The craziest things can happen when you have an undying affection for books.
But, let me back up. I’m sure that affection grew from the stories poured into my ears as a little one, and definitely was given full “scope for the imagination” (as Anne Shirley of Green Gables would say) by my visits to the library. Oh, the smell of the books, the immensity of stacks upon stacks of shelves containing untold mystery and tantalizing treasure. Bringing home bags of books was bliss.
So, whether it was the collection my parents built up over the years for me, and the bookcases built to accommodate it, or the idea of a library with card catalog, I naturally began to accumulate my own library. This multiplied when my children came along as each of them in turn had to have their individual bookcase and collection. Those collections were as diverse as the children who gathered them.
And, of course, I regularly trotted my own children to the local library too.
Then, halfway through their growing up years, a unique library opened in our town in Michigan—a private library in a home, the basement to be precise. I did not know what to expect when I went for my first visit to investigate, but 1,200 sq. ft. of library shelving crammed with orderly, labeled books and, yes, a card catalog, was beyond my expectations. As a homeschooling family, the value of this library was its curated collection of out-of-print books, the treasures from the “golden age of children’s literature” that I, and my mother for that matter, had grown up on. Here were the classics, the beautifully written and illustrated books from before the flood of children’s literature that currently packs the public library shelves. Though great books are still to be found there today, there is an unfortunate swamp of less-than-worthwhile material as well, more eye candy than imagination fruit for the picking. The obsession with what’s new and popular, unfortunately, means that many of the oldies but goodies have been condemned as obsolete and discarded to make room for the latest.
So for years we enjoyed those books in that special library to the fill. My children began to frequent used bookstores and library sales in search of some of their favorites—and their collections grew. Obviously, I think a family library is praiseworthy, but also am convinced children who are allowed to name a space of their own for books as theirs, write their names in them, organize and collect along their personal taste, is seed planting of the best sort for a future harvest of readers, writers, thinkers, and lovers of literature in general.
Then, one fine day, our family moved a thousand miles away to a small town whose children’s section at the local library was limp and lifeless in comparison. Consequently, I became an ardent pursuer of books by my favorite children’s authors of old in any corner of life I could find them: garage sales, flea markets, used bookstores, online sellers, library sales, friends’ attics, trash bins. Soon, unbelievably soon, my husband was cranking out shelving and the wall space in our large home was filling. Simultaneously, I was meeting parents everywhere who longed for their children to read and were struggling to find the kind of books they were looking for. In the back of my mind was the knowledge that another mother had put together a 22 thousand volume library in her basement and loaned books to 75 families. I couldn’t possibly do that. How could I risk loss, damages, and privacy by doing such a crazy thing—not to mention afford, as a single-income family, to supply and support such an endeavor?
And there I was, confronting for the millionth time in life that immovable law of God: love your neighbor as yourself. What choice did I have? Precious books? What about precious lives, Jesus’ commandment that we must give and not hoard for ourselves? I recalled Corrie Ten Boom’s remonstrance of a nurse when a valuable vase was broken: Stop crying, that vase doesn’t have eternal life.” How could I compare a collection’s value with the life-giving power books and story make in the lives of children?
Thus began years of toil to organize, study the Dewey Decimal system, learning to repair and make books loan-worthy. Twice a month, 150 children visit my basement, carrying huge storage containers in which to haul home treasure. They come in to recount the adventures and information they have been gathering. They bring books to show me the wonderful finds they’ve made that are now part of their own collections.
Living Books Library is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary of operation this summer (www.livingbookslibrary.com), mostly due to my indefatigable oldest daughter’s passion for books and children and whose efforts have brought 90% of this about singlehandedly. Our service to our community has extended to providing seminars and workshops on reading, homeschooling, and the Charlotte Mason method of education. Last year, we began a podcast for a farther reaching conversation on Mason’s ideas with our weekly podcast (www.adelectableeducation.com).
Now our sights are set on bringing many of the lost treasures back into print and again we face the daunting challenges of time, money, and possibility. Can we succeed?
We like to think of ourselves as seed sowers, sowing ideas to be planted in the imaginations of children. This work began with my own children and has expanded to hundreds of others. I’ve shared this story to encourage every parent to help guide and direct their children to building their own libraries, to strengthen their physical connection with books beyond the one they are already ensuring by reading to them and inspiring them to read. I guarantee the effort will bear fruit, and not just in books. Though you probably won’t go as overboard as we have, still, you might want to consider the implications of setting your children on a book collecting course. Their imaginations may take them places you can’t envision.