By Choi Yearn-hong
WASHINGTON D.C. —The month of April is a celebratory time for the literary arts. Not only is April National Poetry Month, but April 9-15 is also National Library Week. In celebration of the latter, my local County Board of Supervisors held a proclamation ceremony, inviting the Board of Public Library Trustees. The supervisors praised the virtues of the library services to its citizens and reflected on how beneficial libraries were in their own lives.
When I was young, I had no concept of a "public library." Seoul had one national library, and Jongro-gu has its own small district library. Yonsei University had its Central Library, where I and my friends at the university spent most of our time and where my fondest memories during university usually took place. Between classes, I spent time there, reading newspapers and other periodicals.
In the United States, Indiana University Library was my favorite spot outside of my classroom and the departmental library. I worked at the library for 10 to 15 hours weekly to earn some income. The Book Review Digest, an annual anthology of book reviews, located in the reference room of the library, was my best friend, because it had almost all reviews of published books from the 1960s and early 1970s. I did not have time to read all the assigned books, so I oftentimes ran to the reference room to read the short reviews of the books I had to read. I learned quickly about economizing time during my graduate school work.
I also spent most of my life in college libraries during my teaching career. And even after retiring as a university professor, I continued to spend a significant amount of time in my local public library and take advantage of the ability to renew books if I didn't have a chance to finish reading them within the initial three-week checkout period.
The library is my main source of information as I continue to pursue my research efforts. The libraries operated by local governments provide various services to all citizens. Libraries are democratic and welcome all citizens. Libraries are more than just books, films, videos and CDs;they are now also equipped with 3D printing facilities. Community libraries each have 50,000 educational items, while regional libraries have 100,000 items. Libraries are open seven days a week, from 10a.m. to 9p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Unfortunately,despite citizens' demand for longer library hours, libraries face budget cuts and revenue shortfalls that prompt themt o cut library services.
With my library card, I can access online research materials from my home computer. As a research scholar of the East Sea and Ieodo, I spent one to two hours daily in the library, reading about the related sea territorial disputes in major American daily newspapers and academic journals in order to update my knowledge on all sea affairs. So my library card is my most valuable asset, more important than the many Visa cards in my wallet.
Last year, my district supervisor appointed me to the Library Board of Trustees, and I accepted the civic duty as an honor. This role has also brought mean unexpected honor during Library Week, when I was asked to make a congratulatory speech to the volunteers and friends of libraries in my district.
Some volunteers have dedicated 1,000 hours,2,000 hours,3,000 hours and even15,000 hours to libraries during their lifetimes. The libraries are run so well thanks to all the faithful volunteers in the community. An 86-year old man has committed 15,000 hours to helping libraries since 1996. Admirable! The library has seemingly made him a good-looking old man.
After the award ceremony, the library director praised all the members of the board of trustees and the volunteers, and asked me to read one poem by Emily Dickinson, "There is No Frigate Like a Book," for the meeting:
"There is no Frigate Like a Book"
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Courses like a Page
Of Prancing Poetry—
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.
The director recognized me as a poet and conferred to me that honor. That was the best reward I could ever receive for my civic duty as a member of the board of trustees.
I know my home country has had remarkable progress in its public library systems, which now offer many services to the Korean people. Investments in public libraries will bring a high return, not necessarily in monetary terms, but in spiritual and cultural terms. Books are inexpensive, but they nurture young and old people's minds. So investments in public libraries are one of the best, if not the best, investments.
I hope that someday, Korea will hold its own Library Week at the national and local levels. The library should be a community center for social and cultural changes. After all, who we are is what we read.
Dr. Choi is a Washington D.C.-based poet and writer.