[VIEWPOINT]National power is in the libraryIf I had Aladdin's magic lamp, what would I ask the genie of the lamp to do? I would ask him to lift up the Widener Library at Harvard University and move it to Korea. I would feel good as I watch the genie in a turban pull up the huge marble building from the ground and carry it on the air above the Pacific Ocean.
The wish came to me long ago, when I was returning to Korea after completing my studies at Harvard. It was the library that made me choose again that university when I had the opportunity to go abroad again as an exchange professor despite the killingly-high cost of living in the area.
Widener Library was built in 1915 in memory of Harry Elkins Widener, who perished aboard the Titanic, with a donation of $2 million from his mother. The library is the flagship of nearly 100 libraries at Harvard University and holds the largest collection of books (14 million) of the world's universities.
In Korea, the library at Seoul National University holds the top position with 2 million books. But that size a book collection would be ranked among the lowest of those of North American university libraries.
The life of a library depends on the size of its collection, which is related to book seekers' confidence that they can find the books they need there. In that sense, Korea's top libraries are all disappointing. If I make a list of books and theses I want and then search for them in the computer networks of domestic libraries, I find only one or two of those I need. So who would go to such libraries with the confidence that he will discover the book he wants?
In such situations, scholars have no choice but to make personal libraries specializing in their field at their own expense, and that is never small. But there is an obvious limit to individual efforts. Personal libraries are inefficient in a national sense because they are overlapping investments. While foreign scholars produce knowledge through systematic large factories, Korean scholars are doing cottage industry work.
The knowledge industry, which will be the base of Korean culture, needs the proper infrastructure to nurture excellent brains and improve study conditions. The most important step is to build a library in which book-seekers can have confidence. A library like the U.S. Library of Congress and the British Library, which are the pride of the world, is only a dream to us now. But we should start making efforts now to build such a library so that our next generation or at least our offspring in 100 to 200 years will have such libraries.
Some people may ask me why we need libraries in the age of the Internet, in which digital content will replace all paper documents. We should wait and see if the print culture will really disappear. But even if such an era comes, the function of a library as the storehouse of knowledge will not disappear. No matter what media deliver knowledge, libraries that systematize that knowledge will be necessary.
We need to invest strategically so that we can have such libraries despite our limited economic means. In other words, our investment should be intensive rather than dispersed. A representative library in Korea should not be an exclusive library for a university or an institution, but the common property of all Koreans. We should also develop libraries specializing in some fields. It is not wise that each library purchases books similar to those another institution is collecting, because our funds are limited. In addition, in order to collect the results of knowledge in various languages from foreign countries, we need to introduce a system of specially trained librarians.
We know well that the real base of national power is culture as well as politics and economy. National power is not obtained by just shouting "dae-han-min-guk." National power must be nurtured from small efforts to build a library in which we can have confidence.
by Kim Ho-dong
* The writer is a professor of Asian history at Seoul National University.