Children’s libraries: Small places for small readers
A group of children with books in their hands sat squeezed together around a round table. A boy, four years old at most, stood next to a bookshelf sifting through a storybook, while another baby girl, barely old enough to sit up, had plopped down on the floor holding a picture book between her chubby hands.
Maybe it was because the Mal-geunsaem (meaning Clear Spring) Children’s Library was the only place within several kilometers of this low-end part of the city where children can go during the daytime.
But more interestingly, children took their shoes off before they came inside, as if they were entering a person’s home. First a girl kicked off her sandals, then the boy who came next took off his shoes, carefully placing them by the front door before going straight to the bookshelves.
The library was once the home of Shin Bok-su, a woman in her 40s. In 2003, she decided to open her house to the children in the neighborhood.
“She doesn’t live here anymore, but it was a good decision for her to turn her place into a library,” said Lee Hui-su, a volunteer worker at the Malgeunsaem Children’s Library.
According to Ms. Lee, Ms. Shin used to run a children’s bookstore in Incheon until she realized the business would never earn her any money. She quit running the bookstore, but didn’t know what to do with all the books left in the storehouse. So she decided she might as well donate them for the sake of doing something good for her young customers.
Ms. Shin now runs a vegetarian restaurant chain in Incheon.
“Parents loved it when it opened,” Ms. Lee said. They sure did: They liked the idea so much many offered to help run the library.
The house was soon remodeled to appeal more to children. The exterior was repainted pale green. The rooms got new wooden floors and were filled with bookshelves, tables and cushions. The first floor was turned into a reading room and the second floor into a space where children can rest or play. Roses were planted in the front yard and persimmon trees in the back. Then a wooden sign reading “Malgeunsaem Children’s Library” was hung on the door, and suddenly Cheongcheon-dong had its first children’s library.
“It’s a valuable job, doing something for the neighborhood,” said Kim Mi-hye, a volunteer mother and a writer of children’s poetry who drops by Malgeunsaem twice a week to read stories to children.
Kim Jae-yeong, 8, was one of 50 or so children who visit Malgeunsaem every day.
She said she liked coming to Malgeunsaem because it was nice for a quiet reading. “I ask my mom to drop me off here after school,” she said.
“Malgeunsaem serves as a good example for other small libraries,” said Kim Yu-ri, a member of Citizen Action for Reading Culture, an organization that provides money for small private libraries. Malgeunsaem was one of the 49 private libraries last year that received 3 million won ($3,200) in financial support from the organization after it applied for its program.
The “small libraries,” as the organization defines them, must be smaller than 264 square meters (2,847 square feet) but larger than 33 square meters and have more than 1,000 books. Most are unregistered and therefore left out from the benefits the government gives to bigger libraries.
Shin Dong-seok, the general secretary at the Korea Private Library Association, said there has been a continuous increase in the number of small libraries run by volunteers.
“Out of the non-profit small libraries, about 80 percent are run by mothers,” said Mr. Shin. “They start simply hoping that their own children read more, but later they end up making a library.”
The association estimates that there are about 60 such libraries. Many of them are actually no larger than a spacious living room, filled with books.
Even if the mother can’t use her own home for a library, she can always find someplace else.
For instance, mothers in Neongkul Children’s Library in Gwangmyeong, southwest of Seoul, insisted that they needed to have a place for their children to read. The public library was too far away from their neighborhood, but there was no other place where children could freely come and go to read.
So they went to a nearby church whose pastor at first refused to let the mothers use the place as a library.
The mothers, however, insisted, and eventually persuaded the pastor to let them run the church as a children’s library on weekdays.
Small children’s libraries in and around Seoul
Near Bupyeong station, line No. 1.
Offers pottery, puppet-making classes and show video productions.
Neongkul (Vines) Children’s Library in Gwangmyeong, Gyeonggi province.
Seven mothers take turns making lunches. Their specialty: dumplings and tea.
Chaekirang (With Books) Children’s Library in Seongnam, Gyeonggi province.
Located inside the Mission of the Benedictine Sisters. For 30,000 won a year, children can participate in field trips, art classes and history studies.
Pureunggum (Blue Dreams) Children’s Library in Ilsan, Gyeonggi province.
This library has over 6,000 children’s books, along with 800 more for advanced readers.
Jakeunki Namu (Small Tree) Children’s Library in Pyeongchon, Gyeonggi province.
Near Beomgye station, line No. 4.
Mothers read storybooks every day from 10:30 a.m. to noon.
by Lee Min-a
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