Korean studies may be absent from Yale’s academic departments, but the National Library of Korea is stepping in to help preserve important research materials in Yale’s library holdings for scholars of Korean culture.

The National Library of Korea is funding the digitization of all 140 volumes in Yale’s East Asia and Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript libraries. The works, which include royal editions in moveable type, Buddhist sutras and woodblock prints from 18th and 19th century Korea, will be available with page images and bibliographic information in the National Library’s own Korean Old & Rare Collection Information System (KORCIS) and on the Yale library website starting in September 2012. Physical copies of documents in the collection will remain at Yale.

“This is the first time the Korean national library will digitize the whole volumes of one institution,” said Youngaie Kim, a librarian who is working with Yale’s East Asia Library on a visit from Korea. “The Yale library doesn’t have many Korean rare or old books compared with Harvard or Columbia, but Yale has very precious books.”

She said that while Yale lacks a Korean studies program, which limits the University’s incentive to add to its collection, the Korean government is determined to collect and preserve all of Yale’s Korean materials. Harvard and Columbia both offer Korean Studies programs, and the National Library has digitized 945 volumes from Harvard’s Korean collection and 94 from Columbia’s.

“The [Yale] collection provides a fascinating glimpse of the artistic and publishing world of the late Joseon period,” said Hyeeun Lee, a rare book specialist for the National Library of Korea, of the dynasty that extended from 1392 to 1910 in a Sunday email to the News.

Lee added that the collection is notable for its variety, since it includes religious, secular and government publications. Yale also has manuscript maps, a novel written in Korean script and paintings.

The National Library of Korea carefully assesses the extent to which a volume has been preserved in other collections around the world before agreeing to digitalize it, Lee said. While many of Yale’s printed works are also held in collections in Korea, Lee said, Yale’s prints are good candidates for preservation because they are examples of woodblock and moveable type printing technologies used during the Joseon period. Some of the more unique manuscripts have been studied by scholars such as the East Asia Library’s curator, Ellen Hammond. The result of Hammond’s research was her 2011 article, “Korean Cultural Treasures in the Yale University Library.”

Yale’s 19th century copy of an undated novel written in the Korean Hangul alphabet by an unknown author is a good research tool for scholars investigating the Korean novel and the history of the Korean writing system, Kim said.

University Librarian Susan Gibbons said the digitization project falls in line with Yale’s goal of preserving and returning cultural documents to their countries of origin.

“[The project] is a great example where we were able to bring to our collections something very valuable,” Gibbons said. “We were able to keep it safe for them.”

The Yale Association of Japan alumni group originally donated the works in the Beinecke to Yale in 1934, while the items in the East Asia Library were added later.

The National Library of Korea spent eight months evaluating and negotiating its preservation deal with Yale, Lee said.

Since 1982, the National Library of Korea has added to its print and digital collections about 8,000 books and manuscripts from 30 organizations in Japan, China, France and Taiwan.