A Letter to Librarians from Craig Fehrman, Author of Author in Chief

For the past ten years, I’ve been working on my first book, Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, and libraries play an essential role in that story.


Dear Librarians of America,

For the past ten years, I’ve been working on my first book, Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, and libraries play an essential role in that story.

Forget becoming a presidential author—many of the people I write about would not have become president without their local libraries.

Let’s take two examples, one from each side of the aisle. Harry Truman grew up in a working-class family, a family where buying even a single book made for a memorable experience. The Trumans bounced around Missouri before settling in the town of Independence—and, more important to Harry, in the Independence Public Library district. It was there that Truman developed his passion for history. He read for heroes, for inspiration, for ideas he would draw on throughout his political career. But it all started at the library. “I saw Harry go home many a time with two or three books on weekends,” a schoolmate remembered. “I guess by Monday he had them all read.”

Ronald Reagan had a similar boyhood, shuffling around Illinois before settling in the town of Dixon. There was never much money, but Reagan’s mother got her children library cards soon after they arrived. As a boy, Reagan devoured books; he loved the legends of King Arthur so much he named his cat Sir Lancelot. Reading shaped his skills as a communicator—it taught him that most people (and most voters) were moved by stories. Many nights after supper, Reagan would walk to the Dixon Public Library to browse. “I remember with great warmth the old stone building,” he later wrote, “and I believe I was probably as regular a patron as the library ever had.”

Libraries gave Truman and Reagan access to books their families could never afford. Librarians helped them discover books they’d never heard of. “Every once in a while,” Reagan recalled, “a kindly librarian would nudge me into things she thought would be helpful.” Books showed these future presidents a world beyond their working-class beginnings.

Books did that for me too. I grew up in rural Indiana, in a large family that took weekly trips to the Dillsboro Public Library. Without those trips, I would have never become a writer, and without libraries and librarians, I never would have been able to write Author in Chief. I hope you get a chance to read my book—especially its stories about readers, schoolteachers, and even some librarians from throughout American history. And I hope that one day you get a chance to nudge some precocious boy or girl into reading it.

You never know—they might grow up to be president.

Craig Fehrman


Based on a decade of research and reporting, Author in Chief tells the story of America’s presidents as authors—and offers a surprising new window into the public and private lives of our highest leaders. Combining the narrative felicity of a journalist with the rigorous scholarship of a historian, Fehrman delivers a feast for history lovers, book lovers, and everybody curious about a behind-the-scenes look at our presidents.

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“Shapely, original, and brimming in anecdote, Author in Chief expertly illuminates, amid much else, how history finds its way into the books.”

—Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches

“Entertaining and illuminating . . . Bibliophiles and presidential history buffs alike will relish this gratifying deep dive.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This book is just as fun and fascinating when taking you inside the minds of presidents as into ordinary eighteenth-century bookworms. It’s witty, charming, fantastically learned, and engrossing. I loved it.”
—Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland




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