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In the 1950s, the South/Southeast Asia Library (S/SEAL) existed as the off-campus Reading Room, serving the joint Centers for South and Southeast Asia Studies. Following President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, also known as Food for Peace or PL480, the United States Department of State transferred $84,000 of food aid interest to the Library of Congress, who used it to acquire Indian government publications. The Library of Congress distributed the publications to three American libraries, including the University of California at Berkeley. In 1959, the desire to create a reference collection for the Reading Room from incoming materials led to the hiring of a South Asia bibliographer.
By 1964, a Southeast Asia section was added to the Center’s reading room. As the regions of South and Southeast Asia garnered increasing attention from American policy-makers, the South/Southeast Asia Reading Room attracted growing interest from northern University of California campuses. By the late 1960s, plans to make the Reading Room a regular main campus library branch had emerged.
In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in May of 1970, information surfaced that a Berkeley faculty member had accepted grants from the Pentagon for counter-insurgency research, prompting protests from student and community demonstrators. That summer, after the Center changed its name to the “Anti-War Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies”, twenty three of the Center’s twenty eight resident faculty members signed a telegram to President Richard Nixon, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The telegram demanded U.S. troop withdrawal from Cambodia.
Finally, in the middle of the night on July 1, 1970, a pipe bomb exploded in the Reading Room, causing a fire. While nobody was injured, $7,000 of damage had been done and plans to move the Reading Room’s collection to the Doe Library on the main campus were expedited. In September 1970, the collection was moved to 438 Doe Library and the Reading Room was renamed the South/Southeast Asia Library. In 1998, it was moved to its current location at 120 Doe Library for improved accessibility.