Words by Richard Feicht
Gyeongsang Province info by Dann Gaymer
Jeju info by Joy Raimondo
There is always a demand for English books in Korea. Many opt to purchase from the numerous available bookstores, but free options are out there, as well.
“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”
Free English Books in Korea
Why not combine your hankering for a good book with a great cultural experience and save a little cash at the same time? Korea is sprinkled with quality libraries across the country which, while they naturally do not have as much English content as libraries in English-speaking countries, are still likely to surprise you.
Many university courses use English textbooks, leaving shelves stacked with English books from all disciplines. Many public libraries cater to the Korean desire to learn and read English by stocking plenty of novels and non-fiction for the visitor’s perusal. And as with nearly all interactions with Koreans, as soon as they can get over the initial shock of having to communicate in English, the staff is generally friendly and terrifically helpful. Here is a great list of the best locations to pick up English books in Korea.
Public Libraries in Korea
Jeongdok Public Library (정독도서관)
This has by far the best view of any library: Namsan Tower, Jongno Tower, and the SK Building color the horizon as you look out from the front steps. To the right on the first floor, you can find a modest selection of novels in English; or come here instead for the wide range of English-language magazines on the second floor.
Go straight out exit 2 of Anguk Station, pass the Constitutional Court and turn left at the four-way intersection. You’ll pass a Thai restaurant and see Jeongdok on your right, diagonally across from Artseonje Center. Jeongdok is open 9 am – 8 pm weekdays (except the first and third Wednesday of each month) and 9 am – 5 pm weekends. No registration is needed to enter and browse.
National Library of Korea (국립중앙도서관)
This is the biggest library and a 10-minute walk from the green line’s Seocho Station exit 5. It’s worth the walk for the massive collection of books in English. You will need to bring your foreigner registration card, as there is a registration process to enter (bring a Korean friend along if you can’t read Korean). When you register, you’ll create a permanent username and password, which you then enter into one of the kiosk terminals for a single-use passcard similar to the ones for the AREX train to Incheon International Airport.
National Assembly Library (국회도서관)*
Also has a Korean-language registration process and permanent username/password keycard access system, but it is even more Pentagon-like in that your name shows up on the screen as you are welcomed through the gate. The computerized voice even says “Welcome!” in English for foreigners! A wide variety of newspapers is available on the second floor in the recent publications room, along with tons of recently published books in English.
Korea Foundation Cultural Center (한국국제교류재단문화센터)
As a privately funded institution inside the JoongAng Ilbo building, they ask for a refundable W10,000 deposit. You’ll again need your alien registration card to join, but there’s no keycard system. The KFCC contains a lot of books in English on Korea and other countries, including textbooks for people studying Korean, and you can enjoy free Internet access. They also regularly host art exhibitions and lectures.
Turn left out of City Hall Station exit 9, pass Shinhan and KB, enter the JoongAng Ilbo building and you’ll see the small library behind glass walls. The KFCC is conveniently open Monday – Saturday, 10 am – 6 pm.
Namsan Public Library (남산도서관)
Time, Newsweek, Forbes Asia, National Geographic, Fortune, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal Asia on the second floor, and no registration is needed to browse. In Central Seoul on the road behind the Hilton, it’s open 8 am to 10 pm.
Gwangjin Digital Public Library (광진구립도서관)
The second floor has Time and Newsweek in the magazine section, and DVDs and Internet terminals. The third floor has a small Foreign Books section including The World is Flat, Unlimited Power, Stupid White Men. From exit 2 of Gwangnaru Station on the purple line walk toward Walkerhill, turn right at the River Breeze construction site and walk around it. The library is the futuristic prison-like structure behind the purple office building.
Mapo Lifelong Learning Center (마포평생학습관)
Also known as the Mapo Ahyeon Public Library, the MLLC boasts the Financial Times, USA Today, the Economist, Newsweek, Time, and US News & World Report in the “Digital Library” on the 4th floor, where you can, of course, sign up for free Internet use. There’s also a foreign books section. It’s closed on the second and third Monday of each month.
English periodicals are available in English on the third floor of Yongsan Public Library (용산도서관), the second floor of Guro Public Library (구로도서관), and the second floor of Seodaemun Public Library (서대문도서관) in the Digital Room.
Busan Metropolitan Municipal Simin Library (부산광역시립시민도서관)
The Simin Library holds the first American Corner, which is sponsored by the US Embassy, the second in Daegu, the third in Gwangju, with each library being linked to a sister library in the USA. The section is located on the first floor of the Library and offers the services already outlined with regards to its younger sibling in Daegu, while the staff are equally eager to help with regards to getting a library account or finding books.
The library itself is located in the throbbing downtown of Busan in the Jin-gu district, across the street from the Dae-Kyoung Gyo-Tong bus terminal, which naturally makes the bus the easiest way to reach the library.
Pusan National University Library (부산대학교도서관)
Busan’s National University is located in the Geumjeong-gu district of the city, away from the downtown. The University’s library is currently looking into becoming an open library in order to cater for the local community, not just students. Non-students can access all the same services, including borrowing items, interlibrary loans and time in the reading rooms. Their website has an English version and a title search engine in English. Most importantly, under the ‘notes’ heading, it will specify if the publication is indeed in English. Pusan National University Subway Station.
Kyungpook National University (경북대학교도서관)
The University Library is a hidden gem in terms of English books in the city. Due to the diverse range of subjects taught at KNU their collection includes a broad range, encompassing thousands of titles. Non-students can gain access to the library without a KNU membership card during the week and on Saturdays, though naturally books cannot be taken out. However, library cards can be applied for. The library website has an English option and though the title search engine is in Korean it can be still be used with English input.
KNU can be reached by subway or bus roughly 15 minutes from the city centre. It’s closest to Sincheon Station exit #2.
Daegu Metropolitan Jungang Library (대구광역시립중앙도서관)
Daegu’s Metropolitian Library is located downtown in the beautiful settings of Gukchae-bosang Memorial Park. The library itself is hard to miss as it is the largest building visible. After entering the ground floor entry gallery on your immediate left, ‘the American Corner’ section holding over 2000 English texts can be found. In addition there are plenty of newspapers, magazines and DVD’s, all of quite an eclectic range, all open and free to the public. The staff is incredibly friendly and will help you get a library card from the second floor. Foreigner registration card is required.
University of Ulsan (울산대학교중앙도서관)
Located in Mu-guh dong district in downtown Ulsan, the University has recently received a massive cash injection from the Hyundai Conglomerate, one of the major industry players in the city. Foreigners can apply for a membership card in order to borrow items, though in order to do this the library website has to be acessed, which is unfortunately only in Korean, so you may need some help. (Select the tab “special member” and select “foreigner”). Then you present your alien registration card and picture to borrow books.
Ulsan Jungbu Library (울산중부도서관)
Also located downtown in Bukjeong-dong, Ulsan’s Jungbu Library sits near to Ulsan’s sole Home Plus superstore. The library holds a few English texts which are available for visitors to look over while the staff will be more than happy to help you get a library membership card in order to take items out. Furthermore, their website is in English.
Gwangju Metropolitan Mudeung Library (광주광역시립무등도서관)
The third American Corner to open in Korea is housed in Gwangju’s Metropolitan library, providing services similar to those found in Busan and Daegu’s American Corners. The library is located on the same block as the Malbow Market Place, across the street from the Munhwa Middle School.
Website. email@example.com, 062-613-7753
Halla Library (한라도서관)
Halla Library is a brand-new facility with an English section on the second floor. It has over 2,000 books with another 1,600 on the way. The library has a large budget for expanding its English section, and visitors are highly encouraged to request any books they want that the library doesn’t already have. There are computers, free Wi-Fi, a DVD reserve room as well as individual DVD stations, a cafeteria, and many comfortable places to sit and read. Getting a library card takes a few minutes and all you need is a photo ID. The library is located in Jeju City on bus routes 5 and 8, and there is a map on their website.
Jeju National University Libraries (제주대학교중앙도서관)
Jeju National University offers two libraries. One is the smaller University Journal Reference Library, which houses professional journals and reference materials in many languages. The larger Central Library (중앙도서관) has an entire floor devoted to books in English, with over 750,000 titles as well as a copy machine, free Internet, and many spots to study or read. Unfortunately, non-students can’t get a library card, but access to both library journals and books is unrestricted. The university is located in Jeju City, just off the 516 road.
Seogwipo Miracle Library (서귀포기적의도서관)
The Beautiful Seogwipo Miracle Library is a small children’s library located just east of the Jungang rotary. There is a large selection of English children’s books, tables and couches to sit and read at, a private playroom for younger kids, and a large playground and park right outside.