Building a Family Home Library

“If you have a garden & a library you have everything you need” - Cicero

What is a library? In its simplest form, a library is simply a collection of books. Whether you currently compile books in your home for your family or have yet to consider a library as a thing of importance, a home library has the potential to be more than space allotted to dusty shelves of literary decor. What if we saw our home libraries as gardens? Literary gardens, like the spaces that require our attention out-of-doors, hold potential seeds to be planted; seeds that when tended to, invested in and cultivated with care, grow ideas. These ideas when ingested have the capability of nourishing and changing us and our families. But for a library to have that effect upon us we must know that it’s not just about the endless amount of books we collect and fill our shelves with, but the actual reading and interacting with them that yields the growth. Carefully selected books, filtered from the rest to be our own, are just the beginning of cultivating a home library. It's a family reading culture that awakens and stimulates living ideas and warrants the need for a library in the first place.

"For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only" - Charlotte Mason, 19th c. British Education Reformer

Ideas are the food of the mind. A Family Home Library is our opportunity to curate a feast of ideas to be consumed morning, noon and night, for everyone who resides in our home. As a late reader in life, I have felt the difference of a life without fresh and living ideas and a life with them. The books on our shelves can and should reflect the interior libraries of our hearts and minds. Interior libraries that hold inspired thoughts that have formed who we are, what we believe and how we interpret the world. Our Family Home Libraries should be robust with living books, not only for our children’s home education, but for our own personal growth and for the treasured gift of experiencing together as a family. By investing in a Family Home Library we plant in our homes a source of wisdom, an atmosphere that defies culture and a garden growing empathy to better love and serve others.



“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Phil. 4:8

So why invest the time and space to build a home library when we can utilize our local one? And why initiate a culture of reading in our homes when not everyone in the family has a natural inclination toward reading? The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, came up with three values he says that all mankind longs for in their lives, and since then many agree with him. They are Truth, Beauty and Goodness. As Christ followers we believe that real truth is God’s Truth, true beauty is God’s Beauty and ultimate goodness is God’s Goodness. These three values are, in essence, all found in Christ, the source of our purpose and life. In contemplating the Family Home Library, Truth, Beauty and Goodness seemed rightfully to serve as an outline of reasons to consider, but I will present them with a slightly different view:

TRUTH, which I will refer to as Wisdom.

“Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” Proverbs 4:7

Wisdom has more to do with our hearts than our heads. Reading should not be the pursuit of head-knowledge, though we may come across many enlightening facts, but we read seeking understanding and insight to inform and direct our decisions in life, which is wisdom.

I believe that this is what Charlotte Mason means when she says “The question is not, -- how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education -- but how much does he care?” In her sixty-five years of educational practice, Ms. Mason discovered that there are three types of knowledge: the knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe. Through living books we explore all facets of these relationships. Charlotte would agree that it isn’t head-knowledge of these relationships that matter, but heart-knowledge for how our children and ourselves relate these one to another.

Through the stories and characters we curate on our bookshelves, we are being taught by great authors who are keen observers of life and by the Holy Spirit who is aways at work in our lives. I believe He uses stories to teach us what it looks like to live out our own stories of redemption, humility, salvation, love and mercy. Not that every character we meet acts in these ways, but the ones that don’t mirror for us to where we fall short. It’s often easier to see short-comings in others. In the same way we also glean wisdom from characters who choose the higher road, one that may have felt too costly for us. In seeing them go before us, we are encouraged to do the same.

“Wisdom is oft-times nearer when we stoop, than when we soar”. - William Wordsworth

Wisdom is not usually lofty and high-minded when it shows up, but is quiet and humble. It’s something from the inside that shows up in our behavior. We get to model for our kids what true education looks like by how we live. How do we respond to life's circumstances? How do we respond to them? Our own personal book queue should be filled with tried and true resources, fiction and nonfiction, that encourage us to grow in humility and wisdom as we seek to lead our homes.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James 1:5

Insights by great authors feed ideas already growing in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, giving us wisdom on how to live and what to care about. What is a “great” author? I’ll just say that not every author is a great one. There are over 1 million new books published in the U.S. every year, so as seasoned mother and mentor Sally Clarkson shares, “Be careful of what you read! Surround yourselves with books that feed your mind on truth and encourage you. In contrast to others that stir feelings of insecurity, greed or even impurity. Choose well.”

“But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.” James 3:17

Our current culture is on information overload. There is so much we have access to that we don’t need to know for the lives we’ve been called to. As the librarians of our home, we are the ones who choose what sits on our shelves. Our Family Home Libraries reflect where we are gleaning wisdom and what is important to us; what we care about.

So first, a Family Home Library is a source of Wisdom in how to live and what to care about.


BEAUTY, which I will refer to as Atmosphere.

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life” - Charlotte Mason

“Education is an atmosphere” is one of Charlotte Mason's three parts of education. Atmosphere is what we breathe everyday. It is what we create in our home for our family to breathe. It’s what is seen: TV (on or off), cell-phones, what we do with our time, our routines, attitudes, responses and what we value as important in our homes. But it’s also what’s unseen: our relationship with God, our prayers, quiet ways we fill our hearts with beauty, joy and hope to pour out, unseen ways we’re growing, unseen actions of love. Both seen and unseen are felt and create an atmosphere.

“The ideas that rule your life make up the atmosphere around you” - Charlotte Mason

The Christian values we are installing in our homes are being attacked by culture. You can feel it in the atmosphere outside of our homes. Not that having a bunch of books sitting around is going to save us, BUT a family culture of reading and the kinds of books we engage in personally and as a family is putting a stake in the ground that we stand against current culture trends. Our children will feel it. They know we are different because what’s important to us may not be too many of their friends.

“We are called to courageous creation, for the making of beauty is our gentle but holy defiance of the forces of disintegration and the powers of darkness”

- Sarah Clarkson, This Beautiful Truth

And YES, the beauty of a well-organized library, tended to with care does provide an atmosphere that calls for readers to come, sit and read. We know what beauty is when we see it and we can feel when a place has been prepared for us. Making special spaces in our homes that invite a habit of reading is also a part of the atmosphere. The beauty and atmosphere of a Family Home Library is a candle alight in the darkness of current culture, defying the lies of materialism and isolation - a lighthouse even, beaconing what is true and right in the unsettled sea of ever changing culture trends.

Second, a Family Home Library creates an Atmosphere that defies culture.


GOODNESS, which I will refer to as Empathy.

“Stories makes us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving”

- Madeleine LeEngle

Stories do this by allowing us to walk in the shoes of another person, of hundreds of people, whether they be fiction or nonfiction. If it’s a living book, meaning it uses a narrative format that engages our imaginations, we are able to feel what it'd be like to be in the characters' situations. We understand the different characters’ points of reference, where they are coming from whether positive or negative. We even often get to view a character’s life over many years, which gives us a greater scope of the effect these situations had in their lives.

A cognitive psychologist named Keith Oatley put it in a great way; he says when we read in this way, our mind becomes a “flight simulator”. Just as pilots can practice flying without leaving the ground, his study found that “people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel”. A nonfiction living book can have the same effect because it engages you through the narrative.

Understanding a situation from someone else's point of view is called empathy. Three aspects of empathy are; the ability to feel what another person is feeling, the ability to understand someone’s response to a situation, and the ability to respond to another person’s emotions appropriately.

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Colossians 3:12

Everyone wants to be understood fully, a feat that only God can accomplish. Yet He calls us to be like Him in putting on compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience in response to others. I learned recently that the word kindness comes from the word kin, fellow man, kinsman. To show kindness is to understand the frailty of another; they are just like us, we are like them, we are related. Stories help us understand people in this way and we more naturally extend empathy.

When I do narration with my kids I always refer to the characters in books they are reading like I would a friend of theirs: What’s Almanzo up to today? How did that pumpkin he planted turn out? Oh really, what did his dad say? Asking in this way also makes it easier to check in on my older kid’s independent reading because I don’t want them to feel like it's just “schoolwork'', but rather another part of their life I’m interested in. Great conversations are inevitable when you're interested in their “friends” and their thoughts about how they think situations were or were not handled.

Lastly, a Family Home Library grows Empathy to serve and love others.

We build a Family Home Library along with a family reading culture for the sake of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. When cultivated with care and attention, it is a source of Wisdom for how to live, supports an Atmosphere that defies culture and grows Empathy in our families to better love and serve others; which is the calling of Truth, Beauty and Goodness Himself.

Building A Living Library (1)
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To introduce children to literature is to install them in a very rich and glorious kingdom”

- Charlotte Mason

In the early Middle Ages, all monasteries had libraries and most of them were tiny, as in, one cupboard filled with books. Reading was a part of a monk's daily life. There were set times for communal reading and personal reading from various books. Most of the books were obtained second hand by benefactors or just borrowed and hand copied then returned.

There was a librarian who oversaw daily readings, lent books out and ensured that they were returned. Books would accumulate all over the monastery wherever the reading was being done: in the dining room, infirmary, in chests in personal dormitories. Eventually as their collections grew, they’d gather the books into one room or a narrow passageway. They were selective about the books they kept. Only books that would support their spiritual life and service including individual books of the bible, classical text, histories, and commentaries by early church Fathers.

“Let the children feed on the good, the excellent, the great” - Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

So should our Family Home Libraries be living as it serves our own spiritual community, our family. There is no room for comparison or competition. Book collections and the style of our library should look as individual as our families do. Large or small, gathered in one place or in baskets throughout the house - our libraries are to serve us as we go about the calling which we have been called: mother, wife, student, friend, neighbor. Not every book is for every family, though there are classics for a reason (I do recommend diving into a few). Our shelves should hold the best of a variety of topics including poetry, biographies, histories, novels, fairy tales, classics, art books and hymnals, whose ideas will encourage us to grow.

“Thought breeds thought; children familiar with great thoughts take as naturally to thinking for themselves as the well-nourished body takes to growing; and we must bear in mind that growth; physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual, is the sole end of education.”

- Charlotte Mason


A few practical tips to consider when building your family home library:

1. Organize by usage: I like to group books by topic. It's a great way to make your own curriculum by just pulling from the shelves by subject or to support a curriculum like the Peaceful Press with additional reads. Additionally, each kid has their own collection in their rooms, which I take upon myself to review and add to. Your library should be set-up in the easiest way for you’ll utilize it: in one place, around the house, in baskets, in piles.

2. Keep your eyes open: Free or near free books are everywhere. Great books can be found at thrift stores, antique stores, estate sales, garage sales, Friends or the Library at your local library, free boxes at church or homeschool gatherings. Share extra books you find with other mamas you know are collecting. Consider what Charlotte says: “... children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child's intellectual life.”

3. Use book lists as filters: and not the law. You will find as you get to know different sources of booklists, there will be some overlap of tried and true books. Window shop your friend’s bookshelves - being a late reader I definitely depend on the wisdom of better readers than myself to filter books out. Books really are like friends, meeting a friend of a friend is usually a good bet for like-minded conversation.

4. Beautiful looking bookshelves are affordable: Melamine shelves and brackets can be purchased at the hardware store and easily installed. You can use crown molding to incase the shelves for a faux built in that looks great. Old wood bookshelves can be spray painted on a weekend for a clean look. And when all else fails, Ikea. It will last at least a decade.

5. Personalize your shelves: If you came to my house you would find that more than 80% of my decorations are collected mementos from travels or outings rather than purchased at Target. You can use jars for collections like sea shells, snail shells, matchbooks, candles, a rusted peg found on a train track - so that your bookshelves tell a personal story. I also use cheap white or black frames for images and verses found in magazines, greeting cards or kid’s artwork.

6. Review often and give away: You don’t want to collect books that you’ll never read. Maybe it’s a great book, but your kids never wanted to finish it, or you didn’t connect with the characters or like the illustrations; give it away! Occasionally review a bookshelf or two, maybe dust it and ask yourself if your family will be reading those books again. Some special books I know I'll want to share with my grandkids or they have such strong memories tied to them that just seeing the spine makes me happy.

7. You are the Librarian: Like the librarian monks, it is our job to ensure everyone in our home has something to read. If my kids don’t have a book to read I bring them one and say “This is next in the queue”. Just like my own mental list of books I’d like to read, I also have a mental list for each kid of what I’d like to ensure they’ve read before they’ve left our home, being sensitive to the right time to introduce them to a particular book.

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