Harry Potter 25th Anniversary: Libraries and the wizarding world 'opened the door' to reading for many children

As the wizarding world celebrates the 25th anniversary of JK Rowling’s first book – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – we take a look at how the partnership between libraries and her creations played a fundamental role in promoting access to literature.

When we think of Harry Potter, we think of a magical world full of possibilities.

Yet, for many children and parents in this current cost of living crisis, it can be easy to lose sight of a land of possibilities.

Escapism through literature will never solve this, but what it can create is a safe and welcoming space for many children. A place where dreams are realised.

Margaret Houston, principal librarian at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, explains how the Harry Potter books helped the library encourage more children into reading.

Historically and even now, however, access to such resources for many young people from low income backgrounds is threatened by financial hurdles.

Yet, when such doors close, other figurative (and literal) ones open in the form of libraries.

So, as we mark the 25th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – let us spin our time-turners and remember these hurdles as we cast ourselves back to 2005.

The location? A Glasgow library.

Props similar to what the library used to recreate a 'Hogwarts at the Mitchell' effect for Potterheads in 2005.

At the peak of Harry Potter fever, Margaret Houston, principal librarian in reader development at the Mitchell Library, was involved in the project to get “loads of” copies of the sixth instalment of the series – The Half-Blood Prince – available for loan on the day of publication.

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The Glasgow library struck a deal with their book suppliers so it could get the embargo of the book lifted at the same time as booksellers. A rare occurrence, but it was a time defined by Potter excitement.

“There was a lot publicity around the publishing day but we thought, ‘what about children and families who can’t afford to go out and buy a hardback copy?’” said Margaret, speaking from the usually off-limits Poet’s Corner room in the library, which has an air of Hogwarts with ornate chandeliers and old wooden carvings decorating its walls.

2022 is the silver anniversary of J.K. Rowling's magical classic Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

"It was all hands on deck,” said Margaret. “We spoke to our suppliers and got the books here which was quite unusual.

"So we opened the Mitchell Library late so children could come in and borrow the book and that was very successful.

"The library is a space for both children and adults where nothing is expected of them. Everything is free, there are long hours, generally, and there are professionals here to help.

"Children could get the same kind of experience they would get going to a bookshop and the same excitement of being one of the first children to get their hands on a copy.”

In 2000, the library had a large party for children where they dressed up the older and impressive Jeffrey Library as a Glasgow version of the Great Hall in Hogwarts.

Glass bottles were presented as old potions, golden snitches and magical floating candles lined the walls with all sorts of magical foodie goodies laid out on the ornate tables.

The main emphasis for the library within these festivities is that children, regardless of family income, should have access to books so their land of possibilities was not compromised.

An added layer of the Harry Potter phenomenon, library staff observed, is that some children who were not overly interested in books all of a sudden became so – because of JK Rowling’s work.

“There was something about the whole Harry Potter genre, the way it was written, a great storyteller, that made children that wouldn’t normally think of reading, read,” said Margaret. “I think that’s what we wanted to capitalise on as public libraries.”

The Harry Potter books, for many children, became gateway books for wider reading and further developed literacy skills.

And Potter is not now confined to the pages of history. The wizard and his magical world are very much alive and thriving in new generations accessing the library.

People are still requesting the books and the library is still bringing them in as well as hosting wizarding events.

Currently, there are only two copies of Harry Potter in the library, the rest are on loan – a testament to the popularity of the series.

“We know if we just put the name Harry Potter on the event, whether it’s for schools to come or whether it’s families, we are guaranteed an audience,” said Margaret. “Sometimes we have to create waiting lists which isn't something that normally happens.”

Although Harry Potter offers a fantastical world of fiction, Margaret was keen to stress the books offer themes we can all relate to.

“The themes of adversity, overcoming bad childhood, bravery, death and friendship – all these are good meaty themes that still appeal to everyone in J K Rowling’s masterful storytelling,” she said. “Children like to read about things they are going through and they want to see themselves in a book.

"[The books] can reflect that childhood can be tough but it also offers all the wonderment of escapism as well, so, in a way, it ticks both boxes.”

Of course, it is not just Glasgow that has been captured by Potter fever. Across Scotland – and the rest of the world – the books have captured the hearts of millions.

There is a global sense sense that Harry Potter has opened doors for many children by offering the development of literary skills with a text rich in a world of creativity.

Hand-in-hand with the fundamental service libraries provide, all children and adults can step into this world.

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This weekend, a known staple for encouraging children to read, the Summer Reading Challenge, launched across libraries in Scotland.

Summer Reading Challenge

‘Gadgeteers’ is the theme of the Summer Reading Challenge 2022 launched on Saturday which looks to encourage and develop children’s literacy across Scotland.

Those who take part in the ‘recommendation to read six books over summer’ challenge will be given fun activity sheets with ‘sensory stickers’ handed out with every book read.

Finishers of the challenge will be given a certificate with medals for children who have made a “special effort” by reading more widely than they have before.

"Especially post Covid, we are trying to encourage children to come back in and enjoy reading,” said Margaret, “We’ve put a lot of investment into new libraries and we want children to realise the shelves are groaning with lovely, free books.”

In their “peak”, Margaret said Glasgow had 4,000 children participating in the challenge in 2020. It is unlikely libraries will meet records like those again, however, this year is the “big push” for attracting children back to libraries.

The Summer Reading Challenge happens across Scotland in partnership with The Reading Agency with the exception of Aberdeen which has it’s own independent reading challenge.

To find out more about the challenge and how to enter, you can visit: https://summerreadingchallenge.org.uk/news/general/tbfr-scotland

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