I’ve always loved libraries. However, the word “archive” called up an image of a dusty place, either down in the basement or up in the attic, with a gray-haired librarian watching over it. I certainly never thought there would one day be the “Suellen Zima Archive” located in the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

I had wondered what to do with all those letters sitting quietly in boxes in my closet. They were precious to me, but I knew that the last 26 years of letters from my former Chinese students were also historically important first person accounts of those fast paced, tumultuous years when China emerged from an obscure third world country to the modern limelight. It didn’t seem right that their fate should be the rubbish bins.
“You need to give them to an archive” was the advice of a writer friend. I asked some of the students I’m still in contact with how they would feel about their letters being in an archive. They loved the idea and agreed it was the perfect place for their letters. A call to the archive department of a local university confirmed that the contents of those boxes were a unique letter collection. She suggested the Hoover Institution might welcome them.
After working out certain details with a helpful staff person at the Hoover and signing paperwork, I shipped out boxes containing hundreds of letters still in their stamped envelopes that my students had addressed to follow me to all the countries I lived in after my first visit to China in 1988. The Hoover Institution also took the photographs I had taken of China and the letter writers in those early days, a copy of my book, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird” published in 2006, a digital copy of the Chinese translation of my book, and a video I had made explaining and showing what I included in the archive.
My image of archives is now a towering building at Stanford University with light and airy spaces for researchers to read and appreciate the heart and soul my students of the Tiananmen Generation shared with me as they grew into middle age. Archivists have preserved and protected all the material that is now in boxes. People who want to look at the contents must go there themselves, or pay a fee for archivists to research what they’re interested in. There were decisions I had to make about any restrictions I wanted to place on use of the materials. And I have designated one of the letter writers to make any necessary decisions about the archive after I die.
Not only have the letters and photos found a permanent home, but there is the possibility of adding material at any future time. One student has already sent all of my letters to him for the archive. Another has promised to do so when he feels ready to part with them.
The art of letter writing has given way to the convenience and speed of modern technology, but the specialness of holding a handwritten letter from far away and long ago remains valuable. Before you throw away cartons of old letters, think about archives.
For helpful information, go to:

Using the Hoover archives:  http://www.hoover.org/library-archives/collections/get-help/using-the-archives

Donating your Personal or Family Records to a Repository:
Link to the Suellen Zima archive:  http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c8f47s94
See the video I made about the archive as well as other information on my website at www.zimatravels.com

I’m not sure why, but the word “archive” once made me imagine a rather dark and dusty place, perhaps in a library basement, with an elderly librarian tending it.  That image has changed significantly since I now have an archive being set up at the very special Hoover Institution in Stanford University.

That institution was founded in 1919 to embody Herbert Hoover’s vision for “a dynamic institution offering effective guidance for the future of our people and of mankind everywhere.”  Now it is “one of the largest private libraries and archives in the world that affords scholars, researchers, and the public a rare opportunity to touch history.”  What I have personally contributed documents years of social change by those who experienced it first hand.

My understanding of archives began just months ago when I mentioned to someone that I had saved hundreds of precious letters from my former Chinese students.  Written between 1988 up to the present, these letters eloquently put into words what was happening in their own lives during this period of dizzying, fast-paced changes in China.  Because the letters span so many years and are written by the same people, they provide a historical treasure for researchers and writers.

One contact with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University was all it took for them to accept hundreds of letters written to me  over 26 years, photos I had taken during my early years in China, a copy of my first book, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird” in English, the digital Chinese translation of that book, and one student’s letters from me that he had saved.  Hopefully, others will send any of my letters that they saved to include in the archive.

Establishing an archive has made me appreciate the value of preserving first hand history forever.  In fact, “archive” has become my favorite word.  The Suellen Zima Archive is more of a legacy than I ever dreamed of.

To find out more, watch the video on YouTube at tinyurl.com/zimaletter


Out of sheer curiosity because I knew nothing about it, I went to China in 1988.  It changed my life.  It changed my career to teaching English since this was an excellent way to get to know Chinese people without knowing how to speak Chinese.  It was a time machine into the Third World.  It was a very personal introduction to a very different culture.  It gave me a large number of Chinese friends, and it made me grandmother to 7 Chinese children in 6 families.  And now it has given me a way to preserve forever some of China’s recent history.

I moved to other Asian countries (Taiwan, Macau, Bali, Korea) after 1988, but returned 16 times to China.  With no option for e-mail in those early days, I nurtured the relationships with many letters.  They replied with many letters, describing what they were doing, what they were thinking, what they were dreaming about, where they were going, how they were coping with the fast paced changes in China during the past quarter century.  I was middle-aged when we met.  Now, they are middle-aged, living lives none of them (or probably anyone) would have predicted in 1988.

Since letters have always been precious to me, I saved them.  Now that I’ve reached the age where I need to decide what to do with what I have saved, I worried about their fate.  I knew that the personal histories written through their often poetic and intimate words were stories that deserved a broader audience.

The word, “archive,” had never meant much to me except perhaps for an image of a dark, far-off place for little-known storage.  And then another author who had done extensive research for her books told me about archives used for research, often housed in libraries at universities.   A librarian at a local university recognized immediately that mine was a unique collection for modern Chinese history.  She referred me to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

The Hoover Institution at Stanford wants them and is now waiting for my carefully saved letters to arrive.  Along with the letters will go an English print copy of my book published in 2006, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird,” a digital copy of the book translated into Chinese, and photos of the letter writers I’ve saved over the years I’ve been visiting China.  They also welcome any letters from me that my Chinese friends might have saved and would like to add to the archive.

I’m learning more about archives now — the acid free environment where the letters will be kept, the fact that I am donating the letters but still retain ownership of the collection, the protection that will be provided for the proper use of the letters by researchers.

I can’t think of a better place for the letters to me from the friendships I nurtured to remain important and useful long after I’m gone.  In fact, it’s rather fun to speculate who will be reading these letters and books and what they will make of them.


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