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Big Ideas Don't Just Come From the University

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Many of the world's great ideas came from learning on one's own, without a professor lecturing at you or having to take an exam. Some of the most influential thinkers in world history did not craft their great works inside a university's ivory tower. Some of the greatest literary, political and philosophical contributions were made by people just reading on their own. One room in particular is famous for creating a concentration of readers and great ideas: the Reading Room at the British Museum in London, England.

Opened in 1857, the Reading Room had a pretty simple purpose: You came there to read. So who hung out in the Reading Room?

Well, Mark Twain, for one. "I am not capable of expressing my gratitude for the British Museum," he wrote. Twain, whose formal education ended in his early teens when he went to work as a typographer in his hometown of Hannibal, Mo., famously educated himself by reading in public libraries. Later in life, he received an honorary degree from Yale University, but a pretty compelling argument could be made that his real degree was earned reading quietly among the stacks in public libraries, particularly in the Reading Room of the British Museum.

Or how about Karl Marx? Marx spent years in the Reading Room, and it was there that he penned A Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Like many others who studied and worked in that room, Marx's most influential works were produced outside a formal learning setting. It is worth noting Marx had a solid academic career in German universities, but it wasn't until he settled into a chair in the Reading Room that his great works came into being.

And it was another denizen of the Reading Room, skulking around a few years later, when one of Marx's closest followers, V.I. Lenin, spent time reading Marx's works in the Reading Room and transformed their ideas into a brutal path to power in his homeland. Lenin apparently liked pseudonyms, because he registered as a researcher at the Reading Room under the name Jacob Richter.

Who else? Well, the great British playwrights Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw both spent time in the Reading Room. And so did Virginia Woolf. And Nobel Prize-winning Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. And Mahatma Ghandi. And Rudyard Kipling. And H.G. Wells. And George Orwell. And the wonderful French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

What was the draw of the Reading Room? Simply put, it was connected to the British Museum Library. The British Museum Library was one of the world's greatest libraries, and the Reading Room allowed researchers more room to work with the books and other research materials housed in the British Museum Library. With access to the tens of thousands of books in the library, researchers and writers could take their materials and sit in the quiet of the Reading Room and work.

What happens in a library that doesn't happen other places? People read. They are surrounded by books and magazines and newspapers, the transmitters of ideas. They read them and take those ideas and educate themselves and often transform those ideas into new ones.

So, if I were to pick a single spot on the planet that had the most powerful and disruptive impact in creating history-altering new ideas, ideas about economics, about politics, about literature, about theater that shaped the modern world, it wouldn't be a university. It would be a library, and specifically this one library: the Reading Room at the British Museum.

The same spirit of independent research and self-education that led these great writers and thinkers to the Reading Room led us to found Degreed. Our goal with Degreed is to encourage this same sort of independent learning and self-education that filled the Reading Room during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Register with Degreed and begin to wander the stacks, so to speak. Begin your own journey in the new electronic Reading Room that is the web. Research, educate yourself on your own terms and at your own pace. Who knows what transformative ideas you may come up with?