How to organise and accommodate an ever-growing library?

When I started this Korean lark over 10 years ago, obviously I didn’t have any books on the subject. Over the years, the collection has been piling up, literally. Translated literature; novels in English by Koreans and by foreigners about Korea; the regrettably necessary section on North Korea; books on Korean art, history, film, music, travel and society; grammars and dictionaries; even a photo journal of Bae Doo-na’s trip to London; all have been filling and overspilling the bookshelves. The rate at which I get rid of old Folio Society books to the charity shop does not keep up with my ever-growing space needs.

Park of LKL's Korea library
If I were to gather together all the Korea-related books that wouldn’t fit in here, they would take up at least another bookcase…

Doing a stocktake this weekend I find that over the past ten years I have officially logged over 310 Korea-related books in the collection, far greater than the capacity of the bookcase that has been allocated to them. They have been making inroads into other bookcases – pushing aside books on other Asian countries, insinuating themselves onto the Western fiction shelves, or squeezing in next to Ancient History. But still after all these land-grabs there is not enough lebensraum, with the result that there are renegade piles of Korean books dotted around the house and the office waiting to be brought home. Some of the piles are of books waiting to be catalogued or to be opened for the first time; some are on the floor of my study being used as reference for articles in progress; some are by the bed part-read and waiting to be finished. Some of them are lying around, well, just because they are. And some of them I’ve even guiltily been hiding at the back of the wardrobe because I know there’s no space for them anywhere else. That’s not counting the 30 or so e-books on my Kindle and the 45 volumes in the Bi-lingual Edition Modern Korean Literature Collection that I really ought to add to the collection before long.

Don’t get me started on the problem of how an ideal library should be organised. Yes, it’s nice to have things sorted alphabetically, or by category. But what about the book that is just too tall for the shelf that contains all the other books it should be filed with? How does one deal with the inconvenience of that extra book that means your Literature in Translation shelf is now a shelf-and-a-bit, requiring a wholesale re-jig of the rest of the collection? Does Colonial Japanese literature in translation get filed with Korean literature in translation, get bundled together with English-language fiction about Korea, or get a little section to itself? And does translated literature by zainichi Koreans get treated in the same way? What is the precise dividing line between an exhibition catalogue that deserves to be on the open shelves and one that is demoted to the box file? Do the memoirs of Lady Hyegyong sit better under translated classics or under history? Do volumes signed by the author deserve special treatment? It’s considerations such as these that add to the random piles of books everywhere, and to a set of bookshelves which, maybe with the exception of Korean literature in translation, are a complete jumble.

Of course, all this means that it’s impossible to find a particular book when I want it, no matter how much I might try to convince myself that I know where everything is. It’s gone beyond that. Just yesterday, I literally tripped over Peter Wynne-Willson’s and Ko Sun-duck’s moving play The Bridge, set partly in the Korean War. Now that I’ve found it again, I can get that review done, Peter. But Ahn Jung-hyo White Badge, where are you now? I know I’ve seen you somewhere in the last year. I even remember you’re a white hardback. And 10 Korean Short Stories (tr Kevin O’Rourke, Yonsei, 1981), I’ve forgotten what you look like! My Literature in Translation shelf just about has room for you after yesterday’s reorganisation, but not for long. Except that I just spotted 3 volumes of Park Kyung-ni’s Land in the English 20th Century Music section which also need rehousing there.

Inevitably, there’s a similar problem with the Korean CDs and DVDs. The former have now all made their way onto the hard disk (and the hard copy originals stored away in a few archive boxes). The DVDs probably won’t be far behind. But no matter how much a Kindle might be fine for pulp-fiction holiday reading, it’s no good for proper books. The only solution is more bookshelves. Somewhere. Unless anyone has any other bright ideas.

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