Facing the digital age, libraries are increasingly pressed to stretch beyond their traditional role to offer more user-friendly and versatile functions, said Lim Won-sun, chief executive of the National Library of Korea.
“Basically, we want to run a service that actively approaches (readers). Up to now, libraries’ role had been to collect and organize information for people to seek out,” Lim told The Korea Herald. “We want to approach people and say, ‘Don’t you need this (information)? I think this may be of interest to you.’”
The NLK, founded in 1945, is a state-run repository that collects and organizes digital and paper documents in Korea for all citizens. It boasts a collection of more than 9.2 million offline and online documents.
But in an age when so much data is produced and circulated online, it is difficult to define what the role of libraries should be, admits Lim.
He said libraries should seek a variety of ways to fulfill their duties and help people look for information.
“There are some people against the (extended function of libraries), but I’m sure they’re just old-fashioned,” Lim said.
Following are excerpts from the interview.
Q: What is the role of the National Library of Korea in the digital age?
A: Each country has libraries that represent it, and it is their (libraries’) duty to collect intellectual resources created within those countries’ boundaries. It is a responsibility shared by no other library in the state.
For this duty, we have a repository system. We also have the right to collect digital data as well. Through the repository system, we are obligated to comprehensively gather and preserve meaningful resources in our country.
In the case of digitization, much (of our role) is still changing. It is related to digital resources provided outside (of the library). Whether is e-books or e-journals, a considerable amount of the intellectual resources which had existed in print form are now provided digitally.
As we are obligated to collect, preserve and provide such resources, our role must change depending on how such duty is carried out online.
Q: What is the incentive of retaining an actual library when all data is digitized and do not need physical space to obtain information?
A: Some people say, “Well, you only need the server and the network.” They do not consider the complications such as libraries’ relationship with publishers and what libraries actually do. If all the resources are digitized and provided to everyone, publishers and content creators do not have an incentive to create the products.
Libraries carry out the role of a mediator of information.
The pressing matter is that we need to define the areas that are covered by libraries (as opposed to private companies). For example, a company can run an e-book reader service such as Kyobo Book Center’s “Sam.” What would happen if a library runs an identical service?
We need to draw a line between what libraries do and private companies do. There is still data that cannot be accessed anywhere else, and people still come to libraries to seek such information.
Q: Libraries are extending their roles beyond the traditional function of storing books. What is your opinion on the extended functions of libraries?
A: Public libraries basically serve local residents. Of course, books and other materials are at the center of such services, but there is no need to be restricted to the boundaries of the materials.
A user might have a demand related to a book, but it does not necessarily mean that he or she has to borrow the book from a library. One can take part in numerous events, such as a meeting with the author, book studies and even debate programs.
The key thing (for libraries) is to provide a place to share intellectual resources.
Q: What steps is the NLK taking to approach readers?
A: Up to now, there had been libraries for legislators and for the judicial branch: the National Assembly Library and the Supreme Court Library of Korea.
There had been no such service for the executive branch. Of course, there are research institutes for government bodies such as Korea Development Institute. But from the perspective of library services, it had been virtually nonexistent.
We are setting out to change the situation: Let’s at least allow public servants to search and read academic journals without having to visit the library. And as part of that service, if a user preselects the type of journals that he or she is interested in, we can send an email containing the table of contents of the latest edition of the journal.
That way one can keep an eye on the latest trends.
Such service is the first of its kind. It is being beta-tested and is expected to kick off in December.
Q: What is the NLK’s take on libraries trying to boost accessibility for users, such as the “Small Library” program operated by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, to promote reading among citizens?
A: The focus of the Small Library program is to supply libraries close to the everyday lives of citizens. There is, however, a need to take a differentiated approach to people living in cities and in rural areas.
If you consider library-to-population ratio, there are actually an ample number of libraries in rural areas. Cities, on the other hand, have a lot more libraries but have to provide services to a much larger number of users. In heavily populated areas, we need to build many more small libraries.
But you can’t simply make tons of libraries in rural areas. There are few options to compensate for geographical distances (between libraries) in rural areas. If you try to build that many libraries, it is very difficult to operate them.
My opinion is that in such areas, we need a different approach, such as designating libraries in local schools as public libraries and opening them to the general public.
There is also a problem of being unable to procure enough librarians. The “sun-hoi sa-seo” (rotational librarian) system ― which has professional librarians who regularly visit small libraries in their assigned region ― allows small libraries to cope with this problem.
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com