Alexis T. Bell: A Career in Catalysis and University Administration at UC Berkeley

New Oral History Release: Alexis T. Bell

Alexis T. Bell in UC Berkeley classroom, circa 1990.

Alexis T. Bell is the Dow Professor of Sustainable Chemistry in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in UC Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. At Berkeley, Bell became an internationally recognized leader in heterogeneous catalysis and chemical-reaction engineering who helped pioneer the development and application of spectroscopic methods to elucidate catalytic processes, as well as the application of experimental methods in combination with theoretical methods. Bell’s extensive oral history—recorded over fifteen hours in seven different interview sessions—produced a 423-page transcript with appendices that feature family photographs and historic documents from Bell’s career.

Along with thorough coverage of his scientific research, Bell shared fascinating stories about his family’s Russian ancestry, including both his parent’s separately fleeing the Soviet Revolution to ultimately meet and settle in New York City, as well as discussions on writing shared with Bell’s uncle, the Russian-born French novelist Henri Troyat. Bell’s early interview sessions also recount his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the early-to-mid-1960s, along with the historic evolution of chemical engineering as an academic discipline. In rich detail over several interview sessions, Bell discussed his collaborations and scientific research in four thematic areas: reaction engineering of plasma processes; heterogeneous catalysis research on new materials and energy resources; multi-technique catalysis studies in structure-property relations; and applications of theory to catalysis. Bell then shared his extensive administrative career at UC Berkeley, which included twice chairing his own department, serving as dean of the College of Chemistry, as well as chairing various committees in UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate. In his final interview session, Alex—as he is known to friends and colleagues—discussed his personal life as a father and a husband.

Alexis T. Bell was born on October 16, 1942 in New York City as the only child to immigrant parents who taught Bell to speak and read Russian fluently—a skill that, as noted below, later helped launch his now-storied career in catalysis. Bell grew up in midtown Manhattan and attended McBurney School, where Bell further fostered a burgeoning interest in science. He then studied chemical engineering at MIT, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1964 and his PhD in 1967. Just prior to completing his dissertation, on a chance visit to UC Berkeley during a cross-country road trip, Bell introduced himself to faculty in what was then simply called the Department of Chemical Engineering. Soon thereafter, in 1967, he accepted their offer to join the faculty where he has remained his entire career. In 1975, Bell became—and remains—a Principal Investigator in the Chemical Sciences Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He has since been elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences in the United States. And his collaborations in catalysis with Russian (then Soviet) scientists starting in 1974 and with Chinese scientists beginning in 1982 eventually earned his selection by the Chinese Academy of Science as an Einstein Professor and his award as an Honorary Professor of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Alexis T. Bell and his wife Tatiana Starostina Bell, photo taken in celebration of Alex’s 60 birthday on October 16, 2002.

An important through-line in Bell’s oral history is how it provides human context to the significant scientific contributions he has made, particularly Bell’s steady progress to produce an exquisitely detailed understanding of how complex chemical reactions occurring on the surface of heterogeneous catalysts proceed and are related to the composition and structure of that catalyst. Throughout his oral history, Bell discussed not only his technological innovations and experimental observations, but also his social networks of collaboration and the ways in which funding shaped both the content and processes of his knowledge production. For instance, Bell’s application in the early 1990s of experimental methods in combination with theoretical methods is now used by virtually all practitioners of catalysis science today; and here, Bell discusses with whom and how that work evolved. Additionally, Bell explains how various funding streams—like public research monies from the U.S. Department of Energy versus corporate research funding from BP (British Petroleum)—differently catalyzed the kinds of questions he could ask and the ways he could pursue scientific answers. As Bell explained, “I’ve learned—and I’m sure many other people who have done science and engineering have learned—that scientific activities don’t tell you what questions to ask. They give you answers, or partial answers, but the questions to ask are part of the human process.” Similarly, Bell’s discussion of his career in University administration while maintaining an active research program outlines how internal and external dynamics, as well as human and non-human forces, all shape the academic work and social evolution of UC Berkeley itself.

At Berkeley, Bell has now dedicated over half a century to developing the discipline of chemical engineering, especially the field of catalysis, often in pursuit of increased sustainability. When asked about remaining at UC Berkeley throughout his career, Bell replied: “There has never been a place that was so attractive to me that I wanted to leave Berkeley. I’ve told many people that, you know, Berkeley is not perfect, by far. … But what remains constant are the people—the quality of the people. And that’s what brought me out here to begin with; that’s what’s kept me here; and that’s what will keep me here. I really feel very privileged to be a part of the faculty here. I tell everybody that being a full professor at Berkeley is the best you can do in the academic world. And the kinds of students we attract, the kinds of visitors we have, the fact that you’re, so to speak, at the belly button of the world—everybody wants to come to Berkeley and visit and see you and talk to you. You’re constantly engaged intellectually.”

Alexis Bell in his UC Berkeley laboratory with a mass spectrometer he built for studying plasmas, circa 1980. (photo by Denis Galloway)

In his oral history, Bell also shared the interesting story of how and why he first began catalysis research in the early 1970s—a story that further reveals the “human process” and the social contexts of his science. Today, Bell is a world-renowned expert in heterogeneous catalysis. But when he first joined Berkeley’s faculty in 1967, his initial research focused on plasma chemistry, not catalysis. As a new faculty specialist in plasma chemistry, Bell received mentorship from elder chemical engineering faculty like Charles Tobias and Gene Petersen. In the early 1970s, Petersen approached Bell with an opportunity to use some additional research funding left over from an early Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant. The only catch with the funding was the research must be done on catalysis. Not wanting to turn down money for research, Bell recalled asking, “‘What do I know about catalysis?’ Well, virtually nothing. Never worked in the area. But I had, as a graduate student, done these translations of papers from Russian to English for Bill Koch.”

Earlier, in the mid-1960s, Bell and William Koch (the brother of those other well-known Koch brothers) were both graduate students in chemical engineering at MIT. William Koch asked Bell to translate from Russian a few Ukrainian Chemistry Journal articles on catalysis. Bell did so as a favor,  and Koch went to work on re-creating those Ukrainian experiments. But as Bell recalled, Koch “could never get the reactors to stop from blowing up, because he would use explosive mixtures.” Nearly a decade later, Bell dug up copies of his translations and decided to build upon them for his first foyer into catalysis research. With the remaining EPA funding from Gene Petersen’s grant, Bell purchased a new infrared spectrometer and promptly began creative in-situ catalytic research with a graduate student named Ed Force. According the Bell, Force “had been an undergraduate here at Berkeley, left to work for Chevron several years, and then came back, which is unusual for one of our undergraduates to come back. He was, in fact, older than I was.” Together, Bell and his elder grad-student Force completed new research on ethylene epoxidation, which they then published in 1975 in the prominent Journal of Catalysis.

Alexis T. Bell (center) with students from his laboratory at UC Berkeley, 2019.

In the mid-1970s, Bell and Force’s catalysis research garnered attention from established leaders in the field. Gábor Somorjai, a specialist in surface science and catalysis in Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry, read Bell’s publications and soon initiated a cross-departmental collaboration with Bell that lasted many fruitful years. Bell’s initial catalysis publications also caught the eye of Wolfgang Sachtler, an internationally prominent chemical engineer who then headed catalysis research for Shell Oil Corporation in Amsterdam. Bell remembered how, in his own incipient catalysis research, “We were able to show that you could get selectivities above the theoretical one predicted by Wolfgang Sachtler.” So, when Sachtler came to Berkeley to visit Gábor Somorjai, Sachtler insisted on meeting Bell. Their meeting highlighted some of Bell’s core attributes: he remains a consummate professional, calmly confident and in full command of his intellectual abilities and achievements, even under pressure.

As Bell remembered it, “Wolfgang came to my office and started immediately challenging me on my interpretation of the data, and that you could get to these high selectivities.” For over an hour before lunch and throughout an awkward meal with other Berkeley colleagues, Sachtler interrogated Bell. “It was unnerving to be challenged,” Bell explained, “but I felt that I understood what we had done well enough that I wasn’t going to just cave in to authority. Why should I do that? So, I stood my ground, in a professional way, which didn’t please him.” Soon thereafter, Bell received and accepted an invitation to visit Sachtler’s lab in Amsterdam where, again, he received further cross-examination by Sachtler and, this time, several Shell Oil researchers. “I got a grilling in their home office, and again stood my ground,” Bell recalled. History proved Bell correct: subsequent research at Union Carbide showed the selectivity could increase from 67 percent—then was considered the theoretical limit—to beyond 90 percent. So, what lesson did Bell take from his initial foyer into catalysis research and these interrogations from Sachtler? Bell shared, “I took from it that if I’m going to stick my neck out, I’m going to get it whacked. But I have a thick neck.”

Alexis T. Bell, circa 1999. (photo by Peg Skorpinski)

From his own telling, Bell’s now-celebrated career in catalysis began with an amalgam of interpersonal connections, generosity from fellow faculty, achievement with an excellent student, and influential publications that signaled new opportunities for the field. Stories like this throughout Bell’s oral history offer insight not only into the material and observable realms of science, but the social and “human process” of science as well.

It is with great pleasure that we now publish Alexis T. Bell’s extensive oral history. Many thanks to the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering—particularly current department chair Jeffery A. Reimer and former department chair and prior Provost and Senior Vice-President of the UC system Jud King—for their vision and generosity in securing funding for this important interview with their colleague. And special thanks to Alex Bell for his dedication to this project and for sharing wonderful memories of his life and his career at UC Berkeley.

You can read Alex’s interview here:

Alexis T. Bell, “Alexis T. Bell: A Career in Catalysis and University Administration at UC Berkeley,” conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor in 2018 and 2019, Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2020.

— Roger Eardley-Pryor, Ph.D.

The Fighting Spirit of Ida Louise Jackson

One of UC Berkeley’s first African American graduates and Oakland’s first black teacher

by Deborah Qu

In 1921, the members of the black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha stood proudly together for a photo to be featured in the University of California’s yearbook, the Blue and Gold. Among them was Ida Louise Jackson, the founder of the Rho chapter of AKA. As the first black sorority on campus, they knew that the day was going to be memorable, but unfortunately it was unforgettable for the wrong reasons. Jackson had scrounged 45 dollars from her parents for the photograph. Yet, despite meeting all requirements, when the yearbook came out their picture was nowhere to be seen. 

Six women posing for photo
Charter members of Rho Chapter, Alpha Kappa Alpha; Ida Louise Jackson, center. Photo courtesy of the Ida Louise Jackson estate.

When Ida Jackson inquired about their missing photo to Dean Stebbins, Jackson was directed to President Barrows. In her 1984 oral history at The Bancroft Library, she recalls his exact response of why the members of AKA were omitted: they “weren’t representative of the student body.” According to Jackson, neither the sorority pictures nor the individual senior pictures of most black students made the yearbook.

The blatant racism and discrimination in Barrow’s reply was a reality for students of color. During the oral history conducted more than 60 years later, Jackson still could name nearly every black student at Cal, as there were only 17 African Americans enrolled in 1920. California, which Jackson had believed was the “Mecca” of racial equality and opportunity before arriving from the South, was very much enveloped in racial discrimination. She recalls that “there weren’t too many opportunities in other places because good old California proved not to be as liberal as my brother had thought it was, or painted the picture to us. Because people are people.” 

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1902, Ida Louise Jackson credits her parents for teaching her honesty and outspokenness from an early age. She also recalls that her parents “put education ahead of everything,” believing that education would increase opportunity in a prejudiced system in which they themselves had struggled. Ida Jackson went to Rust College for two years, and graduated from a teaching course at New Orleans University (now Dillard). When she arrived in Oakland, California, in 1918 and requested a teaching application from the county superintendent’s office, they suggested she apply for a full California teaching credential. Eager to continue learning, Ida Jackson enrolled in the University of California, majoring in education. By 1921, she had formed Alpha Kappa Alpha to build a safe community for the small number of black students.

Ida Louise Jackson
Ida Louise Jackson

After graduating with a B.A in 1922 and M.A in 1923, Ida Jackson went on to apply for a teaching position in the Oakland public school system. At the time, she recalls that the general consensus was that a black person was not capable of teaching, especially in Oakland where there were very few black students that continued on to high school. She was rejected and told that she needed teaching experience. This led her to become the first black high school teacher in California at the racially segregated East Side High School for Mexican and African American students in El Cerrito in 1923. Once again, Jackson applied to teach in Oakland and was rejected. Even then, her fiery determination to teach in Oakland did not falter. She received help from President Walter Butler of the Northern California branch of the NAACP, who worked with influential white members of the Board of Education whom he personally knew in high school. Social reformer Anita Whitney intervened to endorse her teaching credibility. Only after such interventions did Ida Jackson receive an offer at the Prescott School in Oakland in 1926. Finally, she became the first black teacher in the Oakland public schools.

Ida Jackson remembers how her black students, whom she had encouraged to go into college when teaching in Prescott School in the late 1920s–1930, were discouraged by the counselor to follow in Jackson’s footsteps and become a teacher. This was because the opportunities were so far and few in between along the West Coast, that becoming a teacher was seen as an impossible career path for black students. Frustrated, Jackson found that mentality to be very narrow, and recognized that systemic racism had to be changed. Her philosophy was one of boldness and passion:

Have a certain amount of confidence in yourself . . . be willing to tackle whatever interests you, because you get something out of it whether you win all the way or not. It’s a valuable experience to go into unknown territory to sort of prepare yourself for anything that follows.

She then continued to devote her life’s work to creating more opportunities for black students. In 1934, Ida Jackson became the national AKA president, where she continued organizing chapters at other schools around the West Coast in LA, Arizona, Spokane, and Seattle. In that same year, Jackson initiated an Alpha Kappa Alpha summer school for rural teachers that began in Lexington, Mississippi, which brought volunteer teachers to equip local teachers and students in low-income areas. She strongly believed that “if the teachers were better prepared then they could inspire the youth to go ahead and get an education.” 

However, she soon realized that the students not only were starved from education but also basic healthcare. Turning her focus to include welfare, Jackson, along with Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee and AKA volunteers, began establishing child health care centers in rural areas. From the 1930s–1940s, Jackson became founder and director of the Mississippi Health Project, which expanded to include care for adults as well as children. Once again, she met obstacles with a fighting spirit. When it became increasingly difficult for clients to travel to the clinics, she helped the service evolve into a mobile center that moved between rural areas. Ida Jackson also was involved in forming a dental clinic for low-income families in Oakland. Meanwhile, her passion for education also did not dim. She spent a year at Columbia University and had gotten within two units of a doctorate in education, but did not officially obtain the degree because she could not afford the expense. Afterwards, Jackson held the position of dean of women at Tuskegee Institute, but ultimately returned to teach at McClymonds High School in Oakland upon retirement in 1953. 

In addition to all this, Jackson was active in the National Council of Negro Women, where she strove to improve the economic and social conditions for low-income black women. She was also highly involved in the education department of the NAACP in their mission, as she described it, to “encourage more blacks to get higher education, and to sort of fight the prejudice that was in the schools.” In 1972, she donated her farm to UC Berkeley, requesting that the profits be used toward graduate scholarships for black students. Ida Jackson passed away on March 8, 1996, but her legacy lives on. In 2004, UC Berkeley unveiled the Ida L. Jackson Graduate House Apartments in her honor. 

Deborah Qu
Deborah Qu is an undergraduate research assistant with the Oral History Center

As a research assistant at the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library, my role is to research the oral histories of accomplished women associated with UC Berkeley and the UC system. This project was formed to celebrate the 150 years of women at Berkeley and highlight their struggles, accomplishments, and impact UC women have had. Personally, this research project has opened my eyes to the privileges I take for granted, and shut down misconceptions I had about history. Whenever I looked back in the past, even as a minority, I almost wanted to see racism as a distant problem, something far away from me. However, as we know, racial injustice can still be very much rooted in our systems and institutions. Thus, while it is not pretty, it is crucial to be reminded of the history of our schools and the institutions we take part in, and realize the inequalities that our very own students and communities may be facing. Ida Louise Jackson was a powerful woman who rejected racial discrimination in education and health as the status quo. Thus, her fighting spirit and unrelenting determination can be inspirational for us all to stand up for what we believe in. 

Deborah Qu is a rising sophomore at UC Berkeley and is majoring in psychology. 

Works Cited

Jackson, Ida Louise. “Ida Louise Jackson: Overcoming Barriers in Education.” Interview by Gabriella Morris in 1984 and 1985. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1990.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Notable Black American Women. United States: Gale Research, 1992.

Webinar: COVID-19: European Librarians Speak!

COVID-19: European Librarians Speak!


August 6, 2020, 08:00 AM Pacific Standard Time [11 am EST, 16:00 (BST) 17:00 (CEST)]

Register in advance for this meeting: 

Note: After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Zoom accessibility features are here: 



The COVID-19 pandemic remains an ongoing threat that has led to the uprooting of local and global social, economic, and health conditions and the disruption of the cultural production sector. Europe has not been immune to the challenges that have been ushered in by the pandemic. Many European libraries, being at the forefront of knowledge creation and preservation, have stepped up their support of researchers and scholars in unprecedented ways. Notwithstanding, the shifts in the landscape of collection development will profoundly impact the services that libraries can provide.  

This virtual panel is the inaugural event in a planned six-part bi-monthly webinar series, “Collecting Conversations: Academic Libraries and Research in Flux,” dedicated to various aspects of librarianship. These activities will include both national and international librarians, archivists, scholars, administrators, and vendors from all parts of the world.

 In this panel, European librarians, specialists in Central, Eastern, and Southeast European Studies, and Slavic/Slavonic Studies will share experiences and perspectives about their individual and institutional challenges and opportunities in research areas instruction, and collection development. 


·       Ms. Mel Bach is the Slavonic Specialist and also Head of Collections and Academic Liaison at Cambridge University Library, UK.

·       Mr. Olaf Hamann is the Head of the Eastern-European Branch of the Berlin State Library, Germany.

·       Dr. Katya Rogatchevskaia is the Lead Curator of East European Collections at the British Library, UK, and the Chair of the Council for Slavonic and East European Library and Information Services.

·       Dr. Gudrun Wirtz is the Head of the Department of Eastern Europe at the Bavarian State Library, Germany.

Organizer/ ModeratorDr. Liladhar R. Pendse is Librarian for the Eastern European and Eurasian Studies Collection and the Caribbean and Latin American Studies Collections at UC Berkeley Library, USA, and the Institute for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies.

Co-ModeratorMs. Anna Rakityanskaya is Curator for Russian and Belarusian Collections at the Widener Library at Harvard University.

 The panel presentation will be recorded, but the question and answer session will not be recorded.


This panel is sponsored by the Institute of East European and Eurasian Studies, UC Berkeley.

Summer reading: The Righteous Mind

Book cover for The Righteous MindThe Righteous Mind
Jonathan Haidt

This book explores the implications of moral philosophy for political polarization. A lot of what we disagree about can be boiled down to six foundations of moral value. Different political perspectives correlate with different moral foundations. If we don’t understand one another’s values, we wind up polarized. But the real reason this is a must-read is that it demonstrates how we base our moral judgements on emotional reaction rather than information and thought. All of us.

Associate Professor of Practice
Goldman School of Public Policy

This book is part of the 2020 Berkeley Summer Reading List. Stay tuned for more weekly posts!


The Languages of Berkeley: An Online Exhibition

11th Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Neo-Assyrian, 7th Century BCE). Courtesy of the British Museum.

Akkadian is a member of the eastern branch of the Semitic language family. This is a large family, with languages spoken today throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The most widely-known Semitic languages are Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Amharic. Each of these has a long literary tradition.

The first Akkadian texts were written perhaps as early as 2500 BCE. Akkadian thus has the honor of being the first Semitic language to leave us records. The earliest texts come from the northern region of ancient Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. The language spread from there, and was eventually spoken throughout much of the Ancient Near East until the 7th century BCE, when it was gradually replaced by Aramaic. As time passed, knowledge of the language became more and more limited to priests and scholars. The latest Akkadian texts date to the first century CE. By that time, no one had spoken Akkadian as a native language for over five hundred years. These last texts were composed by Mesopotamian religious scholars, preserving their ancient culture.

Akkadian was written in the cuneiform script, which it adopted from the Sumerians, who preceded the Akkadians in Mesopotamia by centuries. Ancient Akkadian scholars were aware of the cultural debt that they owed to the Sumerians, and so studied Sumerian in their school system. In addition to composing texts in Akkadian, Akkadian scholars composed texts in Sumerian a thousand years after Sumerian had died out as a spoken language.

A host of texts in Akkadian has been preserved. This ranges from the most mundane accounting records to works of high literature. Some of the many other genres include legal texts, prescriptions, letters, omen texts, grammatical studies, and religious compositions of all kinds. This wealth of compositions can be seen by the fact that the standard dictionary of Akkadian—The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of University of Chicago—is 21 volumes long.[1] (The word “Assyrian” reflects an early name that scholars used.)

Assyriology—the study of texts written in Akkadian and Sumerian—is now a field of studies in its own right. In the early days of the field, however, scholars were mostly interested in reading Akkadian texts in order to prove the veracity of the Bible. The most famous Akkadian composition is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which consists of approximately 3600 lines written on 12 tablets. While earlier versions of Gilgamesh stories were written in both Sumerian and Akkadian, the version as we know it today comes from the 1st millennium BCE. An ancient Akkadian catalogue of texts credits this version to a man named Sin-leqi-unninni. Modern scholars debate about the role that he played in the writing of this text—author, editor, or compiler. Because of its treatment of timeless themes, including death and friendship, the Epic remains popular even today.

Perhaps the best-known cuneiform tablet in the British Museum is K. 3375 (illustrated above, courtesy of the British Museum), which contains a portion of Tablet 11 of the Epic, known as the “flood story.” E.A.W. Budge, the Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum, recalled the excitement that the decipherment of this tablet caused, when after some preliminary study it was given to George Smith, Senior Assistant at the Museum:

Smith was constitutionally a highly nervous, sensitive man…Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines…and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.” Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself![2]

Smith presented his findings in a public lecture at the Society of Biblical Archaeology on December 3, 1872, announcing his discovery of what was a Mesopotamian version of the biblical flood story. He then read his translation of the entire fragment to the audience which was greeted with enthusiasm.

Many have heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Code of Hammurapi. While not the first recorded law code, the Law Code is by far the longest and most complete.[3] The very first “law” (for want of a better word) reads:

Autograph of the Code of Hammurapi, courtesy of the Pontificio Istituto Biblico.
If a man accuses another man of homicide,
but cannot prove the charge, that man shall
be executed.

While works such as the Epic or the Law Code have captured public attention, many people are unaware of the vast amount of Akkadian that has been preserved. Letters—between rulers and their subordinates, and between private individuals—form a primary source for the writing of history. A typical short letter from the Old Babylonian period (approximately 2000–1600 BCE), now in the Louvre, chosen at random, states:

May the god Shamash keep you well.
Prepare for me the myrtle and the sweet-smelling reeds that I spoke to you about
earlier, and a boat for shipping wine to the city of Sippar. Purchase and bring with
you ten sheqels worth of wine, and meet me here in Babylon tomorrow.

It is such texts that enable economic historians to help reconstruct many different facets of the ancient Mesopotamian economy.

One of the reasons why people in general know less about Mesopotamia than about ancient Egypt is because the physical remains of Mesopotamian civilization are not nearly as spectacular as those of Egypt. There is very little hard stone in Mesopotamia, especially in the south, so the Mesopotamians built in mud-brick. They took mud from the rivers, shaped it into bricks, and made those bricks into buildings. Mud-brick buildings aren’t very durable: temples and palaces fall apart. So the archaeological remains of Mesopotamia are not nearly as well preserved as in Egyptian. Visiting ancient ruins in Syria or Iraq is not like wandering through the remains of Karnak or Luxor in Egypt today, where buildings are all around. Nor does cuneiform writing have the same aesthetic appeal that Egyptian hieroglyphs do. This means, unfortunately, that the study of the Ancient Near East—whose history and culture are known to us through Sumerian and Akkadian—has never had the same cachet among the general public that the study of Ancient Egypt has enjoyed. Nevertheless, both Sumerian and Akkadian have been taught at Cal for many years, and continue to enjoy a coterie of dedicated students.

Contribution by John L. Hayes
Lecturer, Department of Near Eastern Studies

Sources consulted:

  1. The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago / editorial board, Ignace J. Gelb … [et al.] Chicago, Ill.: The Institute, 1956-
  2. Budge, E. A. Wallace. The Rise & Progress of Assyriology. (London: Clay & Sons, 1925), 152–153.
  3. Hammurabi, King of Babylonia. Codex Hammurabi. Roma: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1950-53.

Epic of Gilgamesh, tablet 11, story of the Flood (K-3375)
Author: unknown
Imprint: Excavated at Kouyunjik in northern Iraq. Understood as the remains of the great library collected by King Ashurbanipal (668-c.630 BC) of Assyria at his capital of Nineveh.
Language: Akkadian
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Semitic, Northwest Semitic
Source: The British Museum

Other online editions and resources:

Select print editions at Berkeley:

The Languages of Berkeley [fan]
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The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).

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New Summer Reads: Booker Prize 2020 longlist

If you think you’re out of things to read this summer, think again! The recent announcement of the Booker Prize 2020 longlist has launched a slew of new books into the literature spotlight, and we at the Library encourage you to check out the listed novels in our collection!

Intersectional Progress through Women in the Sierra Club

By Ella Griffith, UC Berkeley Class of 2020

Sierra Club Women: An Annotated Bibliography of Women’s Oral Histories in the Sierra Club Oral History Project

Ella Griffith, UC Berkeley Class of 2020

In the Spring of 2019, I began work in the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP) under Dr. Roger Eardley-Pryor at the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library. Initially, I was interested in narratives around environmental justice and how this theme was, or was not, explored in the Oral History Center’s large archive of interviews with Sierra Club members, several of which were recorded over a half-century ago. The Sierra Club, one of the largest and oldest environmental advocacy organizations in the United States, has historically struggled with issues of environmental justice and inclusivity, and it recently publicized its reckoning with those legacies. My own reading through interviews in the Sierra Club Oral History Project made it clear that often, the female members within the Club have been the drivers of change on these issues. At the end of my first semester of work, the nuanced roles and perspectives of women in the Sierra Club emerged as the captivating focus in my URAP research.

Map created by Ella Griffith of selected Sierra Club Annual Outings, or “High Trips,” that were attended by women whose oral histories are cited in the “Sierra Club Women” annotated bibliography. 1) 21st Annual Outing to Kings Canyon in 1922. 2) 22nd Annual Outing to Yosemite Valley in 1923. 3) 28th Annual Outing to Garnet Lake in 1929.

Over the past year, as I continued to read through these interviews of women in the Sierra Club, I pulled out selected quotations and analyzed their content. The capstone of my work is “Sierra Club Women: An Annotated Bibliography of Women’s Oral Histories in the Sierra Club Oral History Project.” This annotated bibliography of Sierra Club interviews with women includes archival photographs and a 2D map that I created by tracing the backcountry hiking routes that several Sierra Club women took on some of the Club’s early High Trips. The thirty interviews I annotated reflect and unpack a variety of common themes that these women grappled with related to their work within, and adjacent to, the Sierra Club and the greater environmental movement. The core themes I identified in these women’s interviews include “Outdoor empowerment”; “Pioneering activism”; “Intersectionality”; “Women as nurturers and cult of domesticity”; “Leadership labor and gender”; “Proximity to male club members”; “Legislative process”; “Early Sierra Club High Trips”; and “Environmental elitism.”

As a woman and environmentalist, reading stories about triumphs and obstacles for these female environmentalists of the past was both exciting and emotional. I gained a better perspective on how far the intersectional environmental movement has come and what aspects of environmental inclusivity I took for granted, thanks to the work of generations before me. At the same time, I felt these themes reflected much of my own life in the present.

“Tea Party [Sierra Club],” Photographs Selected From California State Library, Calisphere, 1926.
One of the themes I found in these Sierra Club interviews is “Women as Nurturers and the Cult of Domesticity.” Sometimes, historical gender conventions limited the scope of the Sierra Club’s female member’s work or shaped their motivation behind it. Women have often been pigeon-holed as the caretakers of the Earth and its creatures. As a recent UC Berkeley graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Conservation and Resource Studies, I have experienced people condescendingly categorize environmental studies as “an emotional science,” and peers explain to me that I am perfect for this work because I am “nurturing” and “motherly.”

“Dursley Baldwin and Marion Montgomery at the Summit of Mount Woodworth [Sierra Club],” Photographs Selected From California State Library System, Calisphere, 1925.
Another theme I identified is “Labor, Leadership and Gender.” Several interviews dedicated an entire section to the role of women in leadership and bureaucratic positions within the Club, particularly how these women worked with and mentored one another. During my time at Cal, I was inspired by and worked to emulate the other powerful women and non-bianry leaders in our campus eco-community. Together, we uplifted, held accountable, and learned from each other by sharing resources, organizing and showing up for each other’s events, and working on centering environmental justice in all of our work. It is no coincidence that 5 of the 6 students selected to receive the Chancellor’s Award on Sustainability were femme identifying, myself included.

By far, however, the most relevant and consistent theme that I saw reflected in my own life is “Environmental Elitism.” Oftentimes, the women interviewed came from very similar affluent backgrounds. They were encouraged to explore the outdoors as kids, and they had the time and resources to do so. Those that did hold leadership positions were volunteers; they did not have to worry about missing supplemental income to support themselves or their families. And every single one of the women interviewed in the Sierra Club Oral History Project were white.

“Portrait of a Lady in Rocky Circumstances [Sierra Club],” Photographs Selected From California State Library, Calisphere, 1925
Before coming to Cal, I was passionate and driven to make a difference. I considered myself a capable, well-informed leader. Yet, I had never heard the terms environmental justice, greenwashing, or environmental racism. During my freshman year in the spring of 2017, the Students of Color Environmental Collective wrote and released a letter to the Cal Environmental community, calling out the racism and complacency of Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources and white environmentalists in their work. Without the proper education on these issues, I was bewildered and overwhelmed by this message. Over time, thanks to intentional learning through these and many more incredible resources**, I came to recognize my own privilege within this movement. My family owns land. My waste is transported far away from my home. I see people that look like me in high-powered environment-related jobs. I feel safe in the outdoors near my home. Now, with this ever-evolving understanding, I am listening to and reflecting on ways to better uplift BIPOC, especially women.

Title page from Ella Griffith’s Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program project in the Oral History Center of The Bancroft Library.

When I started this research, I knew there were narratives and analysis missing from the mainstream history of environmentalism. The annotated bibliography of women in the Sierra Club that I created highlights some of those missing voices. I am glad this resource now exists, and I hope people use it in the future. But there are still many voices missing from our regular education and from our understanding of history. Black and brown scholars, activists, and environmentalists have long been excluded from the narrative of environmental history and denied credit for their contributions. I challenge readers to focus on narratives they have not yet explored within the Oral History Center’s archival collection. Have you had the chance to read through the African American Faculty and Senior Staff project? If so, revisit the important OHC director’s column from February 2020 outlining other important Black oral histories in their collection. In particular, Carl Anthony and Henry Clark and Ahmadia Thomas are among the few oral histories that explicitly focus on toxins and environmental justice. Additionally, have most of the oral histories you have read been narrated by men? My annotated bibliography on Sierra Club Women is just one slim piece of a broader collection of female interviews. For instance, Oral Histories of Berkeley Women highlights some of the oldest oral histories in the collection conducted with women who have been a part of UC Berkeley’s institution since they were granted admittance 150 years ago.

Through my URAP experience, I have learned that oral histories provide us a unique and raw insight into the perspective of the past. Our task, as historians, is to illuminate and analyze all of these voices, especially those that have been left out for so long. But do not forget about uplifting the voices of the present. Who are we not listening to this very moment? Who is making history as we speak? And what will you do to ensure they are not left out in the future?

** A vast collection of papers, books, videos, and toolkits exists on the subjects of environmental racism and justice. Here are some of the resources that helped me learn about environmental justice: Dr. Carolyn Finney, now a professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky, and a former professor at UC Berkeley who was denied tenure, wrote the book Black Spaces, White Faces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, which examines why Black people are so underrepresented in nature, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism. Another one of my Cal courses introduced me to the report “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987-2007,” about grassroots struggles to dismantle environmental racism in the United States. This report from 2007 revisits the foundational “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” study produced by the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice in 1987, and it further examines how hazardous waste facilities exist disproportionately in close proximity to BIPOC communities, while also highlighting the lack of progress in addressing this issue since the first report, now over three decades old. Finally, the EPA created EJSCREEN: Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool, which combines environmental and demographic data to visualize the intersection of environmental and public health.

—Ella Griffith, UC Berkeley Class of 2020

Ella Griffith graduated in May 2020 from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor of Science in Conservation and Resource Studies. From the Spring 2019 semester through Spring 2020, Ella conducted research in the Oral History Center and earned academic credits as part of UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP). URAP provides opportunities for undergraduates to work closely with Berkeley scholars on the cutting edge research projects for which Berkeley is world-renowned.

Independent and Revolutionary Mexican Newspapers Open Access Collection Released (CRL)

CRL announced today it has released more than 477 titles of the 19th-century Mexican newspapers that total 134,208 pages in their digitized format. Most of these are scanned from existing microfilms thus some of the issues can have quality-related issues. The collection closely resembles the digital collection of Hemeroteca that is at UNAM. Nevertheless, in times of constraints on access to the physical collections, this resource remains an irreplaceable treasure trove of information on the 19th Mexico. It is an OA collection for a world-wide audience to use.

East View’s description states, “Most of the titles in the Independent and Revolutionary Mexican Newspapers collection are from the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, a research library at the University of Texas at Austin for area studies on Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the Latino presence in the United States. The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection is regarded by many as the preeminent Latin American library in the United States and is particularly rich in out-of-the-ordinary materials issued in small print runs, many difficult to acquire when first published and impossible to acquire today.”

Below are some of the images of the database.


Some new Italian ebooks

While our print material is still in quarantine, here’s a short list of recently acquired ebooks from Italy. All are available for reading and downloading through Torrossa — Casalini Libri’s full text digital platform.


See also: