The Magic of Libraries

Ever since I began working in libraries I’ve become hyper-aware of references to my profession in pop culture. This recognition is most often followed by cringing.

So I decided to take a look at how libraries and librarians are treated, specifically in the Harry Potter universe. I’m just skimming through my (much loved and very worn) collection, and jotting down my thoughts as I go. No other research has gone into this, it is simply the mild musings of a fan, trying to understand the way we are perceived by others.

I will begin at the beginning, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by the sublime J. K. Rowling. (N.B. I am only taking the books into account.)

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In a lot of ways Book 1 helps to affirm what I believe about libraries in pop culture: 1) Nothing good ever comes from libraries; 2) They are used mainly as plot devices;  and 3) They (often unnecessarily) reinforce the stereotypical librarian figure. You know the one.

The first two mentions of libraries occur fairly early on, but are merely descriptive devices, such as when Ollivanders’ wand shop gives Harry the feeling of stepping into “a very strict library” where “the back of his neck prickled. The very dust and silence…seemed to tingle with some secret magic”.

In Chapter 11 Snape uses library rules about books being outside as a way to assert his authority over Harry, Hermione and Ron, and deduct points from his rival house.

Things start to get juicy in chapter 12 – The Mirror of Erised – as the trio begin to use the library in their quest to discover who Nicolas Flamel is. We get our first glimpse into the majesty of the place, with “tens of thousands of books”, and a Restricted Section which is roped off and requires a signed note from a teacher to access.

This all sounds pretty promising. And then comes the first line from Madam Pince (what a name) to our dear protagonist Harry: “‘What are you looking for, boy?’” Caught off guard and with no answer, she yells at him to leave, while brandishing a feather duster at him. Um, that’s pretty rude, right? Lady needs to learn some customer service skills, quick smart. And what witch needs a feather duster? I can only assume she’s undertaking magical maintenance on it.

As the book goes on, the library is used at least twice as a major plot device. The first occurs when Harry uses his Invisibility Cloak for the first time (in the middle of the night), searching for information on Flamel. He picks up a book in the Restricted Section which begins to scream at him. Knocking over his only light source and attracting the unwanted attention of Filch, he flees the scene and seeks refuge in a classroom, where he finds the Mirror of Erised, which of course plays a massive role in his first encounter (sort of) with Voldemort, along with some pretty awesome Harry-Dumbledore bonding time.

The second instance sees the trio encounter Hagrid in the library, who of course acts like he has been caught out. The man has zero poker face. Ron discovers that he has been looking at the dragon section, which prompts the nosey children to follow this up with Hagrid. All this sets in motion some Draco Malfoy character development, our introduction to the Forbidden Forest and the centaurs, and inklings of the prophecy.

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FYI Neville cops it outside the library when Malfoy puts a Leg-Locker Curse on him, prompting advice to stick up for himself (I spy a plot device).

It makes me a little sad when I think about authors who use the library and librarians in this way. I’m sure many of them have found refuge in these institutions, discovered their love of reading and storytelling, and found all kinds of information to build up their dreamworlds.

I will write more about the Hogwarts library as I flick through the rest of the series, and I most certainly have more to say about Madam Pince!

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