My father, J. McRee "Mac" Elrod, died last summer at age 84. I have always been in awe of the fact that he and my mother spent five years in Korea soon after the end of the Korean war, as very young teaching missionaries. They came with a red-headed baby boy, my brother Mark, and added two more kids while there -- me and my sister Cara.
When my dad reported for work at Yonsei University on the outskirts of Seoul 60 years ago, the small collection of library books was protected from theft behind a barrier of chicken-wire. The card catalogue, I recall father saying, was ravaged by soldiers taking the cards to line their shoes. In the winter, the ink froze in the inkwells.
My father pioneered the adaptation of Western cataloguing methods for Asian library materials, while still in his early twenties. In fact he was the first Western-trained professional librarian in Korea. He did away with the chicken wire and during his time, the library collection grew from 3,000 to 30,000 volumes.
The professors of the library science department were very gracious and welcoming to me. I shared some stories about my parents' time in Seoul, and they arranged for some graduate students to show me around. (Just about every person I spoke to in Korea spoke English well.) It was an absolutely gorgeous autumn day.
The original quadrangle of grey brick buildings is still there, looking beautiful in autumn colours. The library used to be housed in one of these buildings. I wish I could say that I remember toddling around those beautiful buildings, those stairs and the portico, but I left South Korea when I was two, and sadly, I don't recall it. But we grew up listening to dad's stories about life in Korea.
What a contrast to compare life in South Korea 60 years ago with the country today! Once ravaged by war (Seoul changed hands multiple times during the conflict), South Korea is now a prosperous modern nation.
The young kids like hip hop, gangsta clothing, and many of them dye and streak their hair. South Koreans have all the modern conveniences, including screaming fast internet everywhere, modern transportation, toilet seats that will wash and dry your bottom, and their own K-pop music and Korean soap operas, which are also quite popular in China. Here's a link to my favourite historical soap opera.
Visiting the library at Yonsei, I marveled at how different it was from dad's day. They have 3D printers and virtual reality rooms. Probably the old-fashioned books are one of the lesser-used resources in the library!
I remember my dad remarking that you know you're old when you spot some item that you used every day in your youth for sale in an antique shop. For me, growing up in and around libraries, the card catalogue cabinets with their little square drawers were a familiar feature of life before the digital revolution. Now perhaps some young people would not even recognize what they are, or how they were used.
My student guides and I were walking through the lobby at the library and I spotted a section of card catalogue drawers, from dad's time at the library, being used a decorative accent. It even has some of the original library cards inside! How nice that someone thought to save this!
I love the little bit of a cosmic joke here, because if there is one thing that would drive Dad batty (okay, there were lots of things that would drive Dad batty) it was -- pictures hung too high! So perhaps he will be hanging on the wall -- too high for his tastes, that is -- for years to come at the university where he contributed so much, many many years ago.