Actio 1 – Historiography

Review of Article on Library History

“The Modern History of the Library Movement and Reading Campaign in Korea,” by Lee Yong-jae and Jo Jae-soon, describes the efforts to create modern library systems in 20th century Korea.  They provide a brief background to several developments they feel are important to library history, beginning in 1906, just before Japanese occupation.  This paper seeks to analyze the article as a work of library historiography.

Considering Richard Krzyer’s three types of library history, it could be argued that Lee and Jo’s article is intended to explore a subject category, as the author continually refers to the creation of libraries during this period as a series of “movements.”  However, the lack of cultural context framing these movements, beyond simple statements of historical fact, makes a strong case for a general-purpose history type. The reader comes away with no more information than a plain report of key events in history and a cursory background of influences.

For methodology, Lee and Jo simply describe the circumstances surrounding the creation of modern libraries in Korea. They state their “paper does not detail out the history of the library movement in Korea.  Instead, it explains by introducing key figures…because what is most important in the library movement is the people….”  Doing so, they hope to “highlight the effort and achievements of the key figures or library thinkers in Korea.”

However, this methodology leaves readers, especially those with some knowledge of the history of the Korean peninsula, with more questions than answers.  In fact, the paper’s introduction asserts that “Public libraries in Korea are not yet standing tall as the ‘people’s college,’ not establishing (themselves as) core institution(s) that support…residents’ access to information, education, and culture,” offering as explanation the hypothesis that “This phenomenon may have stemmed from the failure of the movement for the construction of Korean people’s libraries as a part of Koreans’ self-autonomous modernization project.”  However, the paper does not, then, address that hypothesis.

The paper is supported entirely by secondary sources, most having been written after 2000, with two papers written in the 1990s, and two in the 1970s.  As the topic addresses the history of the 20th century, recent material might seem reasonable, especially in light of the conflicts influencing information institutions at the time.  However, as the paper deals mainly with organizing institutions following conflict, institutions which deal primarily with the preservation of information, it seems highly probable that a fair number of primary sources should be at hand.  For example, J. McRee Elrod’s personal account of teaching for Yonsei University’s Library Science program could have provided some much-needed historical context.

Though secondary sources can be useful for providing general information, and they certainly serve that purpose here, they are put to little use in teasing out context, building arguments, or comparing or contrasting historical perspectives.  For example, the authors describe Lee Beom-seung as an “elite who spoke various foreign languages with ease.”  No citation is provided for this assertion.  However, Elrod’s account suggests differing reasons as to the ability of most adults in Korea during the Japanese occupation to speak several different languages.  Because Lee and Jo simply apply one source to one supposed fact (when a source is provided at all), rather than considering multiple resources that discuss a single event, and as every event is described in a similar manner, the paper begins to appear biased toward a single perspective.

In fact, Elrod’s account contradicts Lee and Jo in several areas.  For example, the authors state the Korean Library Association “began to pressure the government for the establishment of undergraduate level program for the training of librarians” in 1955, persuading the George Peabody College Mission to take up the cause.  This is one of the few statements in the paper for which a supporting citation is offered.  Yet Elrod asserts that Peabody College proposed to start the school.  Neither work addresses this disparity.

Elrod also asserts that Korea “had not yet been able to develop its own library practices when the civil war broke out and threw the country into chaos,” while Lee and Jo’s entire paper would argue against that.  These contradictions highlight the limitations of Lee and Jo’s paper, providing few specific citations rather than building arguments from a variety of sources, despite the length of the list of resources on the final page.

The paper does, however, help to fill a gap in a very transitional period of Korean library history.  It claims to describe the beginning of the “modern” library movement in Korea, yet makes no effort to define what makes a library modern, beyond a change in name.  They describe the attempt to establish Daehan Library as “the first time that the denomination, ‘library’ was…used in Korea,” despite the fact that, “Prior to that time, there were many diverse denominations that referred to the buildings that played the role of library for the long history on this land.”  These two quotes are the only reference made to the fact that Korea has a history of academic institutions (and associated collections of books) going back literally thousands of years.  The authors make no attempt to place the timeframe they describe into the greater, overall context of library history in Korea.  Though they state upfront they will not do so, it is a critical failing of the paper.

Future research might focus on tying this era of library history to others, particularly the Joseon dynasty.  The politics of language, throughout Joseon and during Japanese occupation would seem to have a significant influence on the transition from older library institutions to their current manifestation.  More detail on classification systems before and after modernization would be of interest.  Consideration of Joseon’s history of Confucian Academies and Civil Service examinations that allowed the general population to be educated and climb the social ladder as early as 1500 might help explain why “one of the key roles of public libraries in Korea is to merely provide seats for users who study based on rote memorization,” as those academies based their education on memorization of Confucian classics and Chinese characters.

Likewise, any influence the former Literati (Yangban) class of “scholar officials” might have had on attempts to create libraries in the early 20th century is ignored.  Though they lost their legal standing in the last years of the 19th century, an attempt was made in the years between WWII and the Korean War to bring them back into government roles.  Lee and Jo state that early attempts at starting libraries during occupation were made by “Confucians…for the education of their children.”  Pre-1900, those Confucians would have been Yangban, establishing academies for the same purpose.

While Lee and Jo’s paper can be appreciated for what it is, basically a running list of important advancements in Korean library history, it ultimately leaves more questions unanswered.  As a work of historiography, it does a fine job meeting its general purpose of relating a timeline of historic facts.


Lee, Yong-jae, and Jae Soon Jo. “The Modern History of the Library Movement and Reading Campaign in Korea.” World Library and Information Congress: 72nd IFLA General Conference and Council. International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, 22 Apr. 2009. Web. 8 Apr. 2017. .

Elrod, J. McRee. “The Beginning of Modern Library Science Education in Korea.” Special Libraries Cataloguing. Special Libraries Cataloguing, Inc., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2017. .

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