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Libraries in N. Korea (2)

# Inside North Korea l 2021-04-01

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

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We’re living in the fourth industrial revolution era, where advanced technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things are found in daily life. In line with the remarkable change, the role of libraries is also evolving. We wonder if that is also the case in North Korea. 

Last week, we examined the history of North Korean libraries, including the Grand People’s Study House. Today, we’ll talk about the technological evolution in North Korean libraries. First, lawyer Oh Hyun-jong explains different kinds of libraries in the North. 

It is reported that North Korea had 15-thousand libraries and reading rooms as of 1992. It’s hard to confirm the exact number, but it is true that North Korea is greatly interested in libraries. Library construction is actually included in the country’s economic development plans. 

In North Korea, there are public libraries and science libraries. Public libraries are classified into libraries for adults and those for students, while science libraries are categorized into general ones and special ones. For example, the science library of Kim Il-sung University is considered to be the general science library, and science libraries at research institutes belong to special ones. 

In South Korea, there is the Korean Library Association. A similar organization is also found in the North. In South Korea, specimen copies of all printed books should be presented to the National Assembly Library and the National Library of Korea. Similarly, North Korea stores books in a separate, state-run place.

South Korea introduced the Libraries Act in 1963, while North Korea enacted the Library Law in 1998. The legislation in the North came rather late, considering the country’s keen interest in libraries. 

Under the law, North Korea calls librarians library workers. Library workers are required to pass the librarian certification exam. Even after passing the exam, they should receive education on a regular basis to maintain their qualification. 

North Korea administers the librarian certification exam every year and classifies librarians into six different grades. Grade 1 librarians should know three different languages and they should be able to provide relevant references to doctors and professors. Grade 2 and 3 librarians should acquire three and two languages, respectively. Among people who have grade 5 or 6, those with over three years of hands-on experience are qualified for grade 4. Graduates from four-year or five-year universities can obtain grade 5, while grade 6 is given to those with over three years of experience after graduating from high school or graduates from two-year colleges. Like this, North Korea classifies librarians based on many different grades and manages their qualifications strictly. Apart from the grades, some librarians are given the title “meritorious” or “people’s.” “Meritorious librarians” are those who have worked at the Grand People’s Study House for more than 15 years, and those with over 20 years of experience are called “people’s librarians.” 

Libraries in South and North Korea are slightly different. While South Korea installs libraries in consideration of the number of people, North Korea does so based on the number of books. The two sides also differ in the way of operating libraries, such as how to classify books. 

South Korean libraries allow users to freely browse books. Many libraries in the North, on the other hand, do not open book stacks to the public. Users have to go through a certain procedure before reading books. Until the early 2000s, books at North Korean libraries were classified into three categories: “open,” “semi-open” and “not open,” depending on how much outside information the books contained. People were allowed to read “semi-open” books only in designated places at the libraries, while those who wanted to read books under the “not open” category were required to get approval from the secretary of the party committee. 

South Korean libraries use the decimal classification table. North Korea also uses the same book cataloguing method, but public libraries for adults and students are known to make and use their own classification table. Notably, books related to Marxism-Leninism and those written by North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung are stored in separate categories. 

In line with the social change in the fourth industrial revolution era, libraries are going digital. North Korea has also been enthusiastic about electronic libraries since the 2000s, when the country pledged to rebuild the economy based on advanced science and technology and the digital economy. 

North Korea’s first digital library opened at Kim Chaek University of Technology in January 2006. Timed with the opening, North Korea released a science film entitled “Digital Library” to provide detailed information about how to use e-libraries. The government also called for all workers to learn about digital libraries to build and use the database more effectively in their workplaces. E-libraries have since been built in major universities and cities in each province. Around 2010, North Korea had many digital libraries, including new and renovated ones equipped with modern facilities. The digital libraries in local regions built their own databases to share data with various institutions, universities and enterprises nationwide, using the nation’s internal intranet system. Through the digital libraries that connect the central city and local regions, users can find the latest information about science and technology, regardless of time. 

North Korea is turning all libraries into electronic ones to build a key base for its science and technology network. With leader Kim Jong-un showing special interest in e-libraries, the North opened a new type of digital library named the Sci-Tech Complex in 2016. It is expected to even replace the Grand People’s Study House, which is at the center of the country’s library system. 

Located on Ssuk Island across the Mirae Scientists Street in Pyongyang, the large atom-shaped building with a floor area of 100-thousand square meters is a multiplex cultural space that serves as an e-library, an archive and an exhibition hall. 

Leader Kim Jong-un reportedly called for the Sci-Tech Complex to play its primary role as an e-library. According to North Korean media, the leader stressed that the new digital library, just like the Grand People’s Study House, should be open to every local citizen hoping to learn science and technology. The Sci-Tech Complex is said to have a 43-terabyte database that stores 138 million records. 

It is widely believed that North Korean people find it difficult to secure foreign data about science and technology due to various restrictions. But the Sci-Tech Complex has built a database about the latest achievements in science and technology both inside and outside the country so locals can access the information there. Also, North Korea has set up a nationwide science and technology distribution network by connecting the Sci-Tech Complex with digital libraries at schools, as well as science and technology institutes at factories and enterprises, through the national computer network. As a result, people can access the database at the Sci-Tech Complex without having to visit the library. They can also use the library’s service that searches for data about science and technology and ask scientists questions through text or voice messages and videos.

Libraries are considered to be key social infrastructure to lead a knowledge information society. Many libraries around the world have promoted communication and exchanges with one another. We hope libraries in South and North Korea will also be able to share and exchange their data in the very near future. 

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