The impetus for founding the Southeast Asian Archive came from within the local Southeast Asian American community in Orange County, California. Dr. Pham Cao Duong, a member of the Vietnamese American community — the largest population of emigrants outside Vietnam — first proposed the idea to UCI officials in the mid-1980s. In response, the UCI Libraries established the Archive in 1987. Members of the community donated the initial materials, and donors continue to play a very strong role in development of the Archive's collections. Many early items documented personal experiences as refugees; other contributions came from refugee workers and American veterans.
In 2002 the Archive's significance was recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the California State Library, both of which awarded grants to organize the archival collections. NEH funds also enabled digitization of selected materials to create SEAAdoc (selected Southeast Asian Archive materials digitized on the web—)
From the founding of the Archive until her retirement in 2007, Anne Frank was the Southeast Asian Archive Librarian. Throughout these twenty years she received numerous honors from both the Southeast Asian American community and her professional and scholarly communities, including a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Asian American Studies.