A Few Good Books: How Libraries Make for Lifelong Learners

By Sarah Clarkson

My second day as a student at the University of Oxford had arrived and with it, the most important event of my orientation week. Or so I was told. The receipt of my student library card did not seem to me to be the high point of an introduction to Oxford, yet the event was marked on my schedule in bold letters, eagerly alluded to by staff, and was to be followed by quite the celebration. My mental image of signing a form and receiving a plastic card did not match the pomp attached to this ceremony. Curious, I simply followed along. 

At dusk that evening, we fifty or so exchange students were led into the darkling Oxford streets and walked to the famous Bodleian Library, where we were ushered into a set of rooms with vaulted ceilings and pews like those found in a church. Shadows loomed large in the dusty corners and gathered like flocks of black sparrows in the myriad panes of the high, cut-glass windows. The door shut solidly behind us as a somber man in academic robes rose with a slight bow and a solemn greeting. Before we could receive our library cards, he said, we must understand the history and privilege surrounding this gift.

With growing warmth, he recounted how the first precious books, the very heart of education at Oxford, had been collected and then how they had been restored and their number strengthened by the visionary Thomas Bodley. He told us of fires in which thousands of precious books had been lost, and how earlier scholars had huddled by the windows without candles or heat. And then he fixed his gaze upon us with a look almost fierce. “You,” he said, “are joining a great tradition of scholars. You must value your privilege in using this library and treat the books with the honor they deserve.” As his challenge died away in the vast room, we were lined up to swear, one by one, that we would protect the books of the Bodleian Library, neither removing them nor suffering an open flame to be lit within the hallowed library walls. In return, we were given what is probably the best library card we will ever own. 

Though I did not fully realize it at the time, that moment marked a turning point in my view of education. The receipt of my “Bod Card” gave me a new gratefulness for the way my parents had educated me at home and deeply influenced my concept of what it means to actually get an education. The gift of a library card quickly became symbolic to me of the gift of becoming a self-driven and lifelong learner. 

However, it took a few weeks for those realizations to sink in. I didn’t fully understand the significance of what I was experiencing until I began my “tutorials.” The system of education at Oxford is quite different from that of most U.S. colleges. There are almost no classes and only a few lectures; most learning takes place through reading, writing, and a weekly, one-on-one meeting with a professor. 

I vividly remember the end of my second tutorial, because it was on that day that I began to grasp the significance of my library card. After a week of intense reading and frenzied writing, I arrived at my tutorial, essay in hand and with great trepidation in my heart. Hard as I had tried, I felt that I had not sufficiently mastered all the facts. My essay was an exploration of the ones I had found to be most pertinent, but I felt sure that my professor would point out a dozen errors the instant I was finished reading my essay to her. I was wrong.

“Hmmm,” she said, “now that part about MacDonald’s landscapes, that was intriguing. Tell me more.” Slightly dazed, I did. There was no great criticism to be faced. She mentioned a few “footnoting issues” of course, but then, we enjoyed a lively discussion of the ideas I had presented. I was pointed to a book that might set my thinking straight. I was asked what interested me and assigned a new essay. Instead of being subjected to the academic criticism I had expected, I felt that I had been at tea with a friendly mentor, who had encouraged me to explore whatever piqued my interest. I walked out dazed and utterly delighted. 

As I walked home in deep thought, I began to understand the significance attached to the libraries of Oxford. The gift of my library card was my pass to explore, to question, to think with passion and independence. My tutor expected me to have interests and opinions. In fact, my tutors already considered me a scholar. This, I soon realized, was an assumption underlying the whole educational system at Oxford. 

One of the best lessons I took home from Oxford, one of the world’s best universities, is that learning is not a series of events in which an “expert” systematically floods you with a set amount of facts. Rather, education is the process by which a young scholar is mentored by an older one, not brainwashed, but equipped, mostly through the exploration of great books, to be an experienced reader, thinker, and maker of ideas. Every student is capable of independent thought and responsible for the advancement of his or her own education. 

The only thing a young scholar needs is a hunger to learn and a few good books. That is the reason that the iconic building of Oxford is not a classroom, but a library. It’s why the giving of the library card was such an event. In receiving the privilege of membership in the Bodleian Library, I was embracing the discipline of independent, lifelong, self-disciplined scholarship. 

Funny how much that reminds me of the home education I received from my parents. Reading, discussion, writing, narration—that was pretty much what I did every day as a kid. What is amazing to me is how fully that equipped me to study at Oxford, how the “experts” there simply continued the rhythms of independent learning that my parents had initiated during my childhood. I came home from my time overseas deeply thankful that my parents’ focus as they educated me had been to make me a hungry and independent learner. I also realized how dependent this kind of education is upon one thing: easy access to great books. 

I have long been an advocate of home libraries, and I spend much of my time speaking to parents about how to make reading a regular rhythm in the home. However, I have come home from Oxford with a new realization of the gift of having a great local library. Now, in my talks, one of the first things I recommend is that parents take their children straight down to the library. There is no better place to begin a love for reading in a child, and with it, an identity as a self-driven learner. And if your family is anything like mine and you haven’t quite yet managed to collect the Bodleian Library for your home, then the local library becomes a treasure mine.

Local libraries can be a powerful resource for homeschooling families. They are the treasure horde and symbol of independent learners. If you have a good library on hand, and your children have a hunger to learn, there is nothing to hold them back from ceaseless discovery. 

My time at Oxford helped me to remember—and realize—how much my own family valued and made use of our local library. Library days were festival days in my house as I was growing up. We scoured the shelves for favorites and added them to the pile of assigned reading that my mom had already collected. We were probably famous (infamous?) for the amount of books we took home each week. When we began study of a certain period in history or focused on learning more about a specific author in literature, we headed to the library to find books about that particular subject. We sought out poetry and art books we never would have found in a store and always came home with a dozen or so picture books by our favorite illustrators. Audiobooks from the library were staples for road trips.

Since returning from Oxford, I have reacquainted myself with my local library and the kindly librarians who run it. The resources have only grown since I was a child. Most library databases are online now, making their contents immediately accessible. Interlibrary loan is an amazing tool, a system by which your library can request to borrow from another library any book it does not currently possess. 

A “library hold,” in which you can request books to be transported from one area library to the one closest to your house, is a wonderful tool that is offered by many libraries. Librarians are often deeply knowledgeable about what is available and are particularly well informed about what books might be of interest to curious children. Audiobooks are available by the dozens in many libraries, making an invaluable resource instantly available and affordable.

I always dreamed of going to Oxford because I wanted to be a writer and thinker like C. S. Lewis. I thought that if I studied in the same atmosphere that he did, I might pick up a bit of his brilliance. I came home with the realization that his atmosphere was simply that of good books daily read, discussed, and loved. Much as I love the beauty of Oxford, I can have an Oxford-style education wherever I live. To get started, all I need is a library and a little curiosity.

Sarah Clarkson loves good books and beauty and spends most of her time trying to create one or the other. She is a freelance writer who hails from the dappled foothills of Colorado and plans to write at least one great novel in her lifetime. In the meantime, she speaks about literature, faith, and beauty and is the author of Read for the Heart, a parents’ guide to a healthy reading life for their family. She blogs at www.thoroughlyalive.com .

Copyright 2013, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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