Fourteenth century English writer Geoffrey Chaucer was also a renowned book collector. However, his entire collection numbered only around 70 volumes. Meanwhile, Harvard University first began as a library, when Massachuesetsn clergyman John Harvard donated his entire fortune and collection of books in 1638 to a theological seminary that had opened nearby. Harvard left behind a collection of 260 types of books numbering around 400 volumes, including a commentary on the Bible, and collections of sermons, as well as classical works by Cicero, Seneca and Homer.
From today's standpoint, the 70 books that belonged to Chaucer and the 400 volumes once owned by Harvard are small, even for a private book collector; however they were close to the absolute amount of information knowledgeable societies required during their respective periods. It took another 130 years after Harvard's donation for the library's collection of books to surpass 5,000 volumes. Yet it was still the largest library on the North American continent.
These days, six million books are housed inside Harvard University's Widener Library and the different colleges and departments. But even this amount is nothing compared to the U.S. Library of Congress, which currently contains more than 100 million books on shelves measuring 1,000 km in total. Furthermore, 7,000 books are added to the collection every day, while 800 million pages of printed materials and web documents are also added daily through the Internet, fax machines and photocopy machines.
All librarians probably share the same dream, that of allowing as many readers as possible to access as many books as they can, whenever they want. But during times like now, where there is an explosion in the amount of knowledge and information being produced, this dream is not feasible using the past library system. The solution to this problem is the creation of digital libraries, an area in which countries around the world are now competing.
After seven years of preparation, the Digital Library opens at the National Library of Korea in Seocho, Seoul on Monday. Keyword searches on its Web site enable users to access 116 million source materials located in libraries both in Korea and overseas. Of course it would not be possible for one digital library to allow human knowledge to automatically advance by leaps and bounds. Searching for knowledge and information at libraries and absorbing them still requires skill, effort and luck, whether in Chaucer's time or today.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Tae-ick