The systematic collection of Korean materials at the Library of Congress began in earnest with the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Despite this relatively late start, the Library’s Korean collection is now the largest and most comprehensive outside of East Asia. The collection primarily comprises publications from the 20th century to the present but also holds a number of valuable pre–20th century publications in traditional formats. It covers all subject areas, from the arts and humanities to the social and natural sciences, and also includes Korean diaspora publications from around the world.
As of 2019, the Korean collection holds more than 425,855 volumes of monographs and over 7,600 serial titles. In addition to some 250 newspapers dating as far back as 1897, these periodicals encompass major magazines, government reports, and academic journals from both North and South Korea. Alongside these printed resources, the collection holds 5,513 reels of microfilmed materials.
The Korean Rare Book Collection comprises 676 titles in 3,500 volumes, including a number of valuable pre–19th century publications printed on mulberry paper in traditional Chinese characters. Some of these rare materials are fine specimens of early printing with woodblock and movable metal type. Among several outstanding examples of Korean printing that employ movable metal type are an edition of the collected works of poet Yi Munsun known as Tongguk Yi Sangguk chŏnjip (15??) and Kim Chong-hu’s Karye Chipko (1801).
The Library began to acquire more contemporary Korean commercial publications on a regular and systematic basis in 1955 through an approval plan with a dealer in South Korea. As the result of an exchange agreement established on September 24, 1966 between the Republic of Korea and the United States, over several decades the Library has been able to acquire government publications on diverse topics, which is one of the most significant strengths of the Korean collection.
The Library’s commitment to acquiring materials from North Korea has resulted in an internationally recognized collection that has served as a vital resource for researchers from various disciplines. The collection’s holdings in North Korean publications number more than 11,000 items and include 283 serial titles. One particularly rich subset of these publications are the extensive holdings of North Korean serials, especially those published from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Thousands of issues of these periodicals have been made available online as part of the North Korean Serials digital collection, with more to be added in the future. As more scholars are drawn to the study of North Korea, the collection continues to play a pivotal role in the growth of this field.
The Korean collection is also strong in difficult-to-obtain materials. One example is the so-called “gray literature” found in the Minjuhwa Undong Collection. It comprises publications that were once banned for ideological and political reasons, such as works by authors who criticized past authoritarian governments in South Korea.
Materials related to the early history of Christianity in Korea stand out as another notable strength, which holds one of the richest collections of early Korean-language Christian publications outside of Korea. The collection spans from 1884 to 1927 and includes early Bibles, commentaries, catechisms, literature, and doctrines.