Korean Academic Librarianship: An Update

While preparing for my first trip to South Korea, I reached out to Korean academic library colleagues and was able to set-up tours of two university libraries – Yonsei and Seoul National.  Those library visits were focused on collections, space design, and how the students used spaces for academic and social purposes. 

When I returned to Seoul in 2012 for a fall vacation, I continued my “library nerding,” snagging tours with Ewha Womens University and Korea University (Goryo University) libraries. By this time, I’d started thinking about academic library practice, and my Korea University guide took some time to sit with me and answer a few questions. During our talk, he mentioned “our jobs are the same.” But I really wondered, “Are they?” This question led to my first phenomenological study, which I implemented with a third visit to Seoul in 2013 and published in 2014.

Late last year, I attended a Korean webinar sponsored by ACRL International Perspectives and co-promoted by the Korean American Librarians & Information Professionals Association (KALIPA). Two Korean librarians working in Seoul (Yujin Hong, Kyung Hee University; Minsun Kim, Sogang University) and one Korean librarian working in the United States (Seangill Peter Bae, Princeton University) offered an update on the practice and development of Korean academic librarianship. 

I wanted to know if anything had changed since I talked with my eleven research participants. In 2013, Korean academic librarians were very concerned about labor laws for temporary workers, which make it difficult to hire permanent librarians. In Korea, the current “Irregular Workers Law” dictates that a organization must make a temporary worker a permanent employee after two years – the law was created to stimulate growth, but de facto application has resulted in organizations letting temporary workers go after this two year period to avoid the expense of benefits, etc. This means high turnover in libraries. 

UPDATE: One librarian noted that there are more temporary workers than permanent librarians at her workplace. Another noted continuing librarian attrition (e.g., when librarians leave, new people are not hired to replace them).

In 2013, Korean academic librarians were also concerned about library leadership. In Korea, the head of the library is often an administrator from another academic department. Imagine in the United States, if for two years, the head of the College of Business was the library director. Then after two years, it was the Dean of the Communications College…then two years after that, the Dean of the College of Science. How would the library (not) develop?  Moreover, consider that Korean librarians face the same stereotypes of their western counterparts – specifically, no one really knows a) what librarians do, in application, b) how librarians do what they do and c) how these functions affect seriously issues of scholarship, student retention, and student success on campuses. 

UPDATE: This structure is still in place, which means that librarians find it difficult to plan effectively and advocate for their profession and their users.

Other continuing concerns included:

  • Being able to keep up with budgets for resources – this wasn’t covered explicitly in my study, but when libraries purchase materials from other countries, they have to consider the weight of their currency against the vendors’ home currency – and this often places non-Western countries at a financial disadvantage. This group reported difficulty in keeping pace with resource pricing/publishing rates and noted they are purchasing more electronic books.
  • Maintaining professional relationships and being professionally engaged internationally and including their North Korean colleagues, with whom they insist on recognizing the common values of information sharing and collaboration as much as is politically and humanely possible, historic and current tensions non-withstanding.

Korean librarians are intent on showing value on their campuses, and I really enjoyed hearing from our South Korean colleagues’ continuing efforts to professionalize the field and meet their users’ needs in what is an extremely dynamic culture and nation.

If you’d like to see photos of my Korean academic library visits, click the following links.



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