Katrina Kerstetter pictured at the Koru Multicultural and Diverse Library in Tucson on Dec. 6, 2022.

When Katrina Kerstetter left the United States in 2003 to teach English in South Korea, she told herself she would come back a year later.

But life had other plans and the initial year-long endeavor turned out to be a 19-year adventure of culture, learning and books.

It was during her time in South Korea as a teacher, library curator and vice director of an English academy (or Hagwon in Korean), that she helped co-found the Koru Multicultural and Diverse Library with her friend and colleague, Mia Lee, on Jeju Island in South Korea in 2016.

The Koru Library features picture books — or as Kerstetter calls them, “illustrated books” — for all ages. The books are from around the world and focus on different cultures, understanding and mindfulness.

“We had worked together in another town and then in Seoul and we were into libraries,” Kerstetter says of Lee. “I was curating libraries the whole time and we were into books and reading and we just wanted to try something different. So, we moved to Jeju Island, just south of the mainland, and opened the library and still taught English, but we wanted to focus on learning about the world.”

Lee initially came up with the idea for Koru while she was living in New Zealand in the early 2000s, according to Kerstetter. 

“Her goal was to offer learners a new way of learning,” Kerstetter said in an email. “She wanted to make learning an inspiring and creative experience and to open learners’ hearts and minds while making intimate connections.”

Some of the handmade shelves at the Koru Multicultural and Diverse Library in Tucson. Many of the shelves are organized by countries and cultures.

After moving back to the United States earlier this year, Kerstetter, who grew up in Tucson, brought the concept to the Old Pueblo and opened the world’s second Koru Multicultural and Diverse Library at The Historic Y in August.

Tucson’s Koru Library is primarily filled with picture books from around the world with stories from places like South Korea, New Zealand and Taiwan. A majority of the books have been donated to the library.

“I still do reading and writing tutoring, mindfulness classes and adult illustrated book classes,” she says. “The library, right now, is in the beginning (phases) and I'm still finding what people want to know, what the market is here in Tucson, so we're getting the word out.”

The whole Koru Multicultural and Diverse Library is housed in a room at The Historic Y in Tucson on Dec. 6, 2022.

Tucked away in the second-floor hallway of The Historic Y at 738 N. Fifth Ave., the compact Koru Library sits behind a gray door with a small black sign dangling from its knob that says “Library is open... come on in!”

Unlike traditional libraries with fluorescent lights and tall bookshelves as far as the eye can see, you’re greeted by bright, natural lighting and short, handmade brick, wood and cinderblock shelves filled with colorful picture books. Kerstetter spent the summer dragging the bricks, wood, cinderblocks and books up the stairs to the second floor of The Historic Y since there is no elevator in the building. The Tucson Koru Library and everything in it were carefully selected by Kerstetter.

Choosing The Historic Y to be Koru Library’s home in the Old Pueblo seemed like a no-brainer to Kerstetter. She has a “cool” landlord and she likes the neighboring nonprofits, she says. 

“There's also the conference room downstairs, there's a patio plaza (so) we can go outside,” Kerstetter says. “I've taken students right out here when they got a little crazy. We went out here and did some running on the dance floor. So that, and as people leave, we can grow within this building.”

Currently, some of Koru Library’s neighbors include the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, Earthworks, Western Watersheds Project and Belly Dance Tucson.

'We’re just a little community library'

While Koru Library is a small, fully functional library with a computerized system in place (yes, this means you can sign up for your own library card, too, and it's free to check out books!), it offers so much more than just books to its visitors — it offers a place of cultural diversity and understanding to anyone who visits.

A peek at some of the Korean picture books on display at the Koru Multicultural and Diverse Library in Tucson on Dec. 6, 2022.

On top of the variety of global picture books, Kerstetter hosts weekly mindfulness classes for kids.

Kerstetter defines mindfulness like this:

“It is calmness and being aware of your feelings at the time,” she says. “So you could be angry, shouting at people, but being able to catch yourself and say, ‘No, I'm not angry at that. Where does that anger come from?’ ... Just being aware of that. And then we work with them on ways to breathe into calming yourself down and a lot of social-emotional learning.”

The mindfulness classes have been one of the more popular class options at the Tucson branch, compared to other reading and writing tutoring sessions, according to Kerstetter. She believes this is partly due to kids returning to the classroom after years of remote learning and adjusting to a whole new school and life experience that “is different from what we've ever known.”

Some of the books at the Koru Multicultural and Diverse Library in Tucson on Dec. 6, 2022.

Koru Library’s mindfulness classes are also used as a place to help youngsters recognize cultural diversity throughout the world. 

“If you can’t travel, you can travel through books, you can learn a lot about the other cultures,” she says.

One of the books that Kerstetter likes to show kids during these classes is “Same, Same but Different” by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw. The book tells the story of a young, white boy from the U.S. and an Indian boy who are pen pals, but despite living across the globe from each other, are more similar than different.

At each mindfulness class, the group starts with a breathing exercise to get everyone feeling calm, then they read one of the many picture books throughout the library, like “Same Same but Different,” while talking about their own lives and families, and then they finish the session with some type of activity that relates to the book they just read. 

The next winter workshop will feature “mindful learning” through Indian folk art, according to Kerstetter. Participants will create pattern drawings like mandalas while learning about India’s folk art.

“You become pretty mindful, you become centered and you're focused on that,” she says. “You can think about maybe some problems or how to work through them, but you're calm, especially with pattern drawing.”

Kerstetter hopes to show Tucson more than just mindfulness too, and she aspires to show that picture books aren’t just for kids — they’re for everyone.

“It's silly that adults think picture books are only for kids,” she says. “We had adults (at our opening), we had them come in and each grab a book and read it. And then we sat in a circle and they shared (what they learned). ...  And then a guy had a Korean book and he said, ‘Well, I don't understand Korean, but I get what they said from the pictures. I got the story.’”

Koru Multicultural and Diverse Library creator Mia Lee pictured on The Historic Y patio during a visit to the Koru Library in Tucson.

Whether you’re in Tucson or South Korea, Koru Library wants to stay true to its name and help you find a sense of “new life, growth, strength and peace,” which is what Koru represents in the Māori language. The term stuck with Lee while she was living in New Zealand and it later became the moniker for the library.

Despite opening a second branch in Tucson, Kerstetter plans to keep the library small-scale and community-oriented so she can continue to teach locals about cultural diversity and mindfulness in a positive, peaceful environment. 

She also hopes to keep working with other local nonprofits, like the Iskashitaa Refugee Network, and eventually have some of the Koru Library students in South Korea come to Tucson to visit the new library and learn about life in the U.S.

“We're here as a library and everyone's welcome,” Kerstetter says. “Any kind of help you need. We won't send anybody away for anything. ... We’re just a little community library.”

For more information about the Koru Multicultural and Diverse Library or to sign up for a class, check out their website or their Instagram pages (Tucson and South Korea). 

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Digital Features Reporter

Elvia is a journalism and history graduate from the University of Arizona. She hopes to create stories that show what makes Tucson and its community special.