Wall of books: The main library building at Paju Book City in South Korea. Photos: The Star/Sharmilla Ganesan
We wandered through the Forest Of Wisdom, filled with an undeniable sense of wonder. In the midst of the towering wooden shelves laden with book upon book, we felt the lethargy of the night’s travel slip away from our limbs; our bleary eyes started to sparkle as we took in the hordes of excited children who were peering eagerly at the pages.
Having just flown in overnight from Kuala Lumpur to Seoul, we had been whisked immediately to Paju Book City, about an hour’s drive outside the capital, but we had certainly not anticipated the literary delights that awaited us there. The Forest Of Wisdom, a cavernous wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling library, may be it’s most impressive space, but there is much more to Paju, a city-like cultural complex entirely dedicated to the creation, publication, merchandising and sale of books.
It was an apt beginning to a week-long literary tour of sorts, organised last month by Malaysia’s Perbadanan Kota Buku, a government-linked organisation set up to invigorate the local book publishing industry. En route to the Nami Island International Children’s Book Festival (Nambook), where a pavilion had been dedicated to Malaysia, Kota Buku had planned an ed ucational trip covering some of South Korea’s book-related initiatives, with hopes of transplanting some of the successful ideas back home.
The delegation included Kota Buku personnel, Malaysian book activists, and children’s book authors and illustrators, such as Mohana Gill, Mahaya Mohd Yasin, Basari Mat Yasit and Mohd Khairul Mat Ismail. Also present was Kota Buku chairman Tan Sri Abd Ghafar Mahmud.
Bricks and books
Paju, which was completed in 2007, spans about 875,000sqm and currently encompasses 120 uniquely-designed buildings, with more than 400 book industry-related companies setting up shop within. Once the city’s second phase is completed, the entire complex is expected to be about 1.5 million sqm.
Within Paju, the Forest Of Wisdom functions as a 24-hour library with no check-out policies; instead, people are free to walk in, browse, and read as they like, with “book recommenders” on hand to help navigate the vast number of books available. Comprising both donated and publisher-provided books, the library is made up of shelves spanning 3.1km wide, holding more than 200,000 books of various genres. While most of these are in the Korean language, there is a multilingual section of about 20,000 titles.
Outside, lovely tree-lined streets lead to a variety of establishments, from quirky independent bookstores and traditional typesetting workshops to stylish cafes to curl up with a book in. Most of South Korea’s publishers have a presence in Paju, and constant activities and exhibitions – including the International Children’s Book Festival – ensure that visitors keep coming.
Kim Eoun-ho, chairman of the Book City Culture Foundation that operates Paju, said a reader-focused approach was essential to its success.
“Most important of all the things we do is making Paju be for the readers. As it is, the number of readers are declining, mostly due to our reliance on electronic gadgets. This is particularly bad when it comes to children. So, we’re trying our best to make Paju both interesting and accessible to young people, to give them a love for reading,” he said.
Abd Ghafar said the Paju visit had sparked many ideas for Kota Buku, which is in the midst of establishing its own headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
“We’re not talking about doing it on the same scale, of course, but the idea of having all aspects of the book publishing industry together in one space is very interesting. Kota Buku’s aim is to be the centre of Malaysia’s book-related activities, and with support from the government, having our own building will help us implement some of the ideas from Paju.”
A reading city
The importance of having solid backing from the government for literary endeavours was underlined by the Incheon City’s culture, tourism and sports bureau director-general, East Bin. The north-western Korean city was designated 2015’s World Book Capital by Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) for its books- and reading-related initiatives.
It is a title that Kota Buku has in its sights for one of Malaysia’s cities, hence a trip to Incheon’s city hall was organised to meet the main players.
Bin said this was Incheon’s third attempt to win the coveted World Book Capital title, with the main challenge being how to improve the city’s existing facilities to meet Unesco’s criteria.
Among the factors taken into consideration are the degree of participation in literary activities at all levels (municipal, regional, national and international), and the scope and quality of proposed activities and the extent to which they involve writers, publishers, booksellers and libraries.
“For Malaysia to try for the title, it is very important to get the government involved in every step along the way,” he added.
Incheon, home to 2.9 million people, currently boasts 49 public libraries and over 200 smaller ones. Furthermore, the city has introduced the Reading Incheon app, which gives citizens access to online libraries through their mobile phones.
Efforts are already underway to revitalise Incheon’s Baedari area, a street historically known for used bookstores, by holding various activities and events there; it is hoped that the area will eventually come to be seen as a “book culture street”.
There are also several large-scale events planned throughout the year, such as the Korea Library Association General Conference and the Korea And Incheon Archival Culture Exhibition, as well as smaller activities organised by the various libraries.
“As a port city, modern education first came to Korea via Incheon,” said Bin. “With the World Book Capital title, we hope to be able to continue this emphasis on learning. Giving everyone access to books is very important, everyone should be able to read.”
Turning the page
Other places of interest that Kota Buku visited in Seoul included the National Library For Children And Young Adults, the Seoul Animation Centre and the Heyri Art Village, each of which provided much insight and inspiration for the Malaysian authors and illustrators.
Abd Ghafar said the trip had been invaluable in providing examples that Kota Buku could implement in Malaysia, particularly in bringing the various factions of the local publishing industry together.
“The book industry in Malaysia is very separate and scattered, particularly by language. Take for instance the Pesta Buku Kuala Lumpur, which is very Malay-language based. BookFest@Malaysia (organised by Popular bookstore), meanwhile, is more Chinese-language focused. We have tried to bring everyone together, but the response hasn’t been encouraging. Or perhaps our efforts still have not been enough,” he said.
Book festivals and exhibitions don’t seem to be achieving their desired aim, so he suggested that perhaps Kota Buku could try other approaches.
“Perhaps workshops, where we bring together Malay-, Chinese-, English- and Tamil-language writers and publishers would work. We also have an e-book network, and we’d like to have all Malaysian writers integrated under it.”
Kota Buku, he added, wants to be seen as representing the entire Malaysian book industry, not just the Malay-language one.
“Of course, Bahasa Malaysia should be emphasised because it’s our national language, but in terms of literary merit and creativity, it could come from any language. I see literature as one way of nation-building, something we all share together.”
What is Kota Buku?
Perbadanan Kota Buku is a government-linked organisation set up in 2012 to invigorate the local book publishing industry.
It aims to be a one-stop centre where readers, writers and publishers can connect with each other and engage in book-related activities.
Among its objectives are:
> Creating capacity by providing training for writers, publishing quality titles, and organising reading- and book-related events.
> Creating and managing content by strengthening conventional publishing while also increasing digital publications, and by acquiring intellectual property and copyrights.
> Organising ground events to raise awareness – by organising book-related activities with commercial and social advantages, such as exhibitions, festivals and sales, as well as raising the Malaysian publishing industry’s profile both locally and internationally.
> Utilising technology – by exploring and using state-of-the-art technology solutions and fully utilising the e-book phenomenon.