An American in Taipei

By Michael P. Olson

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2001, Vol. 25, no. 1

Association of College & Research Libraries
© American Library Association



Invited by the Institute of History and Philology of the Academia Sinica, I spent three weeks last May in Taipei, Taiwan, reviewing the Western-language collections of the Fu Ssu-nien Library, the Institute’s library. A lengthy evaluation of the Library’s Western collections had not yet been done. Such a review was, according to the Institute, both necessary and overdue.


Founded in 1928, the Academia Sinica is Taiwan’s most prominent academic institution. Its campus is nestled in the foothills a few miles east of Taipei, in the suburb of Nankang, in northern Taiwan.


I was asked to review the Library’s entire Western collection of 45,000 volumes. The collection exceeds research-level depth for many subjects in the humanities and the social sciences. All parts of the world are featured. The rare materials are kept in a high-quality, climate-controlled room.


Impressive holdings include materials relating to Asia; linguistics and gender studies published in the 1990s; current hardbound titles from academic presses; art books; dictionaries and grammars (more than seventy languages or dialects are represented); reference works; classics; political science and military history. The collection also excels in early multi-volume works by Aristotle, Chaucer, Darwin, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Jefferson, Lessing, Lincoln, Locke and Wagner.


It was not possible to determine the provenance of every title. The Library acquired most titles by purchase, while faculty members donated many other titles. I was disappointed not to find documentation of the would-be transfer of Western materials en masse from China to the Library.

Colonial history is well represented. I must quote one observation from Sunday, October 20, 1793, by a traveling member of the British embassy:

The quantity of tobacco consumed, and, of course, grown in China, must be beyond all calculation, as smoking is universally practised [sic], and by all ranks and ages. Children, as soon as they have sufficient strength or dexterity to hold a pipe in their hands, are taught by their parents to smoke, which they feel not only as an habitual amusement, but is considered as a preservative against all contagious diseases.

Having read just prior to flying to Taipei David A. Kessler’s A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry, I’ll stick with the version of how Kessler, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, views tobacco today.

The collection features several connections to Boston and Harvard. There is the Linguistic Atlas of New England. Hegel’s 18-volume critical edition, published in 1832-40, has a postage-sized stamp on the top left corner of the inside front cover of each volume bearing “Schoenhof & Moeller, Foreign Books, Winter Street 40, Boston.” Schoenhof’s Foreign Books still flourishes in Harvard Square today. A two-volume travelogue on China was sent to the Library “with the compliments of the Library, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in exchange for publications received”. There is a scintillating account of the Civil War years from the perspective of the governor of Massachusetts from 1861 to 1865, John A. Andrew. Charles Follen’s A German Reader is included in the collection. Follen was Harvard College’s first instructor of German in the early nineteenth century, and his book, the first of its kind in the United States, was a catalyst for the study of American Germanistik. Follen’s is the oldest Harvard title I came across; the most recent is professor emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith’s Name-Dropping: From F.D.R. On.

I am extremely grateful to a number of people who facilitated my trip: Lau Nap-yin, Huang Kuan-chung, Tu Cheng-sheng, Yen Chai-wu, Wu Cheng-shang, Barbara Halporn, Jeffrey Horrell, James Cheng and Raymond Lum.

The Rare Book Room of the Fu Ssu-nien Library.

Yen Chai-wu, the librarian for the Western-language collections of the Fu Ssu-nien Library, and the author.

Michael P. Olson is the librarian for Germanic collections at Harvard’s Widener Library, and a former chair of WESS. This article is a summary of his The Western Rare Book Collection of the Fu Ssu-nien Library (Taipei: Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, 2001), 384 p.


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