Have you ever been in another town with a few hours to kill and some work to do? Had a couple of hours spare between appointments? Been working at home but fancied a change of scene? Where would you go? Perhaps you’d end up in a café full of distractions, perched on a stool with your laptop, wasting money on a drink you didn’t want, until your battery ran out. But what about the local library? I bet you wouldn’t even consider it.

When I think of a public library, various negative things come to mind: a gloomy atmosphere; a musty smell; hardly any tables where you can spread out your papers; a building in a state of disrepair; grumpy-looking pensioners… It’s not a place where I would actively want to spend time. But imagine if, instead, you quite liked going to the library for a few hours. Not because you are a bookworm with plenty of spare time or a poorly heated house, but because it was a place where people like you regularly went; where everybody could come to work in peace if they wanted; where you’d be happy to spend the day.

To describe what such a place might be like, I would like to introduce you to the splendid Sejong City branch of the Korean National Library, which opened last year. It’s free to join, open till 9pm most evenings, and the staff are friendly and welcoming. It’s full of bright natural light, with plentiful desk space. Wifi is available throughout, along with dozens of PCs (no charge for use), and cheap printing facilities.

inside Sejong library

Bright and spacious

For those spending a bit of time here, it offers a decent coffee shop at ground level, a small convenience shop, and two restaurants on the top floor. At one of these, good everyday Korean food is available (as much as you like) for a fixed price of around £3. At the other, which has a panoramic view over the lake, there is a more international menu and table service, with most meals costing between £6 and £10.

view from Sejong National Library

View from restaurant tables

A few more features. The basement contains a large children’s space, including a small cinema room, which leads out to a play area. Its two banks of solar panels produce more electricity than the library consumes. It has seminar rooms which anybody can reserve and use for free. And, while I barely care about the books here, it does have shelf space for 6 million of them (though these aren’t all in place yet).

This is a public space in a rather twentieth-century sense. It is paid for by public money, open to all, owned by the state, and – relatedly – highly regulated (necessarily, since it is, after all, a library). It seems to me like public money very well spent; a clear example of people achieving more for all by pooling their resources.

It did cost £58 million to build, so it would seem unrealistic to suggest that we should have something like this on every corner. And I should make it clear that I am not promoting South Korea as a perfect example of public service provision generally; for a start, there is no free healthcare here. But every country, of course, has choices about how it spends public money. I can’t help thinking, for example, about the £25 billion (plus £2 billion per year in maintenance) which the UK government is considering spending on a replacement Trident nuclear missile system. For the same money, we could have 431 superb community spaces like the one where I’m sitting this morning, in our name, and used and enjoyed by us all.


15 June 2014, Sejong City