Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Libraries, Public and Home...

There are five shelves like this in our living room, and three or four more of this size in the rest of the house. And there are books on tables, books on desks, books in boxes, books in closets, books on chairs, books here and there. Books everywhere. The shelves are not perfectly tidy, but I think books like being a little mussed up and moved around and loved.

Melissa has something she would like to pursue in the future, but it will take four years of her life to do it, and she'll have to spend those four years in a town she does not like. She thinks the town is too remote and removed from civilization and is sort of depressing. I think the town is charming and fun and has a lot going for it, including culture. It's by no means a tiny town and is in a picturesque setting, but, yes, it is sort of remote. Melissa says that living there would be oppressive and she just can't imagine four years of that.

Then last week, Melissa suddenly remarked, with almost a flicker of hope and enthusiasm, "Okay, let's just go visit this town and check out its library!"

I began to laugh out loud because I knew exactly what she was getting at. "You mean if the library is decent, then living there will be bearable?"

"Yes! If it has a really great library, everything will be fine. I can endure four years of living pretty much anywhere if the library is really good."

And that is the way it is with our family.

We've been going to the library at least once a week since the kids were little. Our old town on the Oregon coast had the best children's section and children's librarians ever. The library itself had a character and warmth that was welcoming and comfortable. It was easy to settle in and hang out there for a long time, and on those dark, stormy coastal winter afternoons, it was a cozy place to be. My kids loved visiting that library, and we got to know the friendly library staff very, very well.

The head children's librarian was extremely cheerful, knowledgable, and helpful. He loved how much my kids loved to read and thought they had fine taste in books. He introduced us to some wonderful books and was always so pleased to see the kids eat up his recommendations. "Have your children discovered Swallows and Amazons?" (Oh, my!) This librarian said it was such a pleasure to see kids enjoying the really wonderful, old classic children's books, unlike many of the children who dropped by to look for something to read.

Over time, our family became quite familiar with the library shelves. Name a book, and we could immediately walk right to it and pluck it off the shelf without a pause. We happily left the library after every weekly visit with a large, overflowing box of books to take home.

While we visited the library regularly and were so thankful to have that resource, we also began building our own home library. I collected books that I thought would be beneficial for learning ("living" books and reference books), but mostly I looked for books that would be interesting and enjoyable to read, period. I wanted my children to love books for their own sake and not for their educational value. I wanted reading to be more than a school expectation. I wanted it to be a passion. And I wanted a book-rich home, not just for the children's sake, but for all of us.

So, we went to library sales and, for a quarter each, picked up many of those wonderful old classics that are far too often removed from library shelves. They were simply transferred to ours. And we visited used bookstores. We had a favorite used bookstore in that coastal town, and we stopped there often. The owner became quite friendly with us and would often direct us to whatever was new (if he thought it would interest us) as soon as we'd walk in the door. A good part of our early home library was built out of this wonderful bookstore.

Books became everyone's favorite thing to do and pursue. When birthday and Christmas wish lists were made, they were strongly dominated by books-- highly anticipated unread books or books that were already beloved and the children wanted to add them to their own collections. So, while the family library was being built, the kids' individual libraries were growing at the same time.

"When I get a little money, I buy books;
and if any is left, I buy food and clothes."
~Erasmus

Call us consumers ("sticks and stones...!"), but buying books was, and is, a budgetary priority in our home. We believed that having a home library was important. Having reference books right at hand when a question came up was helpful. We didn't have the internet for many years during the kids' childhood years, and, anyway, I think a book is a much lovelier reference tool than a computer program or the internet. But that's just me. And when a person is interested in something and reads about it endlessly, it helps to own a collection of worthy books on the topic. These books are studied and referred to again and again.

So, for a variety of reasons, books began to pile up in our home. New shelves were added often. Many of the books were read immediately, and many of them were not. The ones that weren't were there for future use, and most of them were read or used by someone in the family eventually, somewhere along the line.

When asked if he'd yet read all of the books in his personal library, Umberto Eco almost scoffed at the questioner and said something like, "Of course not-- it's a working library!"

To a person who adores books and reading, it's almost unthinkable not to have a line-up of reading material at hand. The thought of having nothing to read is practically scary. A pile of library books will suffice (and we always have plenty of these piles around our house), but a few books of your own, just waiting their turn to be picked up and perused and enjoyed, is a delight. In my opinion, it's unthinkable not to have unread books waiting in the wings. I love that I have little piles on my night table, just sitting there, ready to go.

When we love a book or an author's works, it's wonderful to have those books on the shelf. Is everyone as particular as we are as to the exact edition and illustrator of the book we want? And do you look for that certain feel-- the weight, the size, the texture of the paper-- to be just right? In the case of my children, they often look for the exact edition of the book that they checked out of the library over and over again when they first read the book. It's wonderful to be able to hold your own copy of those books and read them again and again.

So, in recent months, when I worked through the entire house to declutter and simplify, as I do annually, I made a decision: Books are not clutter. They are our friends. There are certainly many books I removed from the shelves and from around our home when I cleaned out the house. In fact, over the past several years, I've probably cut the size of our home library almost in half. I've given books to other homeschoolers, I've unwillingly lost too many to those who have borrowed and have not returned, I've given some to Goodwill, I've passed many of my kids' favorites along to them. But I don't think I want to whittle away at the book collection any more. Most of our books are so much a happy part of us-- our minds, our imaginations, our history, our lives-- that we are not willing to part with them.

And, meanwhile, we still eagerly walk through the doors of our public library at least once a week. We were just there yesterday, in fact, and we both brought home a fresh stacks of books. For free. Such a happy thing.