A Professor’s Journal: A life-changing experience

With no apologies, I put to you the great truth that books will change your life.

Just before Spring Break, a history major came by my office door to ask about any primary or secondary sources on Teddy Roosevelt. The student, Tyler Adams, from Mayfield, Ky., already had a handle on the major collections.

Indeed, almost everything I threw out had already been perused by this diligent student. Tyler had already read all three volumes of the magnificent Edmund Morris biographical trilogy on TR, Roosevelt’s own autobiography, his own works of history and biography and even his poignant “letters to children.” He had examined the Roosevelt papers ­– his public speeches and correspondence.

About the only thing I could suggest was Alfred Thayer Mahan’s book on “The Significance of Sea Power on History,” – a work that made such a powerful impact on Roosevelt’s thinking on the importance of the American navy and David McCollough’s Morning’s on Horseback, a lovely book, but one that covers much the same terrain as Morris’s first volume, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” and an older biography of TR, written by Henry Pringle.

After Spring Break, Tyler came back by my office, thanked me for the suggestions and told me that he was able to use them for his research paper.

This was quite a contrast to the conversation I had with another student who, although a senior, had never stepped foot in the library here. I suggested a book this student might like to read. The student looked at me as if I came from another planet. “I don’t read books,” he said.

“Oh, I think you will really like this one,” I said.

Finally, he asked, “Well, where could I find this book?”

“I have a dog-eared copy at home,” I said, “but you could go to Waterfield Library and check it out.”

Then came the shocking reply.

“I’ve never been to the library. How do you get there?”

When I was six years old, my father took me with him to his seminary library. We entered the doors of that great library, greeted by a bust of John Spurgeon – my father told me – and the musty smell of books overcame me. My father held my hand, and from that moment the safety, the security, a day with my dad and the wonderful smell of those books would forever be intertwined.

My father took me through the entire process. He had a list of books he needed for an assignment in his seminary class.

For a 6-year-old boy, this was better than any scavenger hunt. Like magic, the books appeared on the shelves, according to the call numbers, just where they were supposed to appear.

My father let me pull each book from the shelf. We took the stack of books to the circulation desk and, again, like magic, a nice lady stamped the books expertly, and then we got to take the books home.

I wanted to take that deprived student directly to Waterfield Library, but, alas, I had a class. I pointed him in the right direction. I have not seen him since. I hope he found his way.

If he did, he could be transformed. Like me, he might never be the same.

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.