[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]Library head wants books a click away

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[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]Library head wants books a click away

Imagine being able to have any book you wanted delivered to your local library through just the click of a mouse. And when you’d finished reading the book, you could drop it off at any library on your way to or from work.
If the National Library of Korea’s Small Library Aid plan goes according to schedule, Koreans will be able to do just this in a couple of years. By that time, said Kwon Kyung-sang, the chief executive director of the National Library of Korea, local libraries across the country will be built or renovated and connected from 2008 onward.
The 72nd World Library and Information Congress, which Seoul is hosting this year from last Sunday through Thursday at the COEX Center in southern Seoul, is a chance for Korea to show how it is boosting its library operations with new technology, and for librarians and information experts from around the world to further develop global networks.
The meeting drew some 5,000 librarians, scholars and technology experts from 150 countries to discuss digitalization of libraries, research of rare historic documents and copyright issues.
The JoongAng Daily spoke with Mr. Kwon, who will also host a meeting today for the heads of the national libraries from the participating countries.

Q. The theme for this year’s congress is that libraries should be “dynamic engines” for the knowledge and information society. How well do you think Korean libraries are fulfilling this role?
A. I am afraid to say that public libraries in Korea are not capable of playing the pivotal role yet in leading an information society. This is partly because only a small minority of people were found to use libraries here, while up to 70 percent of the populations of fully developed countries considered libraries as a natural part of their lifestyle. Of course, the main reason is that we have such a small number of libraries compared to the developed countries we usually compare ourselves with.

Does this mean Korea is not yet ready to house the “21st century-type library” that is the theme of the congress?
Over the past few years, the IT infrastructure in Korea has developed remarkably and we have converted most of our information resources into digitalized form. This means that in the digital world, our libraries are not falling behind. For example, the digital resources accumulated by the National Library of Korea so far would run to100 million pages if they were written in book form. This is more than twice the amount all national libraries in European countries have so far accumulated in their digital resources.

Tell us about your Small Library Aid plan.
Small libraries can be newly built or remodeled from old town halls or store buildings. They should be no larger than 165 square meters (1,779 square feet) and they should be located close to residential areas so that we can create an environment where a library is no more than a 10-minute walk away. Small libraries can either be private or public. It’s up to the community to decide how they want to run their library. So far, 3.6 billion won ($3.8 million) from lottery funds and 1.4 billion won from provincial funds has been set aside to create 50 small libraries by end of this year. By 2008, there will be 190 operating.

The National Digital Library is also scheduled to be up and running in 2008. What benefits can the public expect from this library?
No other national libraries in the world have yet built a library exclusively for digital resources. The digital library will significantly narrow down the information gap, as it will allow anyone to access the national library’s 330,000 books from their own homes. Along with its information service, the digital library building will have [a section where] visitors can enjoy using various state-of-the-art digital gadgets for learning.

Despite Korea’s highly competitive education system, the current state of public libraries in Korea is generally poor. Why do you think this is?
As I’ve mentioned, there are too few public libraries. There is one public library for every 93,000 people [in Korea], while the United States has one for every 31,000 and Japan, one for every 12,000. We also don’t have enough books.
The Korean government’s goal is to build more public libraries so that by 2011, each one serves no more than 50,000. And under the Small Library Aid plan, 15 billion won has been set aside to help each town and district have a small library of their own.

There have reportedly been some problems in carrying out library-related policies because several ministries oversee public libraries, which often results in confusion.
That’s right. The Ministry of Culture mainly oversees public libraries, while the home affairs and education ministries carry out the policies. Public libraries have been complaining a lot, and people are starting to take notice. So a presidential committee has been proposed to tackle such problems. We are hoping that by end of the year, a bill including a provision to set up a committee will pass the National Assembly.

You are a professional in the field of tourism. On the flip side, you don’t seem to have specialized in library science. What makes you a good chief of the National Library of Korea?
In leading hospital management, it is more important that the head of a general hospital is a good chief executive office than a good doctor. The National Library of Korea establishes and works out the main policies related to libraries nationwide. I think it is more important that the leader has a better business mind.

What is your definition of a good library?
I respect S.R. Ranganathan, the father of library science in India. He proposed five laws of library science and I agree with his ideas. A library that remembers the five laws should be a good library. They are: One, books are there to be used. Two, every reader has his or her book. Three, Every book has its reader. Four, save time for the reader. And five, the library is a growing organism.

by Lee Min-a
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