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University of Pittsburgh

June 23, 2011

East Asian Library expands North Korean collection

Pitt’s East Asian Library is strengthening its position as a resource for scholars of North Korea by expanding its collection of journals, books, textbooks and videos from North Korea. The library recently received its fifth delivery of materials acquired through an agreement with a Chinese university near the North Korean border.

Pitt’s Chinese collection, established in 1960, was renamed the East Asian Library five years later so it could include materials in Japanese. The Korean language materials, which have been added since 2004, are the most recent expansion of the East Asian Library collection.

Hong Xu, head of the East Asian Library, left, and Xiuying Zou, a public services librarian in the East Asian Library, look over a North Korean journal that has been acquired for the collection. The library is expanding its holdings of North Korean books, journals, textbooks and videos.

Hong Xu, head of the East Asian Library, left, and Xiuying Zou, a public services librarian in the East Asian Library, look over a North Korean journal that has been acquired for the collection. The library is expanding its holdings of North Korean books, journals, textbooks and videos.

Hong Xu, head of the East Asian Library, began developing the collection in 2003. Although Pitt previously had received gifts of Korean language materials, it had not formulated its plan for collecting them systematically prior to that time, she said.

Pitt’s Korean collection ranked No. 19 in North America as of June 2010, with nearly 13,000 volumes and 130 journal titles.

The North Korean segment of the collection is being developed mainly to meet the teaching and research needs of faculty and students affiliated with the Asian Studies Center, which provides some funding for acquisitions, Xu said.

“I can see that in the future there could be increasing demands on Korean materials because of the increasing importance of the Korean peninsula and the North Korean-South Korean relations and U.S.-North Korean relations. I think people are paying more attention to this region and they may need to have more access to resources from this region.”

Obtaining materials from North Korea is difficult. “It’s impossible for us to directly buy materials from North Korea,” Xu said. “They have very strict control on their printed publications.” In addition, the quality of the paper used for many North Korean publications is poor — even in materials reprinted for foreign distribution. “They really don’t want to export their material. They don’t want to lose face, I think,” she said.

To overcome the lack of a direct source for North Korean materials, Xu consulted librarians at Yanbian University, which is near China’s border with North Korea. “This is one of the key universities in China and has strong ties in North Korean academic circles,” she said. Its librarians attend North Korean book fairs and have other exchange programs with the neighboring nation, she explained.

nkoreanbooks.kkbDuring a visit in 2004, Xu forged a verbal agreement in which Yanbian would purchase North Korean academic journals on Pitt’s behalf; a formal agreement followed on a subsequent trip.

With the help of Pitt faculty, Xu compiled a list of desired subjects and publications and forwarded it to Yanbian.

The initial shipment arrived at Pitt in 2006; the latest such delivery arrived last month, Xu said.

Xu also developed sources for materials through a Yanbian public library’s bookstore, which sells North Korean titles, and through other contacts in another border town, Dandong.

She also was able to purchase materials indirectly from a North Korean vendor at an international book fair in Beijing in 2009 through a Chinese book vendor. Fearing that the North Koreans would refuse to sell to her if they discovered she was from America, she selected the books, but the vendor who accompanied her made the purchase on her behalf. “They didn’t ask and we didn’t tell them,” she said.

In addition to the Yanbian connections, she is able to acquire materials through vendors in South Korea and China. With a network of sources established, Xu said she no longer must travel regularly to the region in search of materials.

Given that many resources are available in digital form, the library aims to collect unique items, Xu said. “Students and faculty are more interested in getting hard-to-find materials and primary sources,” she said. Pitt’s collection has 82 different North Korean journal titles totaling more than 2,000 volumes, as well as some 400 North Korean books. The publications include pictorial journals that document current events and achievements, arts journals and publications by the nation’s medical science press.

Topics include history, archaeology, literature, economics and politics.

The collection also includes a dozen textbooks, including elementary school, high school and college-level texts. There is even a documentary on North Korean taekwondo.

Xiuying Zou, a public services librarian in the East Asian Library, said, “We would like to collect as many school textbooks as possible — especially in humanities and social sciences and history — to see their perspective.” Those subjects are difficult to collect, she noted, adding that science and math texts are easier to obtain.

Other highlights include the complete works of the late president Kim Il Sung, documentaries, popular movies including the well-known film “The Flower Girl” and recordings of Korean music ranging from folk songs to karaoke. Korean and English versions of “Arirang” — the anthem that accompanies the elaborate ceremonies performed before sporting events — are included in the collection.

In keeping with tradition, the publications typically pay homage to North Korean leaders in the opening pages — a sign of respect, Zou noted.

Xu said Pitt’s North Korean collection is larger than many other university libraries’, adding that its array of North Korean journal titles may be unsurpassed.

“We haven’t done much in promoting the collection but we’re thinking about making presentations in the national conferences,” Xu said, noting that other library directors have been asking about Pitt’s collection.

“We’ve noticed that East Asian libraries here nowadays are paying more attention to North Korean materials,” Xu said, anticipating increased demand for the publications.

“I’m glad I’m among the first to do this.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature, Volume 43 Issue 21

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