What Drives Yao Chen

To connect researchers and students to resources from East Asia?

By Jon Jeffryes

Yao Chen
Yao Chen

The University of Minnesota Libraries’ East Asian Library collects materials in three languages, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. It supports the curriculum and research of a wide range of inquiry that explores different aspects of the language and culture of China, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea.

At the helm of this diverse collection — along with English language materials in the general collection — is a single librarian, Yao Chen. Chen supports researchers and students learning about East Asian regions and leads the development of the collections from all of these geopolitically complex regions. Chen also provides research and instruction support and explores emerging technologies to meet the needs of the students and instructors with whom she collaborates.

“I’m just amazed by the questions our users have,” says Chen, who says she tries to strike a balance between providing quality reference services and exploring the new and innovative tools users might need. “It’s really interesting to help them to navigate through a system they may not be familiar with, especially with foreign language materials.” 

Collaborating on a new course

Recently, Chen leveraged her expertise to collaborate on the creation of a new course, “Environment, Technology, and Culture in Modern Japan.”

While scrolling through her email one day, Chen found a call for participants from The North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources (NCC) to join a workshop at Harvard University.

“They were recruiting teams of librarians and faculty to attend this workshop to enhance  relationships and work on a project together.” Chen said.

Chen reached out to Professor of Japanese Literature and Cultural Studies, Christine Marran, who hoped to develop a new course that pulled together Japanese culture, literary and film studies, and environmental science. Chen and Marran put forward a proposal and their project was accepted.

Traveling to Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chen and Marran spent several days working together to develop the course. Chen explored freely available, open-access materials that Marran’s students could use for class projects.

She found the Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters — a database of open-access materials surrounding the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing nuclear disaster — which students could use to explore primary documents from Japan and either translate documents or curate collections. Chen developed a customized Library Course Page that brought together this resource and others that meet the specific information needs of the class.

Since Japanese language proficiency was not a requirement for the course Chen also looked for technology to support students’ interaction with the foreign language materials — bringing together several freely available language learning apps to help the students.

The results were so successful that Chen shared the resources widely with Japanese language instructors who also found them useful in supporting their students’ language development.

‘Space for discussion and engagement’

Chen, who recently achieved continuous appointment in the Libraries, said she is driven by the interactions she has with students and researchers.

“Helping faculty and researchers find that piece of information that answers their research question or locating a useful tool that enhances their research and learning is truly satisfying,” she said, adding that she hopes to continue development of the East Asian Library. “It’s not just a space for collections but also space for discussion and engagement.” 

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