well played librarian, well played…….About Life and the Yongsan Library
By M. Granderson
Sept. 20, 2017
The staff of the Yongsan Library babysat me for a small but significant portion of my childhood. I was barely well-mannered enough that they never caught on.
Based on some historic photos I’ve seen, the library building was previously the Post Exchange. Apparently, those in charge decided that conversion into a library should include enclosing the front of the building with tall, concrete slats and slabs of brick for a more 1970’s institutional look, a facade
that would have made the architect Le Corbusier proud. This left only smaller openings at either end of the structure for entry and cut off the front windows (the only windows) from daylight. Walking in from the sharp brightness and sweltering heat of a Korean summer left you stumbling through the dark and groping clumsily for the front interior door with only the comparatively dim fluorescent lights inside the building to guide you. Once inside, your eyes adjusted, and the air conditioning vents whistled from above. There was no sense of the passing of time in the Yongsan Library. Ten in the morning looked exactly like eight-thirty in the evening.
The remodel into a library apparently didn’t include raising the interior ceiling or adding more lighting fixtures. While that study desks and common areas off the library were reasonably well-lit, the library shelving reached up very close to the low ceiling. The effect was such that only the spaces near the common area or directly under a fixture were illuminated, while the spaces between were increasingly dim, the further you ventured back into the forest of shelves. The non-fiction section started about halfway across the building, where the study desks were, and trailed off into the very back of the structure. The books were organized according to the Dewy Decimal system. As luck would have it, 000.00, the decimal number for books with modern and general subject matter, were near the well illuminated study desks and 999.99 (the darkest history) was at the very back. Indeed, it felt like you were leaving general society and heading back into an ancient catacomb, as you walked the narrow aisle into the incredibly dark and quiet back of the library, cut off from light and very insulated from sound with the density of thousands of books. So much so, that your ears would start to ring. Often upon entering the building, I would beeline straight for the back and thumb through a book of French tapestries, waiting for my sweaty t-shirt to dry.
I wasn’t the only one to find that labyrinth of books convenient. On more than a few occasions, I stumbled onto a soldier and his girlfriend, cuddling somewhere back in the maze. Once, I ended up on the opposite side of the shelf from an arguing couple. The conversation suddenly escalated and the young serviceman broke up with the woman and stormed off. Suddenly, I was alone with a woman who was sitting a couple feet away from me and crying hysterically. I could make out her shoulders shaking with sobs between the top edges of the books on the shelf between us. I was probably only ten at the time and felt some warring compulsions that I ought to go do something, like go comfort her or steal away and allow some privacy. Unable to make up my young mind and being afraid that standing
up would alert her, I just sat awkwardly on a metal footstool, hoping I looked like an inanimate object. The standoff finally ended when she got up and left a good while later.
The library was a fixture of my existence through the majority of my childhood as we moved away from Yongsan and then returned, time and time again. Thinking back on it as an adult, I’m amazed at what an excellent library it was for its size and dim lighting. At age six, I wandered the shelves of Juvenile literature. Bill Pete, Peter Spier, and Graham Oakley were my favorite authors. I still hunt them out when taking my children to libraries, now, and mentally weigh the facility against the Yongsan Library in the process. As I grew up, older siblings grew tired of helping me find books and taught me the index system. Which for my purposes was that, for any topic I had in mind, all those books would be located together, grouped by subject somewhere back in the crypt, so all that was left was to thumb through the card catalog, scribble some likely indexes on a square of scrap paper with a pencil stub that was provided for the purpose. Then off I would dash into the catacomb of knowledge for hours of reading. Soon, every corner of the non-fiction section felt like a favorite old haunt. My young exploring mind had me parked in front of different shelves. “Making Fireworks: Principals and Practice,” “The Foundations of Screenwriting,” “The Private Pilots License,” “The Hindenburg: An Illustrated
History,” “Pictorial History of the American Circus,” “Thiry-one Ultralight Aircraft You Can Build,” “The Handbook of Model Rocketry,” “Kodak: Building a Home Darkroom,” “How to Design Your Own Custom Robot,” “The Autobiography of Charles Chaplin,” “Stage Lighting” … I could draw you a map of where they were located, and yes, I was that nerdy. I’ve wondered why it actually was that the selection was so incredibly diverse and well-cultivated. One theory is that the Yongsan Library
might have been the sponge for all the titles that were being moved out of the smaller decommissioned bases around Korea and Japan as the local governments grew and made the large number of bases become unnecessary.
I’ve already alluded to the copious hours I spent there. The thing was, we had a large family and never had a residence on the post itself. Yongsan was known for having extremely limited housing. So, we lived nearby in an apartment complex. “Nearby” was a relative term in the teeming city of Seoul, Korea in the eighties and nineties. My mother needed to run the gauntlet into the post a couple times a week for errands and buying groceries. Rather than shepherd the whole family from the commissary, to the dentist office, to the bank, she worked out an installment plan. We all headed to the library where it was well air-conditioned, vastly educational, and horseplay ended at the point that somebody forgot to whisper. The library was a devilishly suitable location to this purpose. My mother would
deposit all of us, except the one that needed dental work, and leave 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 the one that was best about not begging for specific brands of cereal was allowed to join her for a trip to the commissary. The net effect was if your teeth and wardrobe were in good shape, you might spend north of six hours a week in the library. In my mother’s defense, we were left in the care of a responsible elder sibling, though I don’t recall it ever being an issue. Maybe it was the quiet atmosphere, maybe a stern “this is the no-shenanigans zone” look from the librarian, or maybe we just sensed the library was a chance to scatter and take a break from being siblings for a few hours.
This arrangement might sound like someone’s childhood nightmare, but actually, over the years, it was quite the reverse. We cozied up to the library and learned to use its every service in ways that concerned educators can only dream about.
Our family left every evening with a pile of books that had to be divided up amongst a few family members to effectively carry it out to the car. Returning books was voluntary, if not in word, than in practice. The Yongsan Library always dutifully sent out a late notice exactly two weeks after the book was due, but then they seemed to promptly forget that it was ever missing. I never once recall getting a second late notice from that library or any mention of it when we went back to the counter for more.
At some point, when we were literally tripping over volumes for lack of floor space, my father would announce that we were returning all the library books “TODAY”. We would pile a couple months’ worth of checkouts into the back of the van, then park next to the outdoor return box, just a little behind the bricks where our guilt couldn’t be seen from the front desk, and shovel books in like coal hands manning a steam engine.
We made the mistake of thinking that all libraries were as easy going. When we moved to Fort Bliss for a year, all of us kids dashed out to the local public library and loaded up the car. Two months later, our dad found a bill for eighty dollars worth of late charges in the mail, along with some convenient phone numbers for local debt collection agencies, in case he decided to push his luck. All of his children abruptly found their book reading privileges abridged.
There is hardly a corner of the Yongsan Library that I can’t describe. There was sitting in the periodical room dreaming of becoming a television producer while leafing through “Videomaker,” piling up stacks of vinyl in the audio room, the bathroom’s paper towel dispenser with “HARD TO GET – WHY USE TWO WHEN ONE WILL DO?” stenciled in black letters across the front (and many smart aleck responses scrawled below in pen), the jarringly loud “ker-chunk” sound of the mechanical card checkout machines, the overall smell of slightly decayed paper and government-issued floor cleaner throughout the building, and checking out every single VHS copy of a Charlie Chaplin film (and there were dozens of them) after my drama instructor said that “studying mime might be a good
I had the chance to revisit the Yongsan Library on one occasion recently. As of 2017, it is still open and still in the same building. Someone decided the Le Corbusier facade was no longer necessary. It’s been demolished and the front restored to a similar look as it had from its Post Exchange days, the floors carpeted and the lighting more than ample. There were some new, very recent titles for computer instruction, a greatly expanded graphic novel section, and a suite of internet access stations, keeping up with the times. The shelves have been spaced much further apart, and I noted with some sadness that the collection had been drastically reduced to allow this. Subjects that went on for shelves are now reduced to one or two titles. When I was a teenager, I took a shine to magic tricks. There
were rows of ancient volumes, recent publications, periodical compilations, translated copy of a turn of the century German magician’s book, describing every sort of illusion from cards to massive stage acts, now, just a sad, single copy of “The Blackstone Book of Magic.” It might be easy to blame the internet generation or, even more likely, that Yongsan itself is now a decommissioning post and its resources are being redirected to newer facilities. In the end, it is all just the march of time, and nothing gold stays. Like so many things in life, it was a wonderful place, run by great people, that came together for a space of time.
As a kid, you can take a lot of things for granted. It just seemed Yongsan had a library because most any post, of reasonable size, had a library. Now, I reflect on what an artfully curated place it was and the impact it had on my childhood. The majority of the staff seemed to be local Korean employees, along with a few US civilians. I’m not sure which of them decided that the “history of magic” section ought to go on for five shelves or which it was that decided to order twenty VHS titles from Charlie Chaplin’s studio years. But I wish somehow that I could express how much I appreciated that place as a kid and share my sincerest thanks and gratitude. To whomever it was that decided to skip upgrading the lighting all those years and, instead, sink the annual budget into a wonderful collection of books,
movies, and music … well played librarian, well played.