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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Non-English books find way to libraries

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

When Jaesun Lee's job first brought her here from South Korea five years ago, she packed a pile of books from Seoul, convinced that she'd find nothing to read in her own language once she touched down in Honolulu.

Sook Ki Moon, founder of the Moon Book Club at McCully Library, browses through recent arrivals of books in Korean.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Instead, directed by a sister who had lived here, Lee found her way to the McCully-Mo'ili'ili Library, home of the largest Korean language collection in the state system.

"I was kind of overwhelmed," she said. "It's a good collection. It has best sellers as well as classics.

"After seeing the collection," Lee said, "I thought, 'Oh, I could live here!' "

Lee had stumbled into one of the brighter spots in the public library's foreign-language collection. The Korean collection of around 15,000 titles statewide, most of them housed at McCully, has been the beneficiary of a private group. The Moon Book Club, a volunteer enterprise aided by corporate backing, supports acquisitions of new materials at a time when the library system is struggling.

Serving the non-English-speaking community is a duty that the library network shoulders with difficulty but not unwillingly, said state librarian Jo Ann Schindler.

"We want to celebrate all of the cultures here in our state, which also includes providing materials in the language people are comfortable with," Schindler said. "But because we are poor across the board, unfortunately, specific interests like this are not met as much as we would like."

The library, beset by a critical staffing shortage and other needs, has an annual budget of only $35,000 for buying books in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Filipino and Vietnamese, said Jim Long, the librarian who specializes in foreign-language acquisitions. About half that amount goes toward purchase of Japanese books, which are in great demand and are the most expensive to buy, he said.

"Four or five years ago, the library established a separate fund for language collections at branches," Long said. "Previously, the branches were on their own and had to buy out of their own budget."

Many library branches still carve out whatever they can spare for their own purchases, he said, so there's never been a statewide count of foreign-language library books.

This year, Schindler said, library officials also managed to get about $30,000 and invited branch librarians to meet special needs by seeking a grant.

The library has come to rely on support from various sources. Long cited a recent donation offer from a Honolulu Korean book store, Jip Hyun Jon. Similarly, the Chinese collection that is based primarily at Liliha Library benefits from a donations drive mounted periodically by the branch's Chinese language technician, Julian Hui.

"I look at Chinese magazines and newspapers for bestsellers, and talk to patrons from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan," Hui said. "Hong Kong people, they're mostly speaking Cantonese and their interests are different. They like cookbooks and books on finance. Patrons from mainland China, it's more fiction and politics."

Long said the principal difficulty in expanding the collection is cataloging, especially the Asian titles written in characters that must be romanized for the database. They also must be categorized correctly, and it's sometimes hard to find resources to help librarians do that, he said.

This was the hurdle Sook Ki Moon faced when she decided to start underwriting the purchase of Korean books. Eight years ago, when she learned of cutbacks affecting the purchase of Korean books, she founded the Moon Book Club. Library officials told her the McCully branch would be the best location for the books.

Moon secured free shipping of the books via Korean Air Lines, found book discounts and other corporate supporters and managed to bring in more books for the money than the library had ever managed.

But when she learned how long it takes to get the books cataloged, she and her volunteers pitched in with the work so that the bestsellers she'd rushed in would not grow stale in the interim.

Speaking through an interpreter, Moon said that most recently the club has concentrated on getting books for children and youth, many of them comic-book versions of classic stories.

For her part, Schindler would love nothing more than to clone the Moon club for all language interests. Private donations may be the best hope for fulfilling the demand in the short term, she said.

"Would that we had the funds to accomplish what we want to do."

Reach Vicki Viotti at 525-8053 or vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com.