Reading for Learning


A Reflection by Roger Sween, August 1998


Instead of going to Paris to attend lectures, go to the public library, and you won't come out for twenty years if you really wish to learn.--Leo Tolstoy


The time was when a library was very like a museum and the librarian was a mouser in musty books. The time is when the library is a school and the librarian is in the highest sense a teacher, and a reader is a workman among his tools.--Melvil Dewey[1]


Imagine a world in which knowledge depended only on experience and speaking of experience. Such has been the story of humankind for most of its existence. And orality remains a primary and universal mode for people to communicate, one to one or in groups. Spoken communication makes the core of all cultures; for some it takes precedence over written and visual forms. Even after several thousand years of graphic representation, scattered peoples throughout the earth remain within their oral traditions. Yet wherever they are--though they may not or cannot read themselves--few people remain outside the influence of literacy. If the invention of language turned the key to making us homo sapiens, "knowing humans," then writing and its twin endeavor, reading, gave us the civilization that comes from knowing one another over time and over distance.


For it is writing and reading, these skills in parallel, that cleared the way for knowledge to build beyond the moment and beyond memory. Writing and reading created not only history--the stories that humanity thinks important--but the consequent accumulation of knowledge. Writing and reading turned experiential and orally communicated human knowledge into comparison, argument, and continuity. Discourse beyond the person to person or local group here and now became long term. A dialogue began between authors and readers which even in ancient times our forerunners had with their predecessors of hundreds or thousands of years before.2


The pasts of reading and of libraries are intertwined, equally dependent on the technologies of written communication and the social structures of learning and the educational development of learners.3  Literacy as a widely practiced cultural phenomenon is hard to realize when production of writing is limited. The ancients posted their most important messages in stone for all to see.4 Those who could read interpreted for those who could not. Writing on clay then on paper moved literacy even farther afield,5 and little by little the need to write and read moved from the noble and priestly classes to widening circle of the elite.6 Not, however, until the invention of printing (ca. 1455) and its hundred year progress through Europe was there a technological basis for widespread literacy.7  While manuscript remained the principal means of recording knowledge, the spoken word still held sway--the professor in the university lecture hall, the priest in the pulpit. Printing made possible multiple copies and numerous readers. The presses, their broadsides, pamphlets and books set the stage for the reformation, for science, and ultimately for democracy.8 And libraries kept pace, diversifying in content, becoming increasingly public, opening to all classes, to women as well as men, to children as well as the adult, to the illiterate as well as the scholar.


Looking back on these eons, we tend to see ourselves as the beneficiaries of all good things which have converged to give us a burgeoning language, bounteous knowledge, alphabetic writing, advanced literacy, mountainous printing, and public education.9  Completely unrequested by ourselves, the knowledge treasures of the globe and of past times wait teeming at our very doorsteps, just beyond our consciousness. Yet none of this enormous capacity to deliver the wealth of all the questions, answers, dialogues and narratives that have gone before make much difference I themselves. As long as anyone ignores it and contents themselves to the level of our most remote talking ancestor, knowing confines itself to what we hear and experience, even in the glow of that twentieth century hearth, the television set.10


What reading offers to the learner is something no other mode of communication does--practically unlimited choice into what is known and at the discrimination of the learner. Reading puts learning at the demand of the learner. Although reading has its requirements, because the technicalities of reading are rudimentary at the basics and developmental in the long run, reading liberates. The failure of many to read is less a question of obtaining skill as it is a reluctance to read from lack of enjoyment or ignorance that reading is a discretionary tool.11  The habits of reading depend upon the reader gaining pleasure or meaning, or--most--likely--some happy combination of these two. When the potential for both is so great, that any fledgling reader finds reading to be drudgery and confusing ought to alarm and pester us all to get reading off to its most profitable start for every person. Reading does take effort, ad continuing to read means finding that effort rewarding. Being a learner by reading means a background of success as a reader or a realization that out there in the vast cosmos of print is something so to the point of what I want that I can overcome any past dissatisfaction with reading in order to find it.12


The allure of reading is the inner expectation that we are always on the verge of delights or significance that we would otherwise miss if we did not read. The reader is after a better life, one that they imagine is richer, fuller, more pertinent to themselves as a person, than they would otherwise have from some other occupation of their time that reading takes. The typical disclaimer for why one does not read is the competition for time. Yet we all have the same twenty-four hours per day, and the issue is how we choose to use that time. Inveterate readers snatch time in the minutes they find--while commuting, while waiting, before sleeping--or choose to read instead of some other occupation--Tolstoi over television, Burgess instead of bridge--whatever makes the difference for us. No doubt many are pressed for time: whether attorneys who work 80 hours a week, parents of young children or those who commit to other demands, time is precious. Yet similarly preoccupied attorneys and parents find the time. Amazingly, one can read several books a year at twenty minutes per day. What one reads does not have to be Ulysses,13 better that it be something the reader finds rewarding.


Learning by reading not only offers vast choices of content, but great flexibility in getting the job done. Perhaps the greatest stricture to unlimited flexibility is the lending periods of libraries from which books must be borrowed and returned in a timely fashion for the benefit of other readers. Where interlibrary loan deadlines are a factor in one's reading, advance planning and ability to follow a plan become important. Still, the reading plan means the learner deciding when they can fit to their objectives, not what they have to do to meet telecast, workshop, or class session schedules. Reading to learn is an individual endeavor that is not only asynchronous to whatever else is going on in the world, but atemporal; the reader's time is their own.


Reading to learn also permits any scope. The learner may have a concrete question or a specific area pertinent to themselves. What they want to know may be complete in itself or a part of a larger project of research or study, a course or assignment. Similarly, what a reader seeks may be conceptually large, exploratory, even unanswerable. What is gained then through reading is a larger, better understanding of a field or issue, an area or subject. Reading to learn means the learner needs to set out what they want to accomplish. Such reading can be open-ended and unlimited. Often, however, reading to learn projects have stated objectives and expectations of timeline.


What the reader wants to know is what is important to them, either in terms of an interest or what becomes an interest because they know they lack a piece of knowledge and want to obtain it. Fitting knowledge in, pursuing one's education, is a typically adult endeavor after some period of formal learning or length of life experience is already behind the learner. It has been said that one of the few benefits of longevity is learning; the ability to learn has a longer life than teeth, eyesight or digestion. Therefore, the learner has questions and seeks what is unknown or unresolved or missing in an examination of what they do know, and what remains to be learned in their work or life.


Of course, the professional is always learning, and reading can have a current awareness function central to that ongoing learning . It is impossible to ask leading questions about what is in state of continuous happening about us. Regular attention to newspapers, magazines and professional journals intend to keep readers abreast of what is going on, the substance and direction of which they cannot readily predict. Such reading is the equivalent of having one's antennae going, taking in what is new, important or useful and should be integrated with what the professional already knows and does in their work and service to others. The choices that the reader makes to keep such current scanning relevant is in what media to read on a routine, ongoing basis. Choices, if they are to fulfill the objective of keeping aware of what one does not or cannot predict knowing, mean throwing the net of regular reading in a way that is productive and pertinent to what one is doing.


For the library worker, a comprehensive journal that treats the U.S. library world gives a unity to related specialization. Library Journal is a likely candidate, or American Libraries; additionally one would turn to a journal for their particular type of library of specific line of library work, whether that is Public Libraries, Voice of Youth Advocates, or whatever applies. Since we all operate in a larger political and social context, library workers need to know what is going on in the world around them. This means regular reading of their community publication, usually a local daily or weekly newspaper, one of wider state, U.S. regional, or national coverage. Weekly news magazines serve the same purpose--Newsweek, Time, U.S. News and World Report--to name the most obvious examples. The branch out to magazines that give greater depth to issues--Atlantic, Harpers, New Yorker--for example, or publications with other perspectives such as The Utne Reader, World Press Digest, The Economist, or others.

Over a lifetime of such current awareness reading, the learner amasses a great deal of knowledge, and depending upon their ability to integrate it and to follow-up on loose ends becomes educated in the well rounded sense important to the individual, citizen and professional. This well-roundedness is of essential benefit in library work where the ability to "relate many things to many things."14 is the hallmark of the competent generalist.


But for the learner, whether by choice or assignment, reading often takes a targeted approach. The learner wants to know something they don't know or know only part. Reading can fill in the gap when that approach fits individual learning preferences, time schedules and location (printed materials being the most portable means of distance learning), course availability, or even whether any single person can tell you what you need to know. For learners who target their reading, they need to say to themselves, "I want to know…," and begin to fill in the blanks.


Choosing the materials that are appropriate for the learner's quest by reading begin from the current state of knowledge and lack of knowledge on the subject. To be totally ignorant of an area, strangely, offers little clue of how to begin. The unfamiliar with a topic often do not know what questions to ask first. Being clueless, calls for reading an overview first. Just as young students launch into a new subject with the summary assistance of a textbook chapter or encyclopedia article, library workers can do the same. An overview could come from a recent professional journal, particularly if the topic is new, a general introduction to the field or subject, or from a library related handbook or encyclopedia.15


When not knowing any specific title to give this start, a search can prove helpful. Currently, online catalogs are as ready as the Internet, one's home public access catalog, or that in a neighboring library. Searching the book literature of the library field productively through online catalogs depends upon some familiarity of appropriate terms and their manipulation. The wonder of online catalogs is that they foster multiple approaches to searching but skillful searching is more of knowing what terms bring the desired, precise results as directly and quickly as possible. Unless learning by hunting around is desired, the library worker unfamiliar with the niceties of electronic catalog searching may be most expediently served by the help of more experiences staff or by asking the question of a librarian who specializes in such questions.


The ability to search books as needed, especially once authors and titles are known, is readily achieved. Searching the periodical literature of the field, however, is at present another matter. Outside of visiting a professional library collection equipped with printed or online search tools, searches of relevant literature are possible through request. Whether conducted oneself or through an intermediary, searching succeeds based on the definition of what is wanted, knowing what is pertinent and what is not, and generally having a time limit if currency or a range of dates are appropriate.


When the material is at hand to be read, the pieces are not likely to fall into place in the logical or sequential order that makes most sense for learning a new topic. That integration has to e made in the readers mind or, likely, through studious note-taking of the parts before they come together down the road. Reading means looking for sense and continuously testing the information or arguments presented before accepting, even tentatively, that one is convinced by what one has read. Reading for learning is critical reading that means looking for evidence, logical and grounded argument, the relevance of detail and example to conclusion, and detection of conjecture, theory, or unanswered questions as such.


None of this is to say that reading takes place in a vacuum or that the learner must pursue what they want to know totally alone. Most readers want to discuss what they find and read and think with others. They want to test what they think, or to form their thoughts out loud through conversation with others. Readers want to share, and sharing what one reads definitely encourages reading and leads to other avenues of reading on the recommendation or enthusiasm of others.


Following the path of reading to learn develops reading and learning skills in library workers and equips them to promote reading and encourage other readers.



[1] As quoted in Otto L. Bettmann, The Delights of Reading, David R. Godine in association with The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, 1987, page 37.

2 For example, Alexander the Great, who had his education at the hands of Aristotle, carried a copy of Homer's Lliad with him on his campaigns, reading it faithfully much as one would the Bible. At the great library of Alexandria, scholar-librarians translated, commented, and compiled the records and literature of the past; e.g., Manetho, who chronicled the dynasties of Egypt from their beginning.


3 Few show this interrelationship as thoroughly and well as Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading, Viking Penguin, 1996.

4 Witness the reliefs and hieroglyphs of the Egyptians on walls, monuments and stellae. Hammurapi posted his code of laws about the country, carved in stone.

5 "They [the Egyptian Ptolemies and their librarians] had a particular goal in view, for they had calculated that they must amass some five hundred thousand scrolls altogether if they were to collect at Alexandria 'the books of all the peoples of the world.'…They did not learn the languages of their new subjects, but they realized that if they were to rule them they must understand them, and that to understand them they must collect their books and have them translated. Royal libraries were accordingly created in all the Heilenistic capitals, not just for the sake of prestige but also as instruments of Greek rule."--Luciano Cafora, The Vanished Library, University of California Press, 1990, pages 20 & 25.

6 For an account, focusing on Greek and Roman times to late antiquity, see William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy, Harvard University Press, 1989.

7  Printing required the combination of technologies that brought together ink, paper, type, mechanics, some degree of scholarship, and entrepreneurship all in one enterprise as detailed in Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, The Coming of the Book: the impact of printing, 1450-1800, New left Books: Verso, 1976.

8 Daniel J. Boorstin treats this pivotal time in "Widening the Communities of Knowledge," part 13 of The Discoverers, Random House: Vintage Books, 1983, pages 480-556.

9 Internet, e-mail, and the World Wide Web resources promise to add to the abundance of reading material. Presently, however, the bulk of these transmissions are for communication among people needing or wanting to be in touch with one another, not for publication. Publication in digitized form, nevertheless is on the increase. See Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, "Making the Transitory Permanent: The Intellectual heritage in a Digitized World of Knowledge," in Books, Bricks & Bytes: Doedalus, v.125 no.4 (Fall 1996) 307-329.

10 Harold Bodkey in "Reading, the Most Dangerous Game" (1985), treats the psychological intimacies of serious reading and its power to capture hearts and mind; reprinted in Reading in Bed, selected and edited by Steven Gilbar, David R Godine, 1995, pages 101-108. Sven Birkerts gives fuller treatment to these issues in The Gutenberg Elegies, Ballantine Books: Fawcett Columbine, 1994. In part I, The Reading Self, he explores the relationships between reading and the psyche; in part II. The Electronic Millennium, he charges at the observed and feared affects of new technologies on reading. A more empirical approach to the impacts of technology appears in Don Tapscott, Growing Up Digital: the rise of the net generation, McGraw-Hill, 1998, while books such as David Denby, Great Books, Simon & Schuster, 1996, and Meanwhile Clifton Fadiman's Life Time Reading Plan is out in its 4th edition, Random House. 1998.

11 While most attention focuses on the reading abilities and habits of children (for example the entire issue of American Education, Summer 1998), the challenge of reluctance in reading is a more pervasive problem that the inability to read. See

12 Reading is in large a practice intrinsic to self-directed or independent learning See Stephen D. Brookfield, Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning, Jossey-Bass, 1986, on the adult's need for encouragement and success.

13 A panel of authors, critics and historians, sponsored by Random House and Modern Library Editions, announced in July 1998 a list of the 100 best and most important English language novels of the twentieth century. Number one is James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), a renown and controversial novel, noted for its stylistic achievements but which very few people--thanks to its complexity and length--have read in entirety.

14 So says Bunny Watson, the head of a broadcast corporate library, as played by Katharine Hepburn in The Desk Set (1956). Thanks to years on the job and unflappable aplomb, she outwits and out answers EMERAC, the giant computer installed to handle routine reference questions.

15 The Whole Library Handbook. 2nd edition. American Library Association, and The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Marcel Dekker, 19 - 19 and supplements v. - , 19 -19 are two examples.

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