and Spanish when I was in high school, but I have pretty much forgotten all the Japanese. I just started learning Arabic. My first non-English word I learned was from my best friend as a kid who taught me a Dari word. He said, ‘Don’t tell my mom I taught you this word.’ It wasn’t even that bad of a word. When his cousin came to the U.S., she ended up living with my family. I was only eight years-old at the time, but she did not speak much English, so I had a certain exposure to Farsi. Then when I went to Pakistan, I was immersed and I wasn’t surrounded by any Americans. I was kind of like a child learning. I would know what a certain phrase connoted so I would try it out, get the desired result, and I would learn it that way.

TSD: What kind of books are you reading right now, and what do you do in your free time?

RP: My place is in Oakland, so when I first go the job I started taking my bike to the BART and the Caltrain. I started reading a lot of the Russian classics on the commute which has nothing to do with my own work, so that has been a lot of fun. In terms of Pashto stuff, I’ve been working on translating the stories of the first short story writer in Pashto.

Since coming here, I’ve been taking advantage of the swimming pools. I ride a motorcycle so I did an off-road motorcycle trip with friends in Baja. I have two kids: a 14-year-old son who’s really into origami and a daughter who wants to show me how close she is to doing splits.


This interview has been lightly edited and transcribed.


Contact Devon Zander at dnzander ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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