Monsters in the Stacks: How Harry Potter Came to NLM

Stephen J. Greenberg, PhD, will speak on June 29, 2017 at 2:00 in the Lister Hill Auditorium at the National Library of Medicine on Monsters in the Stacks: How Harry Potter Came to NLM.” As part of a week-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we are happy to bring you this interview with Dr. Greenberg, Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself and your personal experience with Harry Potter?

Stephen J. Greenberg: I’m an historian and rare book librarian in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine, where I’ve worked for the last 25 years.  Currently, I’m head of our Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section.  My own specialty is the early modern period in Europe, so I was already familiar with many of the historical figures in Rowling’s book.  But I also have two children, and they grew up with the series.  We read the books, listened to Jim Dale’s audiobooks when traveling, and went to publishing night parties in our local bookstores.

CN: We heard from you on another subject not long ago, it’s nice to have you back. Later this week you’ll be speaking about “Monsters in the Stacks: How Harry Potter Came to NLM,” what inspired NLM staff to undertake this exhibition project?

Portrait of an old man with a long beard and cap.
Nicolas Flamel from a 1971 facsimile of Bibliotheca Chemica (Chemical library), E. Roth-Scholtz, 1727
National Library of Medicine

SG: It all goes back to the summer of 2007, a few days before the publication of the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I give a lot tours of our rare book reading room. I got a call from our public affairs office, telling me (at very short notice) that a group of middle school students would be coming by for a tour later that day.  That’s usually a hard one: NLM is an enormous medical research library, and it’s a challenge to make that relevant to a bunch of kids on a hot summer afternoon.  But I knew about the excitement over Deathly Hallows, and I know the NLM collection, so I retrieved a little 17th century alchemy treatise attributed to Nicolas Flamel, the name Rowling gives to the wizard in the first Harry Potter novel who makes the magical Sorcerer’s Stone (which is really the Philosopher’s Stone).  The real Flamel died in the early 15th century, but the tour group kids all knew his name, and got VERY excited and a little noisy. Our exhibitions section staff came out of their offices to see what the commotion was about. After the kids had gone, the exhibition staff and I had a quick conference, and we realized NLM had dozens of early printed books with Potter connections.  Within days, we were in the Potter business. Of course, NLM doesn’t actually have copies of the Rowling novels in its collection, but my daughter graciously loaned us her copies for the exhibition.

CN: While doing research for Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine is there a particular author or individual who stands out for you?

SG: Biographical details from the Renaissance are often scarce. We don’t really know all that much about the “real” Flamel, but the fact that there was such a man who searched for answers about how the world works gives us a fixed point of reference in a changing world. History to me is a very real, very vital endeavor.  We are where we are because of where we’ve been. It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with fantasies set at a school for witches and wizards, or the history of cancer research. History is made by real people, great ones or small.

CN: The collections in your care are used by scholars and researchers every day, how would you encourage the public to discover and explore books like those featured in the exhibition?

SG: It’s important to me that people realize that history and old books still matter to the ordinary reader.  The primary clientele of my division will always be researchers with lots of academic credentials, but if I can explain to a ninth grader why NLM has books from 1618 (and older), I’m hoping to inspire a new generation of people to appreciate history and the historical record we know through rare books.

Exhibitions like Harry Potter’s World are a wonderful way to explore the collection and see how our past helps us understand our everyday present. For a less structured exploration, try browsing NLM Digital Collections where we’re constantly adding new content in a variety of formats, fully digitized and free!

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As part of a week-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the National Library of Medicine presents two special lectures. The celebration will also include a special display of the 15th, 16th, and 17th century books that influenced the Harry Potter series along with the six-banner traveling exhibition, Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine. Visit this special exhibition in the History of Medicine Reading Room at NLM, June 26–30, 2017.

Stephen J. Greenberg’s presentation is part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All lectures are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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