- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2000

Scholars know how to find the Asian Reading Room in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress past "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" exhibit, down a small corridor off the Great Hall and across from ornate quarters reserved for members of Congress.

Other visitors coming upon the room by accident might think they have wandered into Oz itself, so exotic are the many treasures on file there. Holdings in the library's four Asian collections are said to be the largest outside of Asia itself.

And the life of the Asian Division chief, Mya Thanda Poe, who is known as "Helen," is colorful enough to put Judy Garland's Dorothy in the shade along with that character's sparkling ruby red shoes.

A Burmese native, Mrs. Poe, 66, was schooled in her homeland as well as India, Ireland, England and the United States. As a child, she was taken with her family over the fabled Burma Road to Yunnan, China. Later, she taught in Rangoon University and, briefly, practiced law.

Her birth name, Mya, which means "emerald" in Burmese, became "Helen" on a whim when her mother sought to appease British authorities in a private day school that Mrs. Poe attended when Burma was under British control school admission officials insisted on the change since they couldn't pronounce her real name. Poe was the name of her late husband, an American librarian whom she met in a class on cataloging that both were attending.

Last month for the first time, the library published a handsome and very readable guide to the Asian Collections, available for $10 in the sales shop in both the Madison and Jefferson buildings. Such guides are underwritten by the James Madison Council, a private-sector advisory support group that raises money for special library projects.

Although the emphasis is on text, the Asian Division representing the cultures of China, Inner Asia, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia contains objects of museum quality as well as materials of everyday life, a mix of the rare and commonplace alike.

While not bowing to the definition of museum in the strictest sense, the division recently got back a Tibetan Tanka painting that had been donated to the library by the 13th Dalai Lama and was out on loan to the Smithsonian.

"A loan of 45 years. Imagine," Mrs. Poe exclaims. "It just came back."

The division's 22 staffers naturally prefer to emphasize the human over the fantasy element when discussing the many items under their control, items that range from an example of one of the world's oldest printed works Chinese characters on hemp paper printed in Japan in A.D. 770 to political pamphlets from Taiwan's most recent presidential election.

A recent council-funded purchase is a 6-inch-thick, lavishly illustrated "History of Java" in Jawi, or old Javanese, dated 1862. Equally eye-catching among division belongings is a 12-foot-long folded illustration from 19th-century Thailand showing pressure points on an abstract human form. Lettering on the reverse side presumably explains the method.

Another arresting item, purchased in 1999 from a rare book dealer in London, is a highly decorated two-volume set from 17th-century Tibet, titled "The Sutra of the 1,000 Buddhas of the Auspicious Era," considered an exceptionally beautiful example of the art of Tibetan books. The writing is in gold ink on blue paper that is enclosed in a carved wood cover.

Cabinets high on the Reading Room walls are filled with colorful copies of 4,500 books compiled in the 18th century and donated to the library in 1907 by the emperor of China in an exchange program with the United States. They were all the books written in China up to that date that the emperor approved of.

Seated daily at one of the long wood tables is scholar Zhu Biao-Tian from China's Yunnan Museum, who is busy deciphering 400-year-old symbolic pictographic language of Naxi priests from Yunnan Province, a three-year-long effort underwritten by the Taiwanese foundation Chiang Ching-Kuo, which has an office in McLean, Va.

The collection was a purchase long ago from anthropologist Joseph Rock and art historian Quentin Roosevelt, youngest grandson of former President Theodore Roosevelt. A translation of the images will help shed light on 16th-century Chinese life and thought, says scholar Mi Chu Wiens, the division's China area specialist.

At the room's far end stands a copper Tibetan dharma prayer wheel containing Buddhist sacred texts, the gift of a Tibetan lama from California. When turned, such wheels are said to evoke the healing powers of the mind and increase its capacities for wisdom.

The library's dharma wheel is electric, which means that, when activated, it can turn even faster and circulate even more powerful healing energies in the room than a manual wheel.

Such an esoteric variety underscores what a popular trade book "Treasures of the Library of Congress" says when it notes that "the Oriental divisions of the library live in a world apart."

But the staff also is part of Washington's political world, having acted on occasion as resource of last resort for White House speech writers as well as Immigration and Naturalization Service officials.

The former involved a request for a quotation from a speech by Pakistan's founder-president Muhammad Ali Jinnah that President Clinton used in a talk he gave on his visit to that country in March. The INS sought evidence for a statement by a claimant for political asylum who said a photograph of him on the cover of a magazine in Bangladesh was proof of his dissident status.

(Either his memory was bad or the assertion was a lie because the issue in question didn't contain his photo, Mrs. Poe recalls.)

What among the books, prints, scrolls, manuscripts and other treasures would she choose to call her own if possible?

She laughs at the absurdity of the question, not being about to step on the toes of a diverse 22-person staff who collectively speak 10 or 12 languages and read many more. She calls attention proudly to many current periodicals on display in a corner of the Reading Room.

"Look here," she says, pointing to a newspaper, "The New Light of Myanmar" dated June 16 and to the Aug. 7 edition of "India Today" resting on open shelves. A large reference book displayed on a table in the center of the room is titled "Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao."

Ifugao is an island in the Philippines, explains Alan Thrasher, a senior reference librarian for South Asia.

Doubtless, a juicy bit of information for geography buffs.

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