Kyujanggak, established in 1776 by King Jeongjo (r. 1776-1800), was originally a place to store works authored by kings as well as documents in the kings’ own handwriting. However, in the later part of the Joseon dynasty, there was an urgent need to respond to social and political changes, and in an active response to these needs, Kyujanggak was upgraded to a central institution for learning and politics: it managed books published in Joseon and China; the best officials of the day, whose knowledge was outstanding, worked here; a wide variety of books was published here; and Kyujanggak was also a place where the nation’s policies were drafted. At a time when policies were pursued on the basis of what could be found in old books, Kyujanggak was the institution that best exemplified this principle of “modeling oneself on the past to create the new” (“Beopgo changsin” 法古創新).
Despite a turbulent history of more than 200 years, the collection of books compiled and acquired by Kyujanggak has become a valuable resource preserving the history and traditions of our country. At the same time, part of the collection has been recognized by UNESCO as documentary heritage that is worth preserving for all mankind. The documents and books of Kyujanggak can be divided into the following five categories: 1) Documentary heritage of the world, 2) Uigwe (Records of ritual affairs), 3) Writings by kings and documentary drawings, 4) Old maps and geographical works, and 5) Documents about international exchanges.
Regarding the documentary heritage of the world, there are first and foremost seven national treasures (gukbo), including the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (Joseon wangjo sillok), Diary of the Royal Secretariat (Seungjeongwon ilgi), and Records of Daily Reflection (Ilseongnok), and twenty-six treasures (bomul), including the Map of the Territory of the Great Eastern Country (Daedong yeojido), Principles and Practices of Eastern Medicine (Dongui bogam), and Songs of Dragons Soaring to Heaven (Yongbi eocheon ga). Together with the uigwe, the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty and the Diary of the Royal Secretariat have been designated as UNESCO Memory of the World.
Second, the uigwe are comprehensive reports that detail in text and image the important events of the Joseon royal court. Prominent among these events are royal weddings, funerals, banquets, and other events that were part of the kings’ life. Besides these, there are many more uigwe records, dealing with, for example, archery competitions, the manufacture of instruments, diplomatic receptions, the construction of palaces or city walls, the compilation of the annals, the manufacture of royal or official seals, etc. The uigwe are extremely detailed, including information about even the lowly officials taking part in the events, as well as the products used and their expense. Most importantly, they include detailed pictures of all the people involved and the progression of events (banchado) and other diagrams, giving a vivid sense of the events, so that they truly deserve to be called “the flower of Joseon royal document culture.”
Third, the royal writings and documentary drawings are visual records of the beauty and pageantry of the royal court. The calligraphy of Kings Seonjo, Hyojong, Sukjong, Gyeongjong, Yeongjo, and Jeongjo that is preserved at Kyujanggak gives a vivid impression of their personalities. There are also writings by princes and figures connected to the court, and among these the Hangeul letters by Queen Sunwon and the manuscripts by the regent Heungseon Daewongun are noteworthy. At a time when there were no video cameras, the documentary drawings of events such as banquets for elderly officials (giroyeon), the first lectures for the crown prince, the dredging of the Cheonggyecheon, and the battles of the Imjin Wars are realistic depictions of historic events.
Fourth, there are old maps and geographic works that show us the former faces of Korea. Old maps reflect not only geographical knowledge of the time, but also technological knowledge and artistic sensibility; geographic works on the other hand include information about the history, famous people, produce, cultural relics etc. of all counties and districts, serving as sources for the history and characteristic customs of these localities. Kyujanggak has the biggest collection of old maps in the country, and thus you can see here both maps of counties and districts, maps of the whole country, and world maps, all executed with various techniques and on different scales.
Fifth, among the documents of international exchanges, there are the records of diplomatic missions to China (mainly Yeonhaengnok, records of visits to Beijing) and Japan, and also language manuals such as Nogeoldae (Conversational textbook of spoken Chinese) and Bak tongsa eonhae (Interpreter Bak, vernacular edition), which show the efforts put into international exchanges in the Joseon period. Through world maps such as the Map of an Integrated Territory of Historic Countries and their Capitals (Honil gangni yeokdae gukdo jido) and General Map of the World (Cheonha dojido) we can see how views about the world changed over the course of time.
Apart from this, the Kyujanggak collection also holds documents that give a vivid impression of life in the Joseon period, more than 2,000 literary collections (munjip) left behind by scholars, and printing blocks of Confucian classics and law codes, to name but a few. Regarding the modern period, there are also government documents that reveal the tribulations of Korea’s modern history, including the treaties concluded with Western powers and Japan, and important documents that show the illegal seizure of Korea’s sovereignty by Japan and the efforts by the Daehan empire to protect its sovereignty.
At the 230th anniversary of Kyujanggak’s founding, in 2006 Kyujanggak merged with the Institute of Korean Studies, and the “Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies” came into being. Thereby, Jeongjo’s dream of combining a library and research institute was given a new lease of life. Accordingly, we are striving to expand our social function by making research findings available to the public, and striving to implement a spirit of “Modeling oneself on the past to create the new” that is fit for the 21st century