Inside the first library of Korea University, established in 1937, is a three-story section for books in classical Chinese. This is the Hanjeoksil. Boasting the second highest number of volumes after Seoul National University’s Kyujangak, the Hanjeoksil is renowned for the quality of its materials incomparable to any private university library in Korea.
According to Han Min Sub, Assistant Manager of the Reader’s Services Department and the man in charge of Hanjeoksil, the special section stores one National Treasure and nine pieces of Treasure, including the Yonggahmsukyung, a Liao Dynasty-era dictionary of Chinese characters written in 997 by a Buddhist monk named Haeng Gyun, the Samgukyusah and the Yongbieochunga. Including a number of valuable Western writings on Korea published from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, its 120,000-plus collection also includes a large number of books categorized as precious materials. Another of the special qualities of Hanjeoksil is its use of kyungsahjajib (經史子集), the traditional Asian library classification scheme rather than the modern standard system. The use of this traditional system adds to the solemn aura of this house of classical intellectualism. Nevertheless, not everyone can partake in the aura; only the first floor, which is connected to the Graduate School Library is open to viewers. Access, though limited as it is, can be granted through advance application.
▲The isothermal-isohumidity room for the preservation of precious in the Hanjeoksil. There is room for only about 6,000 precious books.
Patterns of Wisdom and the Vestiges of History in Pages
The Hanjeokshil can be reached by walking up antique marble stairs. Stepping through the entrance into its second floor, one can see an old shutter for preventing theft and arson, and still older windows that can be opened and closed by turning levers. The KU Library has focused on maintenance rather than renovation.
The majority of the books in classical Chinese have been hardcased and moved to the new wing of the Main Library. The remaining books are mostly thread-bound. In a corner lies an eye-catching metal shelf. Indented into the wall since the foundation of the entire building in 1937, it is designed to protect the books from inevitable occurrences such as earthquakes.
On one side of the narrow aisle stand exotic shelves made of rare logs for the collections of eight donors. Introduced since the library building extension in the 1960s, the donors’ collections now feature a group of over 17,000 old books donated by Mahnsong Kim Wansub since 1975 and by Yukdang Choe Namsun in February 1968.
On the third floor are Dr. Go Jinbok’s collection Gongryang mungo and periodicals archived in a separate room. The wit of Sahmchunri magazine can be read in its first issue printed in 1929. In the title page of Ulleungdo, Chungma Yoo Chiwhan’s book of poems describing his love for his nation and its people, is inscribed “Dear Jihoon, From Chungma,” indicating that he gifted this copy to the poet Cho Jihoon. When read and interpreted against the background of their cultural history, the old classical Chinese characters bloom into life beyond the pages.
▲Mr. Park Sang Ho processes a book in the Hanjeoksil
▲Assistant Manager Han Min Sub looks around the Reserved Section
Duty to Preserve the Priceless Legacies
The invaluable materials need appropriate temperature and humidity in order to survive time. The isothermal-isohumidity room in one of the deepest corners of the Hanjeoksil maintains a temperature of 25 Celsius degrees and humidity index of 45%. But only 6,000 precious books are conserved in the room due to the limited space. Apart from the (National) Treasures, only ones that are as old as the Imjin War of 1592 and ones of which KU has the sole copies are qualified to be restored in the airconditioned room.
Each book is hard-cased and placed on shelves made of high-quality paulownia tree. The collection also includes old maps, scrolls and even paintings. Wangsejaiphakdocheop, for instance, depicts in a series of six canvases Hyomyeong Seja, the son of King Soonjo, attending the matriculation ceremony of Sungkyunkwan (the only national college-level educational institution in the Joseon Dynasty). Portrayed in stunning detail, each individual on all the canvases has a distinct face and posture. Such beauty of what is left to us is thanks to the sturdy hanji paper resistant to time and the Reserved Section of KU Library that all materials, not only the 6,000 privileged ones in the Hanjeoksil deserve.
Fortunately, books that cannot be fit in the Reserved Section can also be given longer life. Mr. Park Sang Ho processes them page by page for their preservation using the method of baejeop or book-backing. He first coats each page of a book with a piece of paper, patch or wooden board. If a book is contaminated or damaged, he dissects it into pages and wet- or dry-cleans them before binding them with a new hard spine-like cover. Once properly dried, the book is now reborn. But more is to be done for what deserves to be passed onto the generations to come. The inspirations and stories that can be unfolded in the future depend on our hands in the present.