[VIEWPOINT]Build more public libraries

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[VIEWPOINT]Build more public libraries

Major bookstores in the city are packed with visitors nowadays, it being the middle of the winter vacation for schools. There seem to be more people who go there to read rather than to buy books. From elementary school children to college students and even parents, people can be seen crouching down in the aisles or leaning on bookshelves immersed in reading. Many stores have separate areas where people can sit down and read, but those areas are always crowded. The heated passion for reading is enough to warm up the harsh winter season, and the warm consideration of bookstores for customers can be seen at a glance as a positive cultural phenomenon.
But bookstores are not libraries. People who are sitting down to read in bookstores instead of browsing through books should go instead to a library. The problem lies in the fact that there are hardly any libraries that welcome these people.
There are currently around 10,000 libraries in Korea. Although not the best of comparisons, it is said that there are around 90,000 karaoke lounges nationwide. Moreover, of all libraries across the country, over 90 percent are under the management of schools, and more than half of the public libraries that make up less than 5 percent of all libraries nationwide belong to regional education offices. It would be perhaps uncomfortable if we were to compare the situation of public libraries in Korea with that of other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The “Social Index of Korea in 2005” released by the National Statistical Office clearly paints a portrait of a non-reading society. Excluding money spent to buy newspapers, the money Korean adults spent on books amounted to nearly nothing. Every time we hear this kind of news we become embarrassed or feel ashamed, as if we have committed a crime. But there is no need to beat ourselves up over this issue anymore. One should instead blame the sterile cultural level of our society, which has failed to provide the minimum public space necessary to read comfortably.
You don’t have to be Virginia Woolf, the English author who was one of the founders of Modernism, to have “A Room of One’s Own.” But it is too much for most of the people to have a library or buy a cottage of one’s own. Moreover, because we have lots of people but little land, it is difficult to secure a space for oneself. The solution is, therefore, for the government to step forward and greatly increase the number of public libraries.
First of all, public libraries promote the “cultural assets” of their country when they are utilized as a space for individuals, albeit a temporary one. In addition, they boost the “social assets” that link people by functioning as a private space, at least for a short time. In other words, public libraries provide food for the mind, while also facilitating social ties. This is eloquently supported by the history of public libraries in western society since the 19th century.
Increasing the number of public libraries is also absolutely necessary to improve the poor social environment for publishing high quality books. The government and a society that has established fewer than 500 public libraries should be held responsible for making our country a place where there are hardly any professional poets, because poetry books don’t sell, and where scholarly books pile up in stock even though only a few hundred copies are printed.
What we need right now is not a world-class super-large library, nor an ultra-modern digital library. It is more urgent that we establish some thousands or tens of thousands of regional libraries that are located near us and are pleasant, so that we can visit them as if we were visiting our neighbors or a market place by riding a local line buses whether on a sunny day or a rainy one.
Unfortunately, the Seoul metropolitan city office plans to build 20 more public libraries this year in addition to nine that were newly built in last year. Of course, it is far better than doing nothing, but the number of libraries under plan is not a match with the demand and with such a rate of increase, we cannot meet future needs.
It also seems that there is no conviction among city officials that the essence of the library does not lie in the building but the books it has and the services it can provide. Considering the importance, efficiency and impartiality of the policy, the issue of establishing more public libraries should be initiated by the central government.
Building a culture-oriented nation or a dignified society can’t be accomplished overnight. It is timely that the Korean Publishing Culture Association has just launched a year-round campaign to make “2006 A Year of Reading,” and posted a huge placard outside its office building reading, “Reading Makes You Happy!”
It is time for the government to provide the social infrastructure necessary to enhance the happiness of the people by promoting a large-scale public library building plan.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at the Graduate School of Environmental Studies, Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jun Sang-in
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