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Libraries in the Republic of Korea

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National libraries

The (NLK), founded in 1945, is the nation’s largest library, with seven million volumes.

Its role is to preserve Korean cultural heritage for future generations, and as such it collects all newly published books and documents with an annual average of 530,000 volumes a year.

It also has a policy and training role. Since 2004, it formulates the nation’s policy for libraries; it also provides a training programme with the aim of equipping librarians to lead a knowledge-based society.

Image: The National Library of Korea
The National Library of Korea

Aside from the NLK, there are a number of other national libraries, such as:

The National Digital Library of Korea

Work on started in 1996.  Its major objective was to improve Korean competitiveness in the knowledge society by providing an online resource of national information for the benefit both of the general public, and more specialized researchers.

It also networks other major libraries in Korea, providing a national information system.

It has a large number of databases from its participating organizations, of which the NLK is the leader.

These include Antique Books, Korean Studies information, official documents, newspapers prior to 1945, doctoral dissertations in the humanities, and a bibliographic journals database.

The National Assembly Library provides both bibliographic and full-text databases, including National Assembly minutes.

There are also a number of databases of research information, from various scientific organizations (such as , KISTI), and resource sharing initiatives (such as , KERIS).

Public libraries, school libraries, and reading initiatives

Perhaps the most impressive achievements of Korean librarianship, however, lies in the area of public libraries.

In January 2011, the Republic of Korea Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism announced funding of 537 won (equivalent to US$482 million) to open 66 new public libraries and 114 small libraries. 

This has increased the number of libraries in South Korea from 748 in 2010 to 814 in 2011, at a time when the UK is closing 401 libraries due to spending cuts (Allan, 2011).

The idea, according to The Korea Herald (2011), is to increase the number of libraries per head of population, so that, intriguingly, the yearly number of visits can be reduced from 68,000 in 2010 to 62,000 in 2011.

(This number itself reflects the popularity of Korean libraries – in the US, the number of visits per library was 33,000 in 2009.)

This increase is no mere “flash in the pan”, but part of an ongoing trend. Writing in 2006, Yoon et al. describe how public libraries, then numbering 471, had grown 27-fold in 40 years.

There have also being ongoing attempts to improve the service, with libraries fully networked (all are linked to the NLK), and containing digital materials such as e-books and journals.

There has also been an increase in the number of public librarians,
from 3258 in 2010 to 3470 in 2011.

Public libraries tend to be fairly large, without many branches.  There has however been a trend for more, smaller libraries, of which over 100 were created in 2011.

Reading promotion strategies

Part of the reason for investment in public libraries, and an interesting fact of public life, lies in the immense emphasis laid on reading promotion strategies.

We are familiar with the Chinese tiger mother who pushes her children hard to succeed; South Korean parents are also very conscious of the importance of education, and, as part of that, of reading.

Sook Hyeun Lee is Director General of the , which was established in 2006 to support children’s librarians, and, according to its website “to serve our children and young adults who will lead the knowledge and information society in the 21st century.”

She addressed the IFLA conference in Puerto Rico in 2011 concerning strategies for reading promotion in Korea (Lee, 2011), and her paper provides an interesting account of historical and legal framework, as well as the main initiatives and their results.

The emphasis on reading, and its public promotion, stems from a time in the 1920s when Korea was occupied by Japan, and reading promotion initiatives were launched in rural areas as a way of preserving Korean culture.

During the 1960s and 1970s, when Korea was still a poor country, a national reading scheme was promoted by the Ministry of Education; in the 1990s, when Korea was already pushing to become one of the most well-developed nations, the Reading Wave Movement was launched.

Reading promotion also received legislative backing with the Reading Culture Promotion Act of 2006, the Library Act of 2006, and the Second Comprehensive Plan for Library Development of 2009.

The policies devised by the Reading Culture Promotion Act cover reading programmes and movements, creating a desirable reading environment in homes, kindergartens, schools and communities, particular help for those with special needs such as senior citizens, prisoners, the disabled, or families from other cultures, and finally, improvement in the infrastructure of libraries, as described above.

Here are some examples of highly imaginative reading promotion programmes:

  • Librarians visiting welfare centres, and reading with underprivileged children. Each librarian has a budget of $3500, and the idea is to break the vicious circle of poverty by improving literacy skills.
  • Library adventure by Bookworm 13-18. Deliberately aimed at middle to high school students, who are hard to reach because they have a lot of homework, and therefore less time to go to the library, this programme is run largely by student participation. 800 students recommend books to their peers according to certain themes – “My future”, “Sex and love”, “Friends”, “My Planet: Earth”, “Meaning of Family”, “Secrets of Life” and “Everything we do is Art”.
  • Special reading programmes for multicultural families. Working in partnership with the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, the NLCY developed books and CDs; also Korean picture books were first translated into English and then into other languages such as Vietnamese, Thai, Mongolian and Chinese.
  • The NLCY has developed a manual to help public libraries run reading classes, and librarians who play a prominent part are rewarded. Public libraries also run a considerable number of other programmes.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology have come up with various programmes to encourage schools to put more emphasis on reading education, such as giving children 10 minutes of reading before the start of classes.

Image: Korean children in a library
Korean children in a library

The results of these initiatives are, according to the 2010 National Reading Statistics, that the adult reading rate increased by 2.6 per cent to 29.2 per cent, and that of students by 12.6 per cent to 65 per cent over the previous year. Library visits by children and young people were also at an all-time high.

Koreans spend a huge amount of money on private education, but Lee (2011, p.8) quotes one example of a woman who claimed to have successfully educated her children purely by taking advantage of libraries.

School libraries

The Libraries and Reading Promotion Act of 1994 stipulates that school libraries should support learning, and that every school should have a library. One feature of Korean education is the move towards self directed learning, which creates an added incentive for pupils to use the library. 

As with the public library, the service has steadily grown over the past decade (see Lee, 2011, pp.3-4 for statistics).