The Korea Times
Growing up in Yongsan Library
As the U.S. military relocates out of Yong san Garrison, Yong san Legacy aims to archive the living memories of those who served, worked and lived there. This is one of them .— ED.
The staff at Yongsan Library unwittingly babysat me for a small but significant portion of my childhood in the 1980s. I was well-mannered enough that they never caught on.
The library is housed in a building on Yongsan Garrison that had previously been the Post Exchange, and it was likely constructed in haste so U.S. soldiers would have somewhere to buy their daily essentials. When it came time to convert the building into a library, the front was bricked over for a more studious Le Corbusier look. The interior was largely left the same, with bookshelves shoehorned in between the pillars and very low ceiling. The ceiling height meant very little light filtered in between the shelves. Natural light was scarce since the only windows in the front now faced the bricks. The air vents hissed out air smelling of government floor cleaner and decaying paper. There was no sense of time during the day, and the soundproofing qualities of thousands of books contributed to the feeling you were walking in an ancient catacomb of knowledge.
My mother took us on post a couple times a week to run errands. Rather than shepherd our large family from the commissary to the dental office or the bank, she worked out an installment plan. We all headed to the library where it was air-conditioned, vastly educational, and horseplay ended at the point that somebody forgot to whisper. My mother would deposit all of us, except the one that needed dental work, and leave us there for a couple hours. Then she returned and traded that one for the two that needed shoes and headed out again. The freshly shod siblings returned and a lucky volunteer left to help with the grocery shopping. Depending on my mother’s list of errands, it was quite possible to end up at the library for five hours a day, multiple times a week.
To some this might sound like a terribly dull pastime, but it really became quite the opposite for us. To give you an idea of how much time we spent there, all of us siblings learned to use every one of the library’s services in ways concerned educators could only dream of. Regardless of how humble the building was, it had an incredible catalog. We studied how to build fireworks in the nonfiction section, we mowed through operas in the audio room and we got a first-rate education in silent film history from the video collection. The staff seemed to mostly be local Korean employees with a few American civilians. I’m not sure why they covered all those topics so well, but I’ll be forever grateful they did.
Modern libraries are being reinvented with swooping architecture, technology and collaborative open spaces. But I wouldn’t trade it for my musty old Yongsan Library at all. As a child spending hours between its claustrophobic shelves, I learned about the larger world and how to dream big.