The Korean American Digital Archive (KADA)

A conversation with Kenneth Klein on the archive and its aim to broaden people’s understanding of Korean experiences in the United States. 

In an effort to share the background behind pertinent and fascinating special collections and exhibits with our readers, Choice regularly conducts interviews with curators, archivists, and directors in a segment called Ask an Archivist. In commemoration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re highlighting our latest feature for TIE‘s readers on the Korean American Digital Archive (KADA) with Kenneth Klein, Ph.D., Emeritus Librarian at the University of Southern California. Throughout the conversation, Kenneth details the background behind KADA and the significance of its timeline dating from 1903 to 1965. Kenneth explains KADA’s digitization process, the value of preserving oral histories, and how the archive seeks to broaden people’s understanding of Korean experiences in the United States. 

How would you describe the Korean American Digital Archive (KADA) to a perfect stranger?  

KADA exists to collect, preserve, and disseminate an archival record of the “Pioneer” community of Korean Americans. 

The Korean American Digital Archive dates from 1903 to 1965. Could you explain the significance of this period, and how it informs the archive’s overall mission?   

The first generation of Koreans who came to the United States were leaving their homeland as it fell increasingly under Japanese colonial rule. Their lives, and those of their children and even grandchildren, were largely shaped by the effort to regain Korea’s independence and unity. 

The Korean American Digital Archive consists of “more than 13,000 pages of documents, over 1,900 photographs, and about 180 sound files.” Why collect these material types? What is the value of documenting these primary sources for a community that has often been overlooked and under researched?

Many of the documents had been hidden away in closets or attics and could very easily have been discarded by the children and grandchildren of those who originated them as unreadable or of scant interest. Many records, I fear, were in fact lost. Individually, a lot of documents probably did not look worth keeping. Brought together, however, and put in a context where they can be related to themselves and to events, their value becomes fundamental. Photos, especially when they can be identified, can sometimes present irrefutable facts that require a researcher to search for answers that had not been raised. Most of the sound files are interviews with individuals from the first two generations of Koreans who came to the United States relating what their lives were like in America, stories that, again, could easily have been otherwise lost. 

“Photos, especially when they can be identified, can sometimes present irrefutable facts that require a researcher to search for answers that had not been raised.”

What led to the decision to make this a digital archive? What did the digitization process entail? 

When we started to collect materials on the Korean American community, we were often met with reluctance from families and organizations that were hesitant to part with their families’ records. There were also suspicions that we would make the materials difficult for anyone other than academic researchers to access. Once the concept of a digital archive came to us, we were able to ask people to loan us their papers or photos just long enough to digitize them. After digitization, we returned the materials, often in better order and condition than they were in before. The papers and photos could also be made available to anyone with internet access by hosting them in an open access database. From that point on, we were able not only to collect materials more widely, but also to see them have greater impact.  

Chinese, Korean and Filipino National Guard units in Los Angeles Chinatown, 1942.
“Chinese, Korean and Filipino National Guard units in Los Angeles Chinatown, 1942”

As mentioned in the collection description, KADA seeks to catalog the “organizational and private experience of Koreans in America.” What does documenting the private and everyday experiences of Korean Americans reveal that might be lost among more formal organization records?   

Events and relationships can provide very different perspectives when, for example, you contrast an organization’s mission and stated ideals with how the organization was perceived by individual members or by their children. Some members of the second generation of Koreans that immigrated to the United States remember dreading or resenting the visits of prominent officials from the Korean American organizations, as they were always asking for—and receiving—money for independence activism. Also, some of the interviews in KADA are with Koreans who grew up far away from Hawaii or California, where there were sizable communities of Koreans. Their recorded memories provide a useful contrast for understanding the early Korean American experience. 

A fascinating aspect of the Korean American Digital Archive is its inclusion of oral history interviews from the Korean American Museum. Could you speak to the importance of creating an archive on Korean American history from the perspectives of Korean Americans themselves? What is the value of the spoken word?   

The first couple dozen interviews in KADA came from the Korean American Museum, but many more came from other sources, including a number of interviews with the first generation of Korean Americans. Sonia Sunoo, a Korean American teacher and researcher, interviewed several first-generation Korean women who came to America as “picture brides.” The practice of sending photographs back and forth to the home country was a well-known custom for East Asian immigrant men who had come to Hawaii or California to earn a living. Most commonly, the topic is mentioned parenthetically or as a way of accounting for the source of the men’s wives. Through interviews with the women, however, we are able to see each as an individual with her own aspirations, worries, and life choices.  

Map of Korean community in 1930s Los Angeles, hand drawn by Col. Young Oak Kim.
Map of Korean community in 1930s Los Angeles, hand drawn by Col. Young Oak Kim.

The Korean American Digital Archive also includes several manuscripts from the writer Nak Chung Thun. Recently, two works in the Nak Chung Thun Archive “have been the basis for the publication of two volumes in South Korea: Kujejŏk Kangdo: Thun Nak Chung sŏnjip [Righteous Robber and Other Writings by Nak Chung Thun], edited by Jae-moon Hwang (Seoul: Somyong chulpan, 2020), and Hong Chungnae chŏn [The Tale of Hong Chungnae], edited by Jae-moon Hwang and Ji-young Yi (Seoul: Somyong chulpan, 2023).” What does this reveal about the influence of the Korean American Digital Archive on modern scholarship and Korean Studies?  

The collection of Nak Chung Thun manuscripts is a good example of the value of preserving records. Written in a form of scholarly Korean unreadable except by specialist academics, the Thun manuscripts were unapproachable for years. It took us 15 years to find a group of scholars who had the ability and the time to review them and to begin bringing the stories and essays within the reach of the broader public. KADA as a whole includes a range of documents, photos, and personal recollections that provide opportunities for observant researchers to discover and build upon. The metadata that is used to attract researchers’ attention and guide them to these information sources cannot describe what value they might hold for any person. That requires some patience and initiative. 

The Korean American Digital Archive is part of the Korean Heritage Library (KHL), which is “among the best Korean Studies libraries in North America.” How has being part of the KHL contributed to the breadth of the archive? What are the benefits of the library being a member of the Korean Collections Consortium of North America?   

To state the most obvious, we would never have thought of beginning to collect and archive materials on Korean Americans if we had not already committed to building a strong library collection for Korean studies. In 1985, University of Southern California (USC) Libraries made a strategic decision to make its Korean collection the central feature of USC’s East Asian Library. This was a unique approach, as Korean has been by far the weakest part of any established East Asian Libraries in the history of East Asian Librarianship in America. When we were ready to launch the Korean Heritage Library, we invited Korean librarians from the five established academic Korean collections in the nation (as of 1985, the Library of Congress, Harvard, Columbia, University of Washington, and UC Berkeley) to advise us. When asked where USC could have the greatest and most unique impact in the field, they told us that nobody was collecting Korean American materials and USC was situated in the city with the largest Korean population outside of Korea. The close involvement of the pioneer Korean community in the Korean independence movement guided us to concentrate, at first, on those early generations and later to build a solid collection of printed sources about modern and contemporary Korean history and culture.  

There has long been a sharp distinction between Asian Studies and Asian American Studies, the latter being considered a part of American Studies. Academic training and funding sources are different for the two areas, and tenure consideration makes it particularly difficult for scholars to cross these boundaries. USC Libraries’ success with KADA has allowed us, in a way, to consider this as an example of academic “border crossing.” Also with that, it prompted the Korean Collections Consortium of North America (KCCNA) to encourage and provide funding for its member institutions to collect Korean American materials in each of their parts of the country.  

This allows USC to concentrate on Southern California and rely on other members for materials in other regions. KCCNA also divided disciplines for each member to focus on, which helps build deeper and richer collections in assigned subject areas. Funded by generous grants from the Korea Foundation since 1994, these materials are shared through free interlibrary loans. As membership grew from the initial six members in 1994 to 14 in 2024, the universities that joined late were assigned responsibility for collecting Korean diaspora materials outside of North America including China, Japan, and South America.   

Nine women at a piano
Nine women at a piano.

What do you hope people take away from the Korean American Digital Archive? How does the archive challenge stereotypes of Korean Americans and broaden understandings of Korean experiences in the United States? 

“More broadly, I would like the collection to have helped make the point that historians write history based on the information they are able to assemble and explain.”

I hope that the number of materials and their diversity helps demonstrate that the Korean community, small as it was during its first 60 years or so, was complicated and diverse despite being broadly motivated by the unifying purpose of winning independence for their mother country. More broadly, I would like the collection to have helped make the point that historians write history based on the information they are able to assemble and explain. The more stories and data that are available, the more accurate and interesting will be the history—or histories—that are written.    

 Are there any future developments planned for KADA? Is the archive still collecting materials? Are any partnerships or digitization projects in the works?  

We do continue to seek out more archival materials to collect and preserve in KADA, including the records of the post 1965 immigrant generations. Since the 1992 LA riots, the Korean American community has gone through tremendous social and attitudinal changes. All generations have their own unique stories to tell and KADA has a role to play in collecting and preserving the records. In addition to archival records, we also collect published works from the robust Korean American literary communities. Though written in the Korean language, Korean American literature is distinctive from Korean literature. 

As not all of our archival resources are digitized or digitizable, we provide travel grants, generously funded by the Overseas Korean Studies and Heritage Foundation (OKSHF) endowment, for distant scholars to come to USC for onsite research on KADA and other archival resources at the Korean Heritage Library. We also have large files of important collections (such as the 18,000- page Korean National Association collection) waiting to be loaded into KADA. Until those collections become available online in KADA, they can be accessed onsite.     

One of the salient values of digital collections is its convenient availability to a broad audience. And, just as it is not necessary for a library to own the original document or photograph in order to allow open or easy access to it, it is also not necessary (even if it were possible) for all records of Korean Americans to be hosted in one library’s platform. Other libraries have materials that could be included in a Korean American Digital Archive that is multi-institutional. The University of Hawaii Manoa, UCLA and, of course, libraries and museums in Korea, could potentially partner with USC in broadening KADA to become a more comprehensive resource for driving this field of interest and study forward. 

I would also suggest that KADA could serve as a model—for both its successes and its mistakes—in developing such resources in other fields, such as the USC Libraries’ Filipino American Digital Archive.  

About the interviewee:

Kenneth Klein headshot.

Kenneth Klein served as Head of the East Asian Library at the University of Southern California between the years 1983 and 2020. In that role, he oversaw the founding of the University’s Korean Heritage Library and worked closely with its Curator, Joy Kim, to build it into one of the country’s leading academic Korean collections. He was particularly involved in the development of Korean and Korean American related digital collections, in particular the Korean American Digital Archive (KADA) and the Peace Corps Korea Archive. He retired from USC in 2020, but continues to serve as a member of the Korean American Pioneer Council, a community-based organization formed for the purpose of preserving the recorded memory of the “pioneer generations” of the Korean American community (those who emigrated prior to 1965).

Learn more about the Korean American Digital Archive.

This interview was conducted by Ashley Roy. She is the digital media assistant at Choice.