The rebirth of their ancient civilization in South Korea during
the past 15 years is among the major historical events of modern Asia. Korean culture,
dating back more than 3,000 years, stagnated during the 18th and 19th centuries as the
"hermit kingdom" isolated itself from the outside world. When Japan in 1910
formally incorporated Korea into its empire, indigenous history, literature and learning
With all formal education available only in Japanese, Koreans seeking to preserve their
heritage returned to the study of the archaic stylized literary forms of the yangban, the
scholar-gentry officials. Ordinary rural folk, however, were not in the position to learn
the complex pictographic language that would enable them to read the Confucian classics.
When Korea was liberated by Japan's surrender to the Allies in August 1945, all this
changed. Korean became the language of literature, government, commerce and education in a
public school system aimed at universal literacy. Perhaps inevitably the emphasis was
urban; even today there are only 118 public libraries in the country, rarely within reach
of rural families.
The Village Mini-Library Movement originated from a fortuitous happening in OHM
DAE-SUP's childhood after he moved with his poor family from Korea to the Kobe area of
Japan. While living in Tokuyama City he discovered that a wealthy man had opened his
library to neighbors, and OHM was amazed at the knowledge stored in books. As he read
avidly, OHM vowed that when he had made enough money he would bring back books to
villagers in Korea.
In 1951, in his hometown of Ulsan in southern Korea, OHM used his private collection of
some 3,000 volumes to found a library open to the public. By bicycle he distributed metal
bookcases to 50 villages, organizing a free circulating library. After two years he moved
his library to Kyongju, and discovering that it was not enough merely to distribute books,
he organized community reading clubs to overcome the villagers' apathy to reading. He also
fostered local leadership in selecting, sharing and caring for books, and in discussing
A decade later the Maul Munko (Village Mini-Library) association was formally
inaugurated. Despite scoffers, OHM continued selling his assets to pay the costs of the
Mini-Library Association. He lives now on income from a small building and a lot his two
younger brothers bought for him in Pusan in their names so that he could not sell them for
more books. Meanwhile, OHM's struggling private, non-profit group learned to select and
purchase wholesale from publishers books which deal primarily with farming, fishing,
children's and women's interests, literature and hobbies. Others banded with him to donate
mini-libraries to their hometowns, and in 1965 the Ministry of Education began to pay for
bookshelves and books. In 18 years OHM's perseverance has resulted in mini-libraries in
34,389, or 95 percent, of South Korea's villages. A Mini-Library Club of 10 to 20 mostly
young village volunteers manages each collection.
The mini-libraries have now been incorporated in the Saemaul Undong (New Village
Movement) which is upgrading and adding to the collections while OHM works unceasingly to
bring all libraries up the standard of the one-third that are working well. Already this
source of technical and cultural enrichment has contributed to the extraordinary economic
and physical transformation of South Korea's countryside.
For professional librarians OHM helped organize and fund the Korean Library
Association. At the age of 59 his driving motivation remains the concept that "only
knowledge can make man free."
In electing OHM DAE-SUP to receive the 1980 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service,
the Board of Trustees recognizes his abiding commitment toward making knowledge a tool for
life-betterment in rural Korea.