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Libraries in the Republic of Korea

By Margaret Adolphus


Situated at the far northeast corner of Asia, close to Siberia and opposite the Japanese archipelago, South Korea has known geographical isolation and historical turmoil.

And yet it is currently one of the world’s leading economies, the third largest in Asia and 13th in the world; a society where the competitive edge is maintained, at individual, corporate and national level, by knowledge and information.

Most advanced economies are knowledge-based, but where perhaps Korea differs is the way that at every level, it sees libraries as central to this process.

According to Lee (2011), "libraries take heavy responsibility for raising national competitiveness."

And the Government takes heavy responsibility for supporting libraries, through publicly funded initiatives which will be described below, and legislation, for example the Libraries Act, first passed in 1963 and revised 11 times, most recently in 2006.

Such interest however is rooted not just in Korea’s recent economic upsurge, but in an exceptionally rich cultural history.

Korea gave the world two treasures of printing history, both first of their kind: Mu-gu-jeong-gwang-dae-da-ra-ni-gyeong (the Pure Light Dharani Sutra, printed on woodblock), and Jikji, the world’s oldest example of movable type (Yoon et al., 2006).

National libraries

The National Library of Korea (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 The National Digital Library of Korea 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 Korea Institute of Science and Technology Information, KISTI), and resource sharing initiatives (such as Korea Education and Research Service, 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 National Library for Children and Young Adults, 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).

Academic libraries and resource sharing

Academic libraries in Korea face the same pressures as those all over the world: the need to develop fully integrated networked services, to find ways of sharing resources so that expensive database licenses can be purchased, and problems following restructuring of campuses.

Korea values education, and at the end of 2004, had some 438 universities (Yoon et al. 2006).

Most university libraries, however, are poorly resources with small collections, compared with their counterparts in advanced nations serving similarly sized institutions.

There are a couple of exceptions: Korea University Library is the largest academic library in Korea,  with more than 2.7 million books. It also has four main libraries and seven lesser libraries and information centres.

Another large, and well-equipped, library is Yonsei, which has 1.9 million printed works, 16000 serials, 200 academic databases and 62,000 e-journals accessible both on and off campus.

It became, in 1990, the first library to operate a computerized system, which was upgraded in 2005. Another first was the introduction, in 2007, of subject librarians.

Image: Yonsei University Library
Yonsei University Library

The lack of resources of most university libraries, however, causes a problem for the nation’s scientists and researchers, as despite an excellent scientific infrastructure, they are hampered by an inability to gain access to literature (Shin, 2010).

Resource sharing

The way that libraries try and overcome this problem is through cooperation and resource sharing.

The National Digital Library of Korea, with its databases provided by member institutions, is one such example.  The Korea Education & Research Information Service (KERIS) built a union catalogue in 1999.

Document delivery provides a major way to access publications not available locally, and these can now be easily delivered over the Internet.

The Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KISTI) is a national centre managing scientific information. It has also contributed to the R&D productivity by building a super computer.

KISTI is the largest document delivery service in Korea, supplying journal articles, conference proceedings and technical reports – it delivered almost 300,000 in 2009.

A large barrier to document supply is copyright, and KISTI negotiates with the Korea Reprographic and Transmission Rights Association (KRTRA) over Korean licences. Foreign works, however, have to be negotiated directly with the copyright holder, as there is no blanket agreement.

As part of its document delivery role, KISTI provides an integrated search service platform – National Digital Science Links (NDSL).

In order to enlarge international access, KISTI has a number of organizations with whom it has a reciprocal arrangement, such as the British Library.

It is also a member of WorldWideScience which is a gateway that links to international science portals.  One of these is KoreaScience, which KISTI runs, and which has done much to increase dissemination of Korean science.

For more information on KISTI, see Yoo (2010).

Having documents openly available in a repository is a great way of ensuring access, and Korea has been active in the Open Access movement since 2003 (Shin, 2010).

According to the website OpenDOAR, Korea has 12 national repositories, mostly based on DSpace software.

For an account of the main repositories in Korea, see Shin, 2010.  Shin comments that despite the availability of repositories with sophisticated software, there is a lack of content, which she believes is due to lack of publicity for the former, and a need for a more open academic culture.


Korea is to be commended for many of its achievements in librarianship, notably in public libraries, school libraries and its reading development programmes.

Many of its university libraries could be better equipped, however, and it needs to develop a more open culture with respect to the open archiving of publications.

What is most impressive, however, is the way it makes the connection between libraries and the knowledge economy: the former is needed to power the latter.  It is a lesson that the western developed economies could well learn from.


Allan, Cate. (2011), “South Korea to Open 180 Libraries, UK to cut 400”, suite101, blog posting dated January 27th, 2011, available at, donwloaded January 11th 2012.

Lee, Sook Hyeun. (2011), “Korean National Strategy for Library Development and Reading Promotion for Children and Young Adults”, paper presented to the World Library and Information Conference: 77th IFLA General Conference and Assembly, available at, downloaded January 10th 2012.

Shin, E. (2010), "The challenges of open access for Korea's national repositories", Interlending & Document Supply, Vol. 38 No. 4, pp.231-236.

The Korea Herald (2011), “W552 billion allocated for 180 new public libraries”, 2011-01-07, available at, downloaded January 9th 2012.

Yoo, S. (2010), "Document delivery through domestic and international collaborations: the KISTI practice", Interlending & Document Supply, Vol. 38 No. 3, pp.175-182.

Yoon, Hee-Yong,  Chang, Duk-Hyun, Kim, Young-seok (2006), “Libraries in Korea: a general overview”, IFLA Journal, Vol. 32 No. 2, pp.93-103.