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South Korea's policies to promote reading and reading movements

 

2019.11.04

 

In addition to smartphones, media bombards people daily, whether they take the form of regular information, videos or other forms of entertainment. As this sort of content increases and more forms of leisure appear, concerns over people reading fewer books are also growing. According to statistics, the reading rate of South Korean adults over the age of 19 (reading rate of paper books that are not textbooks, educational material, magazines or comic books) stood at 86.8 percent in 1994 only to plummet to 59.9 percent in 2017 (the rate was 62.3 percent when e-books were accounted for). On average, the rate dropped 1 percentage point every year over that period. When compared to the reading rates of underage students from elementary school students to high school students that top 90 percent, the adult reading rates are not to be ignored.
South Koreans have long upheld traditional values related to studying and reading, with phrases like 'work in the day, read at night', and 'the virtue of studying, even by the light of fireflies' being taught in school. Today, South Koreans are trying to carry on those values through official policies to promote reading and movements for reading, helped by a general interest in books and education.

 

This law designated September of every year as the month of reading,
accompanied by celebratory events and other festivities to promote reading.

 

One representative policy the government has launched to promote reading has been the Reading Culture Promotion Act passed by parliament on April 5, 2007. This was also Arbor Day in South Korea, and the policy was passed as a nod to the role reading plays by 'planting' seeds of culture. This law designated September of every year as the month of reading, accompanied by celebratory events and other festivities to promote reading. The South Korean government, or specifically the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, also sets a basic plan for the promotion of reading culture every five years in accordance with the law. The current five-year plan which is scheduled to run from 2019 to 2023 was announced in April this year. This plan has some-30 policy tasks under four large branches: 'energize social reading', 'proliferate and share reading values', 'realize inclusive reading welfare' and 'create a reading environment for the future'.
Energizing social reading refers to the creation of an environment and foundation for 'social reading' which are the keywords for the five-year plan. For this, the government provides support for reading clubs and centers that also support gatherings for book reading. Social reading refers to reading where everyone participates in an environment where books are read together, while at the same time, individual reading based on independent choices is respected. Through social reading, people can boost their quality of life and non-readers can become readers. The eventual goal of this policy is to create a 'reading community'. One such policy would be a mark of recognition for businesses that show excellence in 'reading management'. This policy was launched to promote reading at work, where most adults spend their time during the day. Also, to ensure the continued release of good reading material, the government has been carrying out projects called 'Sejong Books' and 'Sharing Literature', which involves selecting and purchasing books of general education and academia for public libraries. For the proliferation and sharing of reading values, the government encourages people to visit libraries more often as they are public places of reading. There are also projects called 'Liberal Arts on the Road' and 'Liberal Arts Reading Academy' to promote daily reading of liberal arts books. For the realization of inclusive reading welfare, various programs are underway like book recommendations for different periods of a person's lifetime and reading programs for schools, disabled people, conscripted soldiers (South Korean men need to serve a mandatory two years in the military) and those incarcerated. A considerable number of these reading programs are managed by KPIPA, which provides funding for necessary programs and civic reading clubs.

 

In South Korea, the government has been hosting an annual reading festival since 2014 in rural locations throughout the nation.

 

Like UNESCO designates a city of books each year, in South Korea, the government has been hosting an annual reading festival since 2014 in rural locations throughout the nation. On the back of efforts by then-mayor Kim Yoon-ju like calling Gunpo the 'land of books', the city of Gunpo hosted the first reading festival. Since then, cities have been vying against one another to host the event, reflecting its success. Last year, the South Korean government in cooperation with book-related private groups hosted an event called '2018 The Year of Books', and one of the affiliated events to that was forming a nationwide council for cities that read. This council is an association of representatives from 29 cities from throughout South Korea that advocate reading and Mayor Kim Seung-soo from the city of Jeonju is currently the council's first chairman. In line with the national law to promote reading culture, regional governments are also increasingly enacting ordinances of their own to pursue and support reading-related projects. 'Book Start' was a project launched by Seoul City that was being run in 25 locations in the country's capital. Starting 2019, this project has now spread to other regions outside the city and is currently gaining momentum. This project began to help very young children under 18 months start reading. Children who lived in Seoul that met the standards of the project each received a bag carrying two picture books. The Book Culture Foundation, which is an institution that funds the Book Start project, provides the eco-bags the books go inside as well as guide books with the help of government support. The foundation also provides support for education for parents and worker training.
In 1993 the South Korean publishing industry led the Year of Books as a national event, and in 2012, the government hosted book-related events, calling that year the Year of Reading. Last year in 2018, the private sector and government joined hands to successfully host 'Year of Books Read Together' festivities, and on the back of that success, preparations are now underway to open reading events every year with different themes from 2020. The event next year will be called '2020 Year of Books for Adolescents' and preparations are already being made by related groups. In South Korea, students can rarely put aside time for reading as efforts for college entry block out everything else for students from sixth grade in elementary school to senior year of high school. Next year's event will aim to improve reading environments for these teens.
Meanwhile, South Korea's reading movements after the Korean War have mostly been centered around expanding library facilities. With the country's economic development, the advancement of higher education and the growth of a citizen-led society as backdrops, South Koreans started looking for ways to encourage reading after the 1980s.

 

The biggest such movement in South Korea for reading is called the Citizen Action for Reading Culture.

 

Today, the biggest such movement in South Korea for reading is called the Citizen Action for Reading Culture, created by a coalition of civic groups dealing with publishing, libraries and education. After a series of discussions and the 2001 Seoul International Book Fair, the movement was first called Citizen Action for the Expansion of Library Content and Creation of a Reading Society. The movement's first achievement was creating the Miracle Library in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province for children in 2003 with the help of a television reading campaign called 'Exclamation Mark' by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation. This year, the group was able to create the 14th library for just children in Guro-gu, Seoul. In 2003, the coalition launched a pilot program that aimed to bring a project called Book Start from the United Kingdom to South Korea. Today, the project is being carried on in 148 cities and regional districts out of 229 (64%) nationwide. Aside from these projects, the Citizen Action for Reading Culture is currently carrying out various activities like supporting reading groups on a nationwide basis and supporting book-related projects that help elementary, and junior high school students read more. Today, the group leads these projects under the name 'Book Culture Foundation'.
Efforts to recommend books suitable for children and teens are also active in South Korea. Since it was founded in May 1980, the Research Group for Children's Books has been selecting good fairy tale books written by South Korean authors and promoting them through various guide materials. The group is one of the country's representative grassroots groups for the promotion of reading. For adults, the group runs meetings called 'Grownups that Read Fairy Tales' in 89 locations in South Korea. Meanwhile, a group called 'Teachers Creating A Warm World Through Books' created in 1998 by a group of former and current teachers recommends books twice a year annually through a unanimous vote and also carries out educational programs.
Another institution called Book Nanum (sharing), founded in 1999, provides books for conscripted soldiers in the military and has been making strides in creating libraries for South Korean troops. Thanks to sponsorship from the public, the institution opened its 100th reading cafe for soldiers last year. To create consistent profit and not solely rely on donations, the institution also started publishing a magazine for soldiers called HIM. The magazine issued its 100th copy in August this year and has found immense success as a magazine for soldiers and army life, a rarity around the world. Book Nanum is also in charge of running the culture ministry's project for boosting reading in the military and as a part of their efforts, reading coaching events are provided where professional lecturers speak to soldiers on base. Book concerts are also held for soldiers.
In addition to the above, the government started a project last year to help students from elementary school to high school read books and discuss them in Korean language class at school. This project is called 'one semester one book', and the government provides tax breaks for book purchasing costs for individuals. Separately, more schools are allowing students to set aside 20 minutes of their time at school before classes start in the morning for individual reading and the number of reading clubs at independent bookstores has been growing. These are all changing trends that deserve attention regarding reading movements.

 

The efforts of the South Korean government and the private sector is part of an endless journey to expand the publishing and reading ecology and the horizon for human lives.

 

If low birth rates and an aging population are issues that threaten the country's sustainability for the future, the decline in the reading population can result in a smaller publishing market, lower library visit rates and increase worries over a pending crisis in today's 'thinking society' and democracy. It is the shared opinion of reading researchers that there is nothing better than reading to nurture knowledge to create a better future, imagination, the ability to empathize and human warmth. The efforts of the South Korean government and the private sector to increase the value of books and reading and to create a good environment for reading is part of an endless journey to expand the publishing and reading ecology and the horizon for human lives.

 

 


Written by Won-Keun Baek (Books & Society Research Institute, President)

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Won-Keun Baek (Books & Society Research Institute, President)

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