Digital Harry Potter Library Highlights the Magic in Historical Texts

The New York Academy of Medicine
The New York Academy of Medicine

To Harry Potter fans, the rare books room at the New York Academy of Medicine may feel familiar. Musty leather-bound books line the walls behind screens; moldings of griffins adorn the plaster ceiling; a cat skeleton with arched vertebrae crouches on a bookshelf. Stepping inside the room feels like you’ve apparated to Hogwarts.

Anne Garner, the curator of rare books and manuscripts at the academy, is well aware of the similarities. But she didn’t realize just how deep they ran until stumbling upon a card catalogue labeled "witchcraft" in the archives. "When I saw the card catalogue, the connection with people saying this room feels like Hogwarts sort of clicked," she said at a press event.

Illustration of a phoenix.
Ulisse's Aldrovandi's Phoenix from the 1664 book "Monstrorum Historia"
The New York Academy of Medicine

That was the impetus behind the library's new digital collection, "How to Pass Your O.W.L at Hogwarts: A Prep Course," which highlights real texts from the rare books room and matches them to fictional courses taught at Hogwarts. While much of J.K. Rowling's world is her own invention, many of the creatures, objects, and even people she writes about are lifted from European history and mythology. Garner searched for these real-life inspirations when selecting books to feature in the virtual library.

The "Potions" section, for example, includes a description of a bezoar, the same ruminal hairball that Harry feeds to a poisoned Ron in The Half Blood Prince. One book under "Transfiguration" mentions Nicolas Flamel, the actual figure who’s credited with creating the philosopher's stone in the first Harry Potter book.

Illustration of star thistle
Star thistle from Nicholas Culpeper's 17th-century book "English Physician"
The New York Academy of Medicine

The digital collection is filled with vibrant illustrations dating back to the 15th century. Books in "Care of Magical Creatures" depict basilisks and unicorns alongside snakes and narwhals (or “unicorns of the sea,” as they were known centuries ago). "One of the things I love about Harry Potter is that it presents us with this world that’s very familiar but at the same time totally upends our ideas about nature," Garner said. She sees this reflected in many books written prior to the 20th century. "You find things that are grounded in reality and things that are total fantasy."

Illustration of a basilisk.
Ulisse Aldrovandi's basilisk
The New York Academy of Medicine

Like the Harry Potter series, these books often look at elements from the natural world through a fantastical lens. When describing mandrakes, an encyclopedia of natural history depicts the real plants as tiny creatures with human bodies and leaves sprouting from their heads. It even instructs readers to don earmuffs before harvesting them—just like Harry learns to do in his Herbology course.

Illustrations of male and female mandrakes.
A pair of mandrakes from the 15th-century "Hortus Sanitatis"
The New York Academy of Medicine

The New York Academy of Medicine was established in 1847 as a public health organization, and today it’s home to one of the most impressive historical libraries of medicine in the world. The rare books room is open to the public by appointment, and a special exhibit of books in the Harry Potter collection may be offered in the near future. For now, the select texts are available online. "How to Pass Your O.W.L at Hogwarts" goes live on Monday, June 26, just in time for the 20-year anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Muggles can visit the academy's website to relive Harry's literary experiences—minus the biting and screaming textbooks.

The Top 25 Bestselling E-Books on Amazon Right Now

Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

Right now, the ability to access books on your tablet or phone—without leaving your house or waiting days for an order to arrive in the mail—seems more magical than ever. With just about every book at your fingertips, however, it might be a little difficult to decide which one to choose.

You could ask for recommendations from friends and family, or use this website, which specializes in personalized reading lists based on books you’ve already read and loved. Or you could check out Amazon’s current list of bestselling e-books—updated by the hour—to see what the general population just can’t get enough of. As of this morning (March 31), Elle Marr’s highly anticipated thriller The Missing Sister sits in the number one spot; since its publication date isn’t until April 1, that means it’s gotten to the top of the list on pre-orders alone.

There are several other riveting thrillers on the list, including Dean Koontz’s latest, In the Heart of the Fire, and Christopher Greyson’s murder mystery The Girl Who Lived. Plenty of other genres are well-represented, too, from Stephen R. Covey’s classic self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Jory John’s charming children’s story The Bad Seed.

And, of course, it would hardly seem like a bestseller list if Harry Potter didn’t make an appearance or two. According to this data, more than a few people are spending their quarantine time reading (or re-reading) J.K. Rowling’s beloved series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are at number seven and number 17, respectively.

Look through March 31’s top 25 below:

  1. The Missing Sister by Elle Marr // $5
  1. Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis // $13
  1. Wall of Silence by Tracy Buchanan // $5
  1. The Bad Seed by Jory John // $13
  1. The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms // $2
  1. Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan // $5
  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey // $6
  1. When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal // $5
  1. Rough Edge by Lauren Landish // $4
  1. The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy // $1
  1. If You Tell by Gregg Olsen // $2
  1. Now, Then, and Everywhen by Rysa Walker // $5
  1. The Girl Who Lived by Christopher Greyson // $10
  1. Rain Will Come by Thomas Holgate // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Other Family by Loretta Nyhan // $5
  1. In the Heart of the Fire by Dean Koontz // $2
  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng // $10
  1. Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes by James Dean // $8
  1. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson // $15
  1. Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley // $10
  1. Lift Her Up by T.S. Joyce // $1
  1. In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn // $5

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

This Website Will Tell You What Book to Read Next

WhatShouldIReadNext.com will help you avoid the existential dread of coming to the end of a book without another lined up.
WhatShouldIReadNext.com will help you avoid the existential dread of coming to the end of a book without another lined up.
m-imagephotography/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you’ve ever finished a book and thought, "What should I read next?" then the aptly-titled website WhatShouldIReadNext.com is for you. Enter in a title, author, or ISBN number, and the site analyzes reviews and ratings from other readers and recommends books.

This, as it turns out, is a really fun game for any bibliophile. Entering Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers leads to recommendations like The Secret Life of Lobsters, My Lobotomy, The World Without Us, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, and The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Two Men Who Battled to Save Victorian London.

Pop in The Devil in the White City and the site suggests The Monster of Florence, The Anatomy of Deception, and The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Enter The Stranger, and you’ll get titles like Antoine De St Exupery: The Life and Death of the Little Prince and William S. Burroughs’s The Cat Inside. A Tale of Two Cities returns recommendations for The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories by O. Henry and The African Queen by C.S. Forester. (Also on that list? The children’s classic The Stinky Cheese Man.)

The site doesn’t just serve up book recommendations, either: There’s also a blog, as well as a section that allows the user to find famous quotes and mark the ones they love. And there’s an option to create your own lists of books, which could include everything from a list of favorite books to a list of books you’ve read to a list of books you want to read. Signing up for the premium version of the site—which costs $9 a month, or $90 a year—will get you access to online book clubs, author interviews, and more.

While there are occasionally books that don’t return any recommendations (like The Inventor and the Tycoon) chances are, you’ll get recommendations that both delight and surprise you—and give you plenty of inspiration for titles to add to your "to be read" pile.

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