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Now Online: Korean Rare Book Digital Collection

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(The following is a post by Cameron Penwell, Japanese Reference Librarian, Asian Division, with contributions from Sonya Lee, Korean Reference Specialist, Asian Division.)

From “turtle ships” to historical maps, the Library’s recently launched Korean Rare Book Digital Collection offers readers around the world a chance to view and study in detail a number of historically significant Korean materials online. The initial digital presentation for this collection includes 12 titles in 59 volumes, drawn from the Asian Division’s Korean Rare Book Collection.

A depiction of one of the heavily armored kŏbuksŏn, or “turtle ships,” that Yi Sun-sin deployed in the Imjin War. Image 77 of Preface/Table of Contents in “Yi Ch’ungmu Kong chŏnsŏ,” 李忠武公全書 1795. Korean Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

Notable among the newly available digital titles is “Yi Ch’ungmu Kong chŏnsŏ,” 李忠武公全書, a collection of writings published in 1795 that provide an excellent record of the life of Yi Sun-sin 李舜臣 (1545–98). Widely known by his honorary title, Yi Ch’ungmu Kong, Yi was a military official who played a leading role in the Imjin War (1592–98), during which Korean and Ming Chinese forces repelled invasions led by the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) in his quest to conquer the Korean Peninsula. In addition to documenting his involvement in the Imjin War, “Yi Ch’ungmu Kong chŏnsŏ” also brings together Yi’s diary, other writings and details of significant events pertaining to his life.

Among his many accomplishments, Yi is particularly famous for redesigning and deploying the kŏbuksŏn, widely known as the “turtle ship,” an innovative style of armored warship that proved decisive in key naval victories against the Japanese. These ships had a three-story structure and were equipped with a heavily reinforced wooden “shell” on top, which was further lined with iron spikes to prevent enemies from boarding. Also distinctive was the decorative dragon’s head on the bow of the vessel, which could be used to fire a canon or spew flames and smoke to confound enemy ships.

The first map in the atlas “Yŏch’udo” depicts the eight provinces of Chŏson Korea. Image 1 of kwŏn 1 in “Yŏch’udo” 輿墜圖, [not after 1700]. Korean Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.
Another highlight from this digital collection is the atlas “Yŏch’udo” 輿墜圖, a collection of maps created in Korea sometime prior to 1700. Also titled “Tongguk yŏjido” 東國輿地圖 (Maps of the Eastern Country [Korea]), this atlas contains a series of maps detailing Korea and its eight provinces, as well as three important neighboring countries: China, Japan, and the Ryukyu Kingdom. The atlas also features an example of a distinct style of Korean map called ch’ŏnhado 天下啚, or “map of all under heaven,” which was developed in part as a reaction to European-style world maps introduced by Christian missionaries to East Asia in the 16th-17th centuries. Unlike Western cartographical depictions, which upended the existing Sino-centric view of the world, the Korean scholars who created ch’ŏnhado sought to portray the world through the lens of traditional culture.

Pictured here is the “Map of All Under Heaven” (Ch’ŏnhado 天下啚), one of several maps from the atlas “Yŏch’udo,” with a focus on Korea and East Asia. Image 10 of kwŏn 1 in “Yŏch’udo” 輿墜圖, [not after 1700]. Korean Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.
These newly available digitized titles are not the only rare Korean materials from the Asian Division that are accessible online. In 2008, a cooperative project between the Library of Congress and the National Library of Korea identified 84 rare book titles held in the Asian Division that were unavailable in South Korea. These were digitized and made freely accessible through the Korean Old and Rare Collection Information System, also known as KORCIS.

The Asian Division’s Korean Rare Book Collection, much of which has not yet been digitized, comprises 654 titles, including some that date back as far as the 15th century. Others, meanwhile, are the only known copies of their kind in the world. Works in the collection span a variety of topics from religion and philosophy to military history and government publications. They also encompass a variety of formats, such as manuscripts, rubbings, and various specimens of movable type.

For questions or additional information about the Korean Rare Book Collection or any other Korean-language materials at the Library of Congress, please use the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian.


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  1. Very interesting blogpost, and so great to know book information is being shared internationally.

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