Kim Seongha and the Korean Collection of the Harvard-Yenching Library

Boston University Yearbook Photo of Kim Seongha, The 1955 Hub, Vol 25 (Boston: n.p., 1955)

Scholars engaged in Korean Studies in the United States owe a debt to the Korean collection of the Harvard-Yenching Library, the largest university library for East Asian research in the Western world. Although the Korean collection now boasts more than 120,000 volumes of monographs, along with 920 periodicals, and more than 6,000 reels of microfilm, its beginning was very humble.[1] It began with only 372 volumes that had been taken from existing Chinese and Japanese collections in 1951.[2] Behind the remarkable growth and development of the Korean collection was one Korean Boston University alumnus, Kim Seongha, who devoted thirty years to the collection.

Kim Seongha was born in Pyeongyang, Korea, in 1924. He attended Seoul National University from 1948 to 1950, majoring in French Literature, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953).[3] After serving as an interpreter for the U.S. Marines fighting in the war, he left Korea in 1952 and enrolled at Boston University.[4] While studying at Boston University, he worked for the newly-inaugurated Korean collection of the Yenching Library across the Charles River as a student assistant.[5] The Yenching Library was one of the few places Korean men could find employment in the Boston area in the 1950s. At the time he could not have expected that he would return to this place in the future and play an important role developing the Korean collection.

Dr. Ko tells about discrimination faced by Koreans in employment and housing in the Boston area in the 1950s and some strategies immigrants used to survive.

In 1955, Kim graduated from Boston University with an A.B. in History. He moved to Los Angeles and earned a M.L.S. from the University of Southern California in 1958. Right after that, he was invited by the Harvard-Yenching Library to be the Senior Korean Cataloger with the responsibility of developing and cataloging the library’s Korean collection. He held that position for ten years and was promoted to Assistant Librarian in 1968. While serving the collection, Kim Seongha was active in collecting Korean materials through various travels and fund-raising. These efforts led to the establishment of the Korea Research Foundation Fund at the Library, and the annual gift program underwritten by the Yeonam Foundation of the Lucky-Star Group in Seoul, to name a few.[6]

His efforts to raise money for the Korean collection from the Korean government, however, illustrated some tensions in modern Korean history. In 1961, President Park Chung-hee came to power in South Korea through a military coup. During his dictatorship, he attempted to secure long-term power by amending the Korean constitution in 1972. This new constitution was called Yusin, and the frequent use of repressive measures to silence criticism, such as student protests, was the hallmark of the Yusin system. Two prominent international critics of the Yusin system were Harvard professors, Edwin Reischauer and Jerry (Jerome) Cohen. For example, Reischauer noted that the U.S. commitment to democracy in South Korea was seriously threatened by Yusin. Cohen also warned the U.S. government that U.S. support for Park Chung-hee would severely damage South Korea’s internal cohesion and weaken Korea’s democracy.[7]

In the midst of this political turmoil, the Korean Trade Association offered to donate one million dollars to Harvard University for Korean Studies in 1975. The Boston Globe criticized the donation as a means of buying Harvard into silence on the dictatorship of the Korean government.[8] Edward Wagner, who taught Korean Studies at Harvard, responded to the Globe arguing that the articles “offer little in the way of fairness” and making clear that the Korean Trade Association did not “attach any conditions to the gift,” so it was unthinkable that the gift was calculated to “mute criticism in the U.S. academic circles of Korean President Park’s regime.”[9] Although in reply the Globe reported that Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, Jr., the chairman of the fundraising committee for Harvard’s East Asian Research Center, confirmed Wagner’s assertions, it continued to claim the Korean Trade Association was a “Korean government agency.”[10]

Kim Seongha ’s major publications include the three-volume Classified Catalogue of Korean Books in the Harvard-Yenching Library, published from 1962 to 1980. Kim developed a unique and ingenious system for arranging the card catalog that allowed users to keep the Korean spellings in mind while maintaining English alphabetical order.[11] To honor his work, he was awarded an honorary Lit.D. by Pusan National University in 1976, and a memorial fund, named the “Sungha Kim Memorial Book Fund” was established at the Harvard-Yenching Library in 1986.[12]

In 1989, he died at his post.[13] At the time of his death in 1989, he was a member of the Executive Committee of the Korea Institute of Harvard University, and the Chair of the Subcommittee on Korean Materials of the Committee on East Asian Libraries of the Association for Asian Studies.  He was a founding member of both the first Korean Church of Boston and Korean Beacon United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a president of the Korean Society of Boston.[14]


[1] Harvard-Yenching Library Korean Collection,, accessed on March 20, 2013.

[2] Kim Seongha , “Korean Collection,” December 8, 1971, cited in Yun Jungnam, The Cradle of Korean Studies at Harvard University: Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Korean Collection at Harvard-Yenching Library (Seoul: Ŭryu munhwasa, 2001), 43.

[3] Yun, 18.

[4] In that year (1952), Dr. Doo Soo Suh, who would become the father-in-law of Kim Seongha, founded America’s first Korean Studies program at Harvard University. Ibid., 19-20.

[5] Kim Seongha, “Koreatown, a Photo History” (Address given at the opening of the exhibition, “Koreatown, a Photo History,” at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, May 10, 1988).

[6] Yun, 30.

[7] Kim Byeongguk and Ezra F. Vogel, The Park Chung Hee Era: the Transformation of South Korea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 461-3.

[8] Yun, 29.

[9] Edward W. Wagner, “Initiative was Harvard’s,” The Boston Globe, November 24, 1976, cited in Yun, 61-62.

[10] Nina McCain, “No Strings on Korea Gift, Harvard Alumnus says,” The Boston Globe, December 20, 1076, cited in Yun, 58-60.

[11] Edward W. Wagner, “Kim Seongha Eulogies,” (Delivered at the Korean Beacon United Methodist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 18, 1989).

[12] Harvard College Library Funds: Kim Seongha Memorial Book Fund,, accessed on March 20, 2013.

[13] Yun, 18.

[14] “Kim Seongha, 64; Assistant Librarian at Harvard, Asian History Expert,” The Boston Globe, January 18, 1989.

Written by: Hye Jin Lee

Edited by: Doug Tzan