When I began the course I had no intention of focusing on the history of Korean libraries. However, I often found myself addressing assignments after turning off Korean soap operas. Though the first discussion post on libraries in media offered the opportunity to wedge my love of Korean TV into the course, I didn’t take it. But it made me think. Korean television, especially historical dramas, or sageuk, are full of educational institutions.
Scholars play important roles in the plots of several of my favorites. Conflict can be resolved by locating that one hidden document accusing a politician of treason or recording an illegal transaction. To escape the threats of loan sharks, hustlers sell forbidden, steamy romance novels or transcribe Confucian classics from memory to aid cheating test-takers. Bookstores are fairly common settings. But rarely, if ever, do these scenes occur in libraries.
When I began the second Actio assignment, I thought I’d go out in search of Joseon libraries. I don’t know if my search skills have improved since then, or if Google’s algorithms have adjusted to my persistence, but at first, those libraries were very hard to find. Even though I’ve been able to find many more references since, the information available in English is scant. Apart from historic timelines of institutions that have more-or-less survived to the 21st century, the references are just that. “X document was stored at Y building,” or “The grounds included Z building where officials compiled agricultural reports,” for example. Only one of the Wikipedia pages for the Four Mountain Archives even acknowledges that it served that purpose.
So where are the libraries? Where are the books kept, and how? It seems likely that libraries didn’t exist in any form that we might recognize, even as an archive, apart from those archives that stored very important and highly valuable works. Is it possible that books were so taken for granted that their collection wasn’t considered worthy of recording? It sounds unbelievable from a western point of view. Even after Gutenberg’s press, though books were more easily obtained, they were still mostly out of reach to those outside the wealthy classes. Yet, in the East, it sounds plausible.
Apparently, every upper-class household had, not only easy access to books, but whole libraries of their own. In, “Interior Space and Furniture of Joseon Upper-Class Houses, Choi Sang-Hun writes that the men’s quarters, or sarangchae, “where the head of the house, or the patriarch, and the eldest son carried out their daily lives,” consisted of several rooms “arranged around a sarang-madang (courtyard), as well as a seogo (library).” The most detail the author goes into is to describe the seogo as “a repository for books and documents, and a place to read.”
But what of the rest of society? When invading the Ganghwhado archives in 1866, French naval officer Henry Joubert noted: “What must be looked upon with admiration here and what injures our pride is that every house, no matter how poor, has books everywhere.” Shin Byung-Ju, in “Korea’s Unrivaled Record-Keeping Culture” continues, “The people of Joseon were always around books.” And unrivaled their record-keeping was, as this site hopes to demonstrate. Yet again, where are the libraries? How about librarians?
In hopes of answering these questions, I began looking at two institutions that I was sure must have had associated libraries. The first was Sunkyunkwan, the National Confucian Academy where the sons of the Yangban literati class studied for the civil service exam in preparation for government office. The second was Chiphyonjon, the Hall of Worthies, which not only created the Hangul alphabet at Sejong’s instruction, but also produced several manuals on agriculture, medicine, and gynecology that were distributed throughout the country. In my search I found only Jonkyungkak, the first university library of Korea at Sunkyunkwan (dramatized above and photographed below) which appears far too small to have been much use to a national institution.
But in my search, I also learned those Yangban students were allowed to wield power over the king. And from there I learned of the literati purges, the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, and the royal lectures. Every article I read, every bit of information that I could loosely tie to libraries led to another sub-topic to explore. The modern history of Korean libraries was just as fascinating. Modernization was delayed by, first, Japanese colonization, then the Korean war, despite the fact that the effort was never abandoned.
Ultimately, I didn’t get much done. To be honest, I didn’t want to stop reading to put anything on paper. So in the hope of turning my Actio assignments into a final project, I’ve focused them all on Korean library history. I’m also filling out additional pages with topics I’d like to pursue for further research. I wish I had another six months to a year to build this site into the comprehensive survey of library history in Korea that I’d like it to be. But if it continues beyond the end of the semester, it will only be out of personal interest.
Yi Tae-Jin argues in “King Chongjo, Confucianism, Enlightenment, and Absolute Rule” that Chongjo “introduced the ch’ogye munshin system, under which the most promising civil servants…were handpicked for intensive study at Kyujanggak,” because he “personally deplored the tendency of many young bureaucrats to never read a book again after passing the torturous civil service examination.” Time will tell if this research project falls by the way of the of the young bureaucrat or heeds the admonishment of the sage king.
Choi, Sang-hun. Interior Space and Furniture of Joseon Upper-class Houses. Seoul, Korea: Ewha Womans UP, 2007. Print.
Shin, Byung-ju. “Korea’s Unrivaled Recordkeeping Culture.” Koreana: A Quarterly on Korean Art & Culture. The Korea Foundation, 2008. Web. 28 Apr. 2017. <http://koreana.kf.or.kr/popup.asp?article_id=4597>.
Yi, Tae-Jin. “King Chongjo: Confucianism, Enlightenment, and Absolute Rule.” Korea Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, Winter2000, p. 168. EBSCOhost, <https://www.ekoreajournal.net/sysLib/down.php?file=../UPLOAD/T_articles/PDF4046>