Housewives add organizational oomph to libraries

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Housewives add organizational oomph to libraries


The Gwangjin Digital Library in northeastern Seoul is a relaxed place with a pleasant view of the Han River, but it hosts heated debates. Argument, it seems, is the natural state of existence for the nine housewives who volunteer as part of Gwanggin Library Friends, a club to support the library.
The debates are not mere book discussions, however. The recent topic of conversation was how to prepare for a lecture by Lee Tae-Jin, a professor of Korean history at Seoul National University.
The club is typical of a growing phenomenon of housewives actively supporting local libraries. Rather than merely carrying library cards, the members get involved in the operation and management of the library. Gwangjin Library Friends was created last September by 17 housewives who frequently use the facility, located in Gwangjang-dong.
Once a month, the members select a book and talk about their impressions of it, what they call a “one book reading campaign.” The book for this month was Mr. Lee’s “Korean History for University of Tokyo Students.” The club members, who were deeply moved by the author’s reinterpretation of the role of King Gojong during the end of Joseon Dynasty, invited Mr. Lee to give a lecture at the library. The professor seemed touched by the offer ― he insisted on giving the lecture for free.
Now the question up for debate was how best to host the lecture. One member, Song Seon-gyeong, suggested putting up posters in 10 apartment buildings to attract as many people as possible, an idea that was quickly seconded. Others offered to guide Mr. Lee to the library from the station. Another woman suggested that the club buy 100 copies of Mr. Lee’s book and resell them at bargain prices.
The club’s leading figure is Yeo Hui-suk, a former elementary teacher who now gives lectures on books. After they took a crash course on library and information studies offered by Kim Young-suk, a Myongji University professor, the members launched a campaign urging more people to use public libraries. The club now comprises 130 people, mostly housewives, but also a few husbands have signed on.
The members went to publishing companies to ask for book donations and twice held a bazaar to raise money. With that, the members spent 3 million won ($3,157) buying curtains to help reflect light around the library, desks and other items. That was a boon to the library, which runs on a tight budget. This year, the members are handling public relations for the lectures held every third Monday, inviting lecturers and helping in the library’s routine management. For the election on May 31, the members sent out questionnaires to local candidates about library funding and are now planning to see how the ward assembly handles the budget in October.
One member, Shin Hye-gyeong, 40, from Gueui-dong, Seoul, said, “Before joining the library friends gathering, I thought the library was used simply for borrowing and reading books, but after my involvement as a member, my cultural life and reading habits noticeably changed.”
The library, understandably, is thrilled with its volunteers. Its director, Oh Ji-eun, said, “It is a great help for us that the citizens come out and help the operation of the library when its budget isn’t enough to provide much for the people.”
As the Gwangjin library club became widely known, similar clubs have been formed. Dongdaemun Digital Library, which was established in late June, already has a 12-member club, Library Friends. The Gwacheon Public Library of Information and Science is also planning to mobilize the housewives in the neighborhood.
“There are thousands of [similar groups] in America, where groups of town citizens get involved to help public libraries,” said Kim Young-suk, the professor at Myongji. “The significance of this group is that citizens are volunteering to be in charge of matters that the public library cannot handle in the public sphere.”

by Shin June-bong
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