A Michigan Library Scholar's Journey Through the Ramayana

A screenshot of a library website

This is the home page of the online exhibit I curated, The Career of Rama: An Epic Journey Through South and Southeast Asia.

At a history conference this summer, I was telling a fellow student about my Michigan Library Scholars internship. “I’m reading this epic called —”

A professor suddenly joined the conversation with great enthusiasm. “The Iliad or the Odyssey?”

“Oh, neither,” I replied. “The Ramayana.”

This simple interaction confirmed that I had chosen the perfect internship. I am a history major who gravitates towards United States courses, and while I love talking about social change in colonial America, I sought to learn about a topic that was outside of my usual repertoire. Thus, I was thrilled to be hired for the project International Studies Exhibit: The Ramayana in South & Southeast Asia. Over the course of three months, I curated an online exhibit about South and Southeast Asia’s greatest literary epic.

Prior to my interview, I had done a little sleuthing online. I knew that the epic featured a hero named Rama, the goal was to defeat a demon who had kidnapped his wife, and there was an army of monkeys. Beyond that basic summary, I was clueless. It was exciting and a little bit terrifying. I wanted to make sure that the online exhibit was accurate, accessible, and respectful of the cultures I was studying.

Fortunately, U-M Library had a host of resources to facilitate my journey through the Ramayana. I had the invaluable assistance of my two mentors, the librarians Jeffrey Martin (South Asia) and Fe Susan Go (Southeast Asia), who offered a rich selection of readings. In most of my classes, I am used to cracking open a textbook and being comfortable with at least a few terms or events. This internship provided a totally new experience. I had heard about topics such as dharma and karma, but it was the first time that I had to truly sit down and think about how they affected people’s lives. 

Reading the Ramayana also pushed me to set aside my personal beliefs in order to better understand a different culture. I was shocked at some of Rama’s actions, such as when he exiled his pregnant wife over baseless gossip of infidelity. It was difficult for me to reconcile his abandonment of Sita with his status as a true hero. To work through this dilemma, I turned to a librarian who had grown up in India. She was able to provide a thoughtful explanation of traditional gender roles that, while certainly different than my brand of feminism, allowed me to better understand how Rama and Sita are still considered by many to be an ideal couple. 

My organizational and technical skills also enjoyed a boost. Thanks to an MLS workshop, I implemented the Kanban method of organizing tasks, and carefully labeled sticky notes quickly took over my office. The back of my office door became a storyboard, which helped me better create the online exhibit’s visual appeal. Learning Omeka, the web publishing platform, was a challenge. Like most college students, I am fairly tech-savvy, but there was a steep learning curve while I figured out how to organize pages, input metadata, and caption images. 

To keep myself going, I took time to celebrate the little victories. Successfully hunting for books in Hatcher was one of the greatest thrills of my summer with MLS. Michigan students often joke about getting lost in the stacks — Why are there so many stairs? Why is the ceiling so low? Are we even allowed to be here? — so it was a real accomplishment when I was able to find a book and check it out within five minutes of beginning my search.

Happily, my increased level of comfort with Hatcher extended beyond navigating the stacks. I am also a museum studies minor, and I want to work in public history. Learning about the many different facets of a library was enlightening. On a trip to the Buhr Remote Shelving Facility, I was fascinated by the wide range roles that librarians held, from publishing academic books to preserving tattered manuscripts. I am looking forward to keeping in touch with the connections I have made and learning more about what a career in libraries could look like.

My learning experience in the MLS program extended far beyond office 110D. Studying the Ramayana has been an invaluable practical, intellectual, and emotional exercise, but had I not come across this internship, I doubt that I would have ever met Rama and Sita. Thank you to all who helped make this wonderful experience at U-M Library possible.