The National Library of Korea


A review of the National Library of Korea.

The National Library of Korea (국립중앙도서관) hosts a sprawling collection of historical materials, relevant to scholars of premodern and modern eras of Korean history/literature. The library also opens a wonderful, sun-lit area for writing. And to make the list complete—it is also located nearby one of Seoul’s most acclaimed gastronomic areas, Sorae maeul. I have only used the collection of rare books in the Classics Room, on which this review will focus in greater detail.

Accessing the Library

National Library of Korea can be conveniently accessed from subway line 2 at Seocho (서초역) station, or lines 3, 6, and 9 from the Express Bus Terminal Station (고속버스터미널역).  In order to gain access to the building, one is required to complete a simple registration procedure on the B1 level of the library’s digital wing (디지털 도서관). Importantly, an alien registration card or Korean national ID (외국인등록증/주민등록증) is requisite for the registration. The library issues two types of pass—a daily pass and an unlimited pass. If you plan to continue using the library, the permanent pass is a better idea: it has no expiration date and is issued by a simple request, without any more complicated procedure involved. The library is open 9am-6pm Monday through Sunday. The closing days are national holidays and the second and fourth Mondays of each month. The main building has designated “late-night” areas (야간도서관) that are open 6pm-10pm. To enter the library, you must deposit all your bags in electronic lockers accessible with your library card/ID; the library provides clear plastic bags, which you can use to carry things that you need inside.

The library has a restaurant with economically priced, canteen-style Korean dishes. It must be noted that the food here is better than the infamous (in my opinion!) canteens on the university campuses. There is also a convenience store that carries simple stationery supplies and a variety of snacks/ready-to-eat food.

Accessing the Library Resources

Apart from its archival collections (of which I will write shortly), National Library offers free wi-fi, computers, and general book collections. In order to use the wi-fi one has to log into the system with the password and ID created upon library registration. General book collection is also accessible online. You can request up to six books per day for in-library use. Simply put your request into the online system and the staff will make the books available for check out during the library working hours. Some of the books are located not in the stacks, but in the reading rooms, in which case you can simply find the needed reading room and use the book there, which allows you to bypass the six-volume daily quota.

The library’s digital wing has a number of computers and printers. These can be reserved for daily use at the computer terminals located on the same floor (B1 level). You can use printers by adding some money into your account, which is done on the same floor—cash and credit cards can be used at the vending machines, or this can be handled by the staff, who then refill your balance. Beware! If you reserve a computer and use it for only, say, 15 minutes without terminating your reservation window, which, I believe, runs for two hours, you will be “fined” upon your next use, receiving a shorter reservation window. The digital wing is also a very writing-friendly place, featuring a room for laptop computer use. The room is something of a glass dome, with high-ceiling, airy, sunlit space. I found it one of the best places in Seoul for my own dissertation writing. Laptop spaces need not be reserved and you can simply arrive and take the spot you like. Generally, there are spaces available throughout the entire day, though I found that the library became a lot busier during the university winter break, which in Korea runs from late December to March 1.

The Classics Collection

The Classics or Rare Books Collection (고전운영실) is located on the 6th floor of the library’s main building. The opening hours are 9am—6pm, but materials must be ordered by 5pm at the latest. If you know which book you are trying to find, you can locate it in the online library catalog (, but if you simply want to browse through the collection—this is difficult, and I heard from other patrons that they encountered a similar problem when trying to access other collections. The library website does not offer thematic ordering of the materials, but there are  printed catalogs, such as <선본해제 11. 소설류> (2009), which can be found in the Classics Room itself. Ideally, rare book requests are placed through the online system and take three days to complete. If the book you are looking for is available in an electronic version (many books are scanned and can be viewed inside the library in the designated computer area), it might be difficult to access the original copy. Part of my research deals with marginalia and calligraphy, therefore it was imperative for me to see the original copy, since the reverse sides of the leaves, and cover page scribbles are not usually included in the facsimile versions. As with other libraries, it took some eloquence and conviction to persuade the librarian to let me have the actual copy—I therefore on purpose went to order the book in person, rather than placing an online request, which could be easily denied without explanation. In three days, I had the desired volumes, and was allowed to take pictures of them—whether the permission to photograph was granted in accordance with the institutional policy or due to the good graces of the librarian in charge, I do not know. In my experience, it is always a good idea to win the librarian’s favor, as their knowledge and willingness to cooperate are often life saving. As far as the copyright is concerned, when using the images in research publications, it is enough to record the source, i.e., the National Library of Korea.

There is an amusing side story to the Classics Room: the place is frequented by a rather sizable population of elderly gentlemen who eagerly peruse genealogies of various lineages. As a TV documentary of a few years ago has relayed, it appears that it is somewhat of a popular pastime among the older generation to research their own families’ genealogical connections. These patrons are usually quite absorbed in their own work, often exchanging comments with each other and sometimes even entering lively discussions on particularly perplexing cases; they also keep an eye on the newcomers, and often get intrigued by the work you are doing. Therefore, be prepared to answer various questions—about your research, Korean proficiency, and whatever else might appear curious!

The Area

Sorae maeul, known for its shops, restaurants, and wine bars, is located just down the hill from the National Library. The area is quite pricey, perhaps even slightly pretentious, but many of the restaurants have lunch specials, and overall there is quite a good choice of food options, should you choose to reward your day’s work with a nice lunch or coffee. Brooklyn The Burger Joint usually has a line around lunch time—their burgers are decent and their Nutella Burnt Marshmallow milkshake warrants a try. Contran Cherrier is a French bakery with nice pastries, sandwiches, and cappuccinos. Finally, Sutpul (숮불) is a Korean restaurant that offers thoughtful and somewhat interesting lunch specials (vegetarian, meat, and fish) of traditional Korean dishes. There are also a bunch of cute shops and cafes, welcoming an afternoon stroll on good-weather days.

Ksenia Chizhova
Columbia University

Image: Courtesy of

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