The University Record, November 23, 1998

Susan Go goes to great lengths to get books for library

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

She can’t just run down the street to the nearest new or used book store to find the publication she wants. And her wants aren’t met by Internet book sellers. To find items for the University Library’s Southeast Asian collection, Fe Susan Go flies thousands of miles to Asia where she cultivates relationships with the local vendors, haggles over prices and selections, negotiates with officials in order to ship the books back to the University, and survives crazy motorcycle traffic.

As head of the Graduate Library’s Southeast Asia Division, Go has been traveling to Southeast Asia since 1983, always searching for publications to round out the University’s extensive collection. With regular visits to Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and her native Philippines, Go explores private and college library bookstores and the wares of street vendors to find what she wants, which may include missing and out-of-print materials. Because publications in these countries are produced in smaller runs than in the United States, with 2,000 copies being an extremely large number, they often are sold out quickly, making Go’s job even more difficult.

Private and well-connected vendors are especially important for Go’s book-buying endeavors because such vendors can secure publications that may not be favorably received by many of the authoritarian regimes of the region.

As a citizen of the Philippines (Go is of Chinese and Filipino descent), Go uses her so-called “Southeast Asian look” to help her fit into and be accepted as a local in many of the countries she visits, thus enhancing her success as a buyer. Most of these countries are what she calls “cash-based societies,” areas where credit cards or personal checks are rarely accepted.

Once the heavy loads of books are purchased, Go has to get them back to the University. She buys so much material that she can’t get it into her carry-on luggage, so she arranges to have it shipped. That process requires going through government agencies and dozens of forms written in a language Go doesn’t speak. If there is a vendor in the area that she trusts, Go will pay him to ship the books for her, thus bypassing the time-consuming stacks of paperwork. It requires an extra day in each country to make sure her investments are properly prepared and safely on their way to Michigan.

The U-M is one of the leading institutions in the acquisition of materials from Vietnam and Burma and is unique in visiting most of the countries in Southeast Asia. Other institutions usually focus only on one or two nations. Go’s journeys have resulted in the acquisition of a great variety of publications that have made U-M’s collection one of the most complete in the United States.

But Go’s buying trips are often less than calm business transactions. They also include harrowing rides on the backs of motorcycles whose drivers weave in and out of local traffic in patterns that bear no resemblance to those found in Ann Arbor. Driver and rider often find themselves in pile-ups at intersections, where they gather their equipment and belongings, dust themselves off, and find an open area of street to start the journey again. Go’s shopping expeditions in Southeast Asia give a whole new perspective to book-buying in Ann Arbor.


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