Editor’s Note: As part of the annual George H. Brimhall Memorial Essay Contest, Homecoming 2006 honored six students for their essays about early BYU educator Alice Louise Reynolds and the Homecoming theme, Lighter of Lamps. Alison Stone Roberg (’07), a senior English major from Bridgewater, N.J., received $1,500 for her first-place essay.
I can’t believe I still have a term paper to write. Finals week is nearly over, and I’m tired from a long day of studying. But I can’t go to sleep yet. All the classroom buildings are closed, and only a few solitary students travel the once-crowded walkways. The darkness makes me nervous, and I jump every time I hear the sound of footsteps or rustling leaves. I focus my gaze on my destination—the library. Lights blazing, the glass-walled atrium emits a friendly blue glow that promises warmth, safety, and most important, knowledge—knowledge that will illuminate my mind and bring clarity to its jumble of ideas.
Someone else who would appreciate that beautiful sight is Alice Louise Reynolds, BYU’s first female professor and a fervent supporter of the library. When she joined the faculty of the Brigham Young Academy in 1894 as an English professor, the school had no literature program and its library contained fewer than 4,000 books. She quickly began to remedy both situations. As the academy’s first woman to teach college courses, Reynolds enlightened her students with new classes on significant authors and literary movements. When she helped found the faculty library committee in 1906, she made it her personal mission to promote the expansion and improvement of the library. Could she have imagined that a hundred years later, Brigham Young University’s library would be ranked one of the best in the nation? I think so. As one of her colleagues said of her, “She dreamed big dreams for the faculty and the school.”
As a child, one of my own dreams was to live in a library. Books seemed like ideal companions for all my waking and sleeping hours. Now that I’m a college student, I sometimes think I do live at the library, but I still feel a rush of excitement whenever I walk in.
Even though the deadline for my paper is approaching, I let myself enjoy the feeling of exploring aisles filled with innumerable volumes. The air seems somehow different, richer, as if the books are constantly breathing their knowledge into the atmosphere. I take a book off the shelf, feeling its weight and guessing its age by the fragility of the binding. I fan its pages and smell the dusty-sweet scent unique to old books. Finally, I glance through the chapters, looking for that one idea that will spark new possibilities for my project. I find it—the perfect quote—and triumphantly carry off my prize, feeling like a cartoon light bulb has turned on above my head. Somehow I always end up with a towering stack of books—more resources than I’ll ever need; somehow they all seem indispensable.
Alice Louise Reynolds knew the thrill of being in the presence of many books. Her friend and biographer, Amy Brown Lyman, wrote that Alice “loved to be surrounded by books, to touch and handle them and above all, to own them, or to present them as gifts to dear friends.” Many of those friends were students of Brigham Young University. During her life, Reynolds personally donated hundreds of beloved books, and at her death she bequeathed the remainder of her collection to the library. But beyond her material contributions, she inspired students, faculty, and community members to follow her shining example. Her biographer called her “a lighter of lamps,” a title illustrated by the way she shared her passion for the library project with others. Igniting the imaginations of students, faculty, and community members with her vision of what the library might become, she inspired the donations of thousands of volumes. In her 32 years of work on the library committee, the library’s collection grew from fewer than 10,000 books to more than 100,000.
It’s closing time at the library. I stagger out with what seems like an absurdly high percentage of the library’s current three million volumes. Although I’m headed back into the dark night, I feel as if I’m carrying a bit of light home with me. The light in the library doesn’t just come from its numerous electric ceiling fixtures. It comes from truths discovered and thought out and written down. It comes from the big dreams of visionaries like Alice Louise Reynolds who helped share those truths with future generations of students. The library is closing, but the light stays on for me.
Runner-up essays can be read online at magazine.byu.edu/brimhall06.