Old Korean Books at the Bibliothèque Universitaire des Langues et Civilisations, France

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Old Korean Books at the Bibliothèque Universitaire des Langues et Civilisations, France

Cho Jungki, Former Librarian
Old Korean Collection, BULAC

Located in the southeast of Paris, the Bibliothèque Universitaire des Langues et Civilisations (BULAC) houses the largest number of books in non-Western languages among all the libraries in France. It houses materials in 350 languages from some 180 countries and civilizations, including from the Balkans, Eastern and Central Europe, the Maghreb, the Near East, the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, East Asia, the South Sea Islands, and the native cultures of South America. Opened in 2011, BULAC is a public interest group in nature as it is associated with nine universities and research institutes rather than belonging to a single university. The founding members of the group are Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3, Sorbonne Université, Université Paris Cité, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), École Française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE), and Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO). Built by combining collections from roughly 20 libraries associated with these institutions, BULAC currently houses around 1.5 million monographs and 2,100 titles of periodicals. Its core collection was inherited from the library of École des Langues Orientales, which was established in 1795 based on the École des Jeunes de Langue that was founded in 1669.1 The library of École des Langues Orientales, a school which has historically trained a great number of diplomats, operated under Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3 with the name Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire des Langues Orientales (BIULO) from 1978 to 2009. Since it has taken in books from institutions that have long played a key role in area studies in France, BULAC has a significant number of old books.2

While the Ministry of Culture defines old documents as “monographs, periodicals, maps, or sheet music published before 1830, and paintings and audio materials that are 50 years old or older,”3 BULAC defines them as those published before 1850 for European and Western publications and before 1920 for other languages. Accordingly, Korean materials published before 1920 are classified as old books (fonds coréen ancien) and managed separately. BULAC houses the largest number of old Korean books among all French libraries, including 648 titles and about 1,500 volumes of old books, maps, and prints.4 While this is fewer compared to its old Chinese and Japanese collections, it is still highly valuable in terms of its diversity and rarity. The Korean collection covers a wide range of forms and subjects, including language, history, literature, science, and medicine, and includes a number of rare and precious books. Examples of the only extant copies of books include Tyŏngni ŭigwe, the oldest surviving uigwe in hangeul (it was published by the order of King Jeongjo); Wŏndalgoga, a book that records the songs that workers sang during the construction of the French Legation around 1890; Kaesu ch'ŏphae shinŏ, the 1748 revised version of Cheophaeshineo, a Japanese language study book published by the Sayeokwon, a foreign language institution under the Joseon Dynasty government; and Tonggung chiri hae, a geography book T'aengniji written in hangeul that is presumed to have been hand-copied in the late 18th century. Muye chebo, Korea’s oldest extant book on martial arts, was published in 1598 and is another rare book housed in BULAC. A copy of this book in the Suwon Hwaseong Museum was recently designated as a treasure by the South Korean government. BULAC’s old Korean collection also includes 56 titles of banggakbon (woodblock printed books made for commercial purposes) novels published in the mid to late 19th century. These are gyeongpanbon, which means that they were published in Seoul. Including books with the same title but under different formats, the Korean collection has a total of 45 old novels. In addition, BULAC houses Namwŏn kosa, which a different version of Chunhyangjeon that was designed to have been borrowed from book lenders (sechaekjeom). In terms of old maps, it holds a total of 15 titles, eight of which are hand-copied. The map collection includes two volumes of Ch'ŏnggudo by Kim Jeong-ho; one woodblock printed version and one hand-copied manuscript of Taedongyŏjido; and two woodblock printed versions and two hand-copied manuscripts of Tonggukp'altodaech'ongdo, which are presumed to have been created in different periods.

The old Korean collection at BULAC was mostly acquired through donations. According to the library’s records, the collection includes 605 donations (excluding one with a missing donation number) and 42 purchases. Most of the donations (560 titles) were made by Victor Collin de Plancy (1853-1924), the first French Minister to Korea. Collin de Plancy served in Seoul for eleven-odd years between 1888 and 1906. He was not only a book collector but also deeply interested in Korean art. During his stay in the country, he collected a large number of books and donated the bulk to École des Langues Orientales Vivantes. According to the library’s records, he provided books to the library in three donations: 186 titles from 1888 to 1891 , 71 titles in 1895, and 291 titles in 1903.5 Given the records and the conditions of the books, it seems that most of the books that he donated in 1903 were brought to France for the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1900.6 Most of the materials that he donated before 1900 have a bookplate and brief bibliographic information on the endsheet. The bookplates are marked with 葛, a character from his Chinese name (葛林德), along with “Ex Libris Collin de Plancy."

Some of the books in the collection came from the personal library of Maurice Courant (1865-1935), who served as an interpreter for the French Legation office in Korea from 1890 to 1892. Bibliographie coréenne,7 which is a highly precious material for Korean bibliographic research, was published by Courant between 1894 and 1901. Consisting of four volumes, it documents bibliographic information for a total of 3,841 titles of Korean books by dividing them into nine categories. Courant donated seven titles of Korean books to the library around 1895 and sold 15 titles through the Dorbon bookstore in central Paris. Dorbon was once an important supplier of books to the library of École des Langues Orientales. Arnold Vissière (1858-1930), a Chinese Studies scholar, donated four titles around 1887 and Jean-Joseph Beauvais (1876-1924) donated 16 titles and sold one title to the library between 1927 and 1928. The Beauvais collection mostly contains books on science, mathematics, and medicine, but it also includes law books and Taedongyŏdo. In addition to those purchased from Courant and Beauvais, the library purchased a further 26 Korean books in 1971. Given that the seller is noted as “Kerim Book” and the price is marked in Korean won, it is assumed that they were purchased from a Korean bookstore or publisher.

Most of the old Korean books housed in BULAC are in good condition. Unlike some libraries that renew the covers of oriental books in a western style, BULAC preserves them as they arrived. BULAC also has both government and commercial publications, at least partly because the Korean collection includes a variety of books that Collin de Plancy purchased, received as gifts as the French minister to Korea, and brought to France for the Exposition Universelle. In return for the three pieces of Sèvres porcelain that Collin de Plancy gave the king of Korea in 1888 in celebration of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Korea, King Gojong gave French President Sadi Carnot two pieces of Goryeo celadon along with the two books Wŏnhaeng ŭlmyo chŏngni ŭigwe and Mokchaegasuk hwich'an yŏsa. Following Collin de Plancy’s suggestion, the French president donated the books to École des Langues Orientales Vivantes in 1891. In each book, there is a small piece of paper attached on the endsheet with the title and bibliographic information of the book. At the bottom of the paper it reads "Ouvrage offert par S.M. le Roi de Corée à M. le Président de la République Française” (Book offered by H.M. the King of Korea to the President of the Republic of France). The library also houses four books that King Gojong gave to Collin de Plancy: Mokchaegasuk tongguk t'onggam jegang, Sagi yŏngsŏn, Chagyŏngjŏn jinjak chŏngrye ŭigwe, and Hyangnye happ'yŏn.

Photo 5. The cover of Wŏnhaeng ŭlmyo chŏngni ŭigwe and the bibliographic information
recorded on the other side of the cover (Collection de la BULAC, COR.I.130)

Call marks for old Korean books start with COR.I, COR.II, or COR.III. Six hundred twenty-two titles are numbered between COR.I.1 to COR.I.622, and roughly 30 titles have call marks beginning with either COR.II or COR.III. With the exception of Dictionnaire Coréen-Français, the first Korean-French dictionary, which was donated to the library in 1881, all of the materials with call marks starting with COR.II or COR.III were purchased from Kerim Book in 1971.

The old Korean collection at BULAC became widely known when Professor Lee Ok of Université Paris Diderot published a catalog of Korea-related materials in France in 1969. In 1982 and 2002, the National Library of Korea created microfilm copies of 615 titles of old literature housed in BULAC. These microfilms are housed in BULAC, but image files can be viewed on the KORCIS website of the National Library of Korea (https://www.nl.go.kr/korcis). In 2017, officials from the Suwon City government visited the library to examine and copy of Tyŏngni ŭigwe, the only extant copy of the book. Tyŏngni ŭigwe originally consisted of a total of 48 books. Among the 13 of them that have survived, twelve are housed in BULAC and one is in the National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France). The Suwon City government created a digital copy of the 13 books housed at these two organizations. Early this year, BULAC published digitized original images of Tyŏngni ŭigwe on the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/COR.I.21.29).

Library members can submit a request to view an old book through the internet or at the physical library. Once the request is accepted, they can view the book in la Salle de la Réserve (the reserve room), which is open from 14:00 to 18:30 from Monday through Saturday. Most books in the collection are cataloged on paper cards. Card catalogs for old Korean books are kept in a separate catalog box. Some are typed, but others are written by hand. The diversity of the handwriting shows that the cards were created by a number of different librarians over a long period of time. Woodblock and moveable type prints can be searched on BULAC’s online catalog system (https://catalogue.bulac.fr/) or Sudoc, the integrated catalog system for university and research institute libraries in France (http://www.sudoc.abes.fr). Online catalogs show the titles in both the original language and McCune-Reischauer Romanization. There is a separate catalog for manuscripts, known as Calames, but the part that includes Korean manuscripts has yet to be digitized. Researchers from various fields, including bibliography and history, visit BULAC every year to access the old Korean collection. It is hoped that both the catalog and rare Korean books and documents can soon be digitized so that these materials can be more easily accessible.


1Labrousse, Pierre, Langues'O, 1795-1995: deux siècles d'histoire de l'École des langues orientales, Paris: Edition Hervas, 1995, p.9.

2Qui sommes-nous ? http://www.bulac.fr/landing/15

3Ministère de la Culture, Guide de gestion des documents patrimoniaux à l’attention des bibliothèques territoriales, Paris, Direction générale des médias et des industries culturelles, 2020, p. 15.

4While the total number of old Korean materials with call marks is 651, it is 648 if excluding Chinese manuscripts and missing materials.

5The years indicate when the books were cataloged at the library rather than when they were donated. It is estimated that the books were donated around these years.

6Courant, Maurice. Supplément à la “Bibliographie coréenne", jusqu'en 1899, Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1901, p. XVII.

7Courant, Maurice. Bibliographie coréenne. Tableau littéraire de la Corée. Contenant la nomenclature des ouvrages publiés dans ce pays jusqu’en 1890 ainsi que la description et l’analyse détaillées des principaux d’entre ces ouvrages, Paris : E. Leroux, 1894-1901.

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