There’s a New Collection of Harry Potter Digital Books from the New York Academy of Medicine Library in New York

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Jean Bodin’s “Demonology”, one of the most widely used 16th century witch-hunting manuals. Photo courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine Library Digital collection

Attention, Hermiones of the world: New York Academy of Medicine Library launches an exhibition entitled “How to pass your OWLs: at Hogwarts: a preparation course‘, a digitized collection of rare books, ephemera and Harry Potter-related artifacts dating back to the 15th century. The books are organized on the collection’s website to look like a study guide for a fifth-year Hogwarts student studying for their OWL exams. The collection is launched just in time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘s first publication in England in 1997.

Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi’s basilisk, featured in an early reptile history book published in 1640 (and in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). Photo courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine Library Digital collection

Curator Anne Garner began noticing parallels between classic scientific, historical and literary works and the mythology that colors the Harry Potter series during her time at the library, which inspired her to create the collection. She immediately noticed “how deep the overlaps were” between the Potter universe and the story, but was particularly thrilled when she discovered a folder on her office desk that listed the books in the library on the witchcraft. She soon realized that these books would be perfect study aids for the Harry Potter “A History of Magic” course.

Page from Giambattista della Porta’s ‘Natural Magic’, a book that refutes John the Baptist’s ‘Demonology’ and defends witches, in part by claiming that women accused of witchcraft may have used hallucinogenic herbal lotions. Photo courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine Library Digital collection

It turns out that many of the themes Rowling has donned in the Harry Potter series have roots in real-life subjects. For example, Divination – the Hogwarts class that focuses on predicting the future – may have been inspired by astrology.

“The Zodiac Man of Ketham”, an embodiment of the Renaissance belief that body parts are ruled by stars and planets. Photo courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine Library Digital collection

Other courses offered include Transfiguration, Defense Against the Dark Arts, Herbology, History of Magic, and Potions.

Transfiguration, the class that taught the art of transforming an object (or oneself) into something else, has its roots in the ancient science of alchemy. Nicholas Flamel, the legendary philosopher mentioned in the first book of the series, was a true writer and alchemist. In the books, he actually manages to invent the Philosopher’s Stone. Whether or not this actually happened is unknown, but the New York Academy of Medicine Library has some of his notes in their possession. If you can decode them, you might discover the secret to eternal life.

Page citing Nicholas Flamel’s ‘hieroglyphs’, found in ‘Medicina Practica, or the Practical Physician’ by Dr. William Salmon. Photo courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine Library Digital collection

Knowledge of JK Rowling’s history is surprisingly extensive, as shown by the connections between tiny details of the Potter universe and real historical facts. For example, in a description of Diagon Alley (a popular shopping street in the wizarding world), Rowling describes a store called Mr. Mulpepper’s Apothecary, which sells potion-making goods. There was actually a real apothecary named Mr. Nicholas Culpepper, who lived in the 17th century and wrote several books, including a popular health manual called “The English Physician”.

A real bezoar, which is a ball of hair from the stomach of a cow; both in Harry Potter and in the Renaissance era it was used as an antidote to poison. Photo courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine Library Digital collection

Rowling “creates this amazing world, but it’s rooted in the kind of surprises and wonders of the natural world that get kids excited about science,” Garner said. With help from the new Hogwarts Library Collection, Potter fans can trace their beloved mythology back to its roots in reality, further blurring the line between truth and fiction and deepening their appreciation of the story and storytelling. This is perhaps the most magical thing about Harry Potter: the way it continues to help children and adults of all kinds see the magic in their own lives.

Although the exhibit is not on display together outside of the digital universe, all of the artifacts and books listed online can be found in the flesh around the New York Academy of Medicine Library in East Harlem. You can access it fully online here.

For more, check out this article on 5 places to visit in New York to celebrate the art of magic and a fun map of small public libraries.

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