10 Impressive People Who Educated Themselves With Only a Library Card
While formal schooling from kindergarten all the way up to the college level has a lot to offer a knowledge-thirsty mind, the reality is that you don’t necessarily have to go to school in order to learn and be well-educated. The vast majority of information (especially in today’s world) is free to access at your local library at your own leisure, and many have done just that to keep learning even when they couldn’t or didn’t want to go to school.
Whether they read their way to education at a public library or in their own homes, there have been been some pretty well-known names who have used books to expand their minds. Many have gone on to be writers, political leaders, and businesspeople, and while you might not know every name on this list, their stories will certainly convince you that a library card in the hands of a determined learner is a very powerful thing indeed.
One of the best-known and best-loved presidents of all time, Abraham Lincoln spent his early days growing up on the frontier, where the family didn’t always have access to schools. In fact, Lincoln only had one year’s worth of classes between the ages of 6 and 15, taught whenever the community could find a teacher. Lincoln instead educated himself through reading books. He was fascinated by them and spent nearly every minute of his spare time with his nose in a book, learning about history, philosophy, and literature. Books were scarce on the frontier and he would often go out of his way to borrow titles he hadn’t yet read, once walking twenty miles to get a book on the United States. All that reading paid off, especially when it came to the law. Lincoln taught himself enough to pass the bar, and would go on to be a great orator, leader, and president.
Today, we know Jack London for his acclaimed books like Call of the Wild and White Fang but his education and rise as an author wasn’t always smooth sailing. The illegitimate son of a Welsh farm girl and an astrologer (who refused to admit London was his son), London endured a poverty-stricken childhood. London attended some grammar school courses as a child, but was largely self-educated through the help of a librarian (who would later become California’s poet laureate) at the Oakland Public Library who encouraged him to read and learn. While he would run off to become a sailor at 17, London would eventually return to school and would complete high school and a year of university. If it were not for those early years at the library, however, this might not have been possible.
Few sci-fi writers have ever enjoyed the acclaim afforded to Ray Bradbury. While Bradbury attended formal schooling through high school, it was at the library that he really found his passion for writing. Opting not to attend college, Bradbury instead buried himself in studying the books at UCLA’s Powell Library, once famously quoted as saying, “I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves “” you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.” Who needs college when you’ve got that kind of determination? It was at this same library that Bradbury would write one of his most famous novels, Fahrenheit 451.
While many may be more familiar with her husband John Adams or her son John Quincy Adams, Abigail Adams is a woman worth learning a thing or two about. One of the most intellectual and well-educated women of her time, Adams didn’t spend her early education in a school. She was considered too sickly to head to a normal school, so her mothers and her sisters taught her how to read. She then began to take advantage of the large libraries in her father’s and grandfather’s homes, studying English and French literature, theology, ancient history, law, philosophy, government, and other topics. Though she never received a formal education herself, throughout her life she would advocate for equal education of young girls, and one would expect nothing less from one of the most learned first ladies in history.
August Wilson may not be a household name, but he’s an incredibly well-respected writer and dramatist, winning two Pulitzer Prizes in drama for his series of plays called The Pittsburgh Cycle. Forced out of a Catholic high school for his race, Wilson found himself at a vocational high school but found the curriculum unchallenging. He finally enrolled at a public high school only to drop out after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon (one can assume because it was too good to be written by a poor high school student). Wilson gave up on school and instead began working and using the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to educate himself, reading the works of authors like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes, which would later influence his own work. The library even awarded Wilson a degree, the only such one it has ever bestowed.
While Edith Wharton was the daughter of a wealthy family, because she was a girl she was not sent to school with her brothers, at the time quite standard practice for a young lady who was expected to be a debutante. A bright young girl, she was not deterred by her lack of formal education and instead took matters into her own hands by reading books from her father’s library and working on lessons at home with her governess. During her lifetime she would write hundreds of stories, books, and essays, even going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Age of Innocence “” making her the first woman to ever receive the honor.
Students at Duke are sure to recognize this businessman’s name. The school’s business college is named after him, and for good reason. Fuqua grew up on a small tobacco farm in Virginia and living in a rural community meant he didn’t always have access to the resources he wanted when it came to learning. So, he borrowed books by mail from the Duke library, helping him get an education on his own terms. It seems to have done him well, as Fuqua would go on to make millions through his various business ventures, become a respected politician, and even found his own school in rural Virginia.
Whether you agree with his sometimes-extreme political views or not, it’s hard not to be impressed with the dedication Malcolm X, or Malcolm Little as he was born, applied to his education after a rough upbringing and some serious missteps. With a father who was killed, a mother who was in and out of mental hospitals, and an early life made seriously unstable by a series of foster homes, it’s no surprise that Malcolm X ended up in prison at the age of 20. Yet this would be where he finally began to turn his life around, thanks in part to the library books he was afforded in the Charlestown State Prison and later the Norfolk Prison Colony. He would begin to read voraciously, encouraged by a fellow inmate, educating himself on a wide range of topics, including Islam, which would form the foundation of many of his future political beliefs.
Jamaican-American author, journalist, and historian J.A. Rogers is today regarded as one of the greatest writers on the history of Africa and the African diaspora, but he didn’t get there through the normal channels. Rogers was one of 11 children and his parents couldn’t afford to give him and his siblings anything more than a rudimentary education, though they always stressed the importance of learning. It is perhaps this early lesson that pushed Rogers later on to spend so much time at the library. No matter where he went, Rogers spent hours in the library reading and researching, eventually leading to a career as a writer. Throughout his life Rogers was known for his ability to really dig deep in library collections, a skill perhaps honed in his early years.
If you’re really smart, school simply may not have much to teach you or just might not be challenging enough. That was more than likely the case when it came to Walter Harry Pitts. Pitts used the library to teach himself logic and mathematics and to learn to speak and read Greek and Latin. At the age of 12, he spent three days in the library reading Principia Mathematica from cover to cover. Finding serious problems with the first half of the first volume, the 12-year-old wrote to Bertrand Russell pointing out the issues. Russell was appreciative of the feedback and invited the young man to come study in the UK under his tutelage. While Pitts declined the offer, he would stay in touch with Russell throughout his early intellectual endeavors, eventually running away at 15 to see the famous logician and philosopher teach at the University of Chicago. Russell helped him to find a job, enroll in the school, and work on some of his most important theories in the generative sciences.