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The Pensieve: Harry Potter and the Library Lesson

“When in doubt, go to the library.” – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, p. 255
It seems that when sophomore year comes around, and vehicular escape from campus is finally possible, we Stanford students take advantage of every chance we can get to experience the outside world.  About halfway through the quarter, sandstone buildings, the abundance of palm trees, and the constant whirring of bike wheels become unbearable, and we find ourselves fleeing from the place we so excitedly flocked to for answers about life.  Interestingly enough, when Hermione, one of Harry’s best friends, experiences similar sentiments and is desperately seeking to understand phenomena in the world around her, rather than finding refuge in the outside world, she is able to find meaning and grounding in an already familiar place – the library.

At Hogwarts, it becomes apparent very early on that Hermione’s sanctuary is the Hogwarts library.  As the brainiest of their year, it is natural that she spends inordinate amounts of time at the library doing work, light background reading, and researching topics of interest.  While she devotes most of her energy there participating in menial, student-typical activities, she also turns to the library for answers to life’s bigger and more pressing questions.  In their second year, when an unknown monster threatens the lives of Hogwarts students and the school’s operation itself, Harry and Ron stand helpless in the face of danger and are paralyzed (or should we say “petrified?”) with fear.  On the other hand, with a quick trip to the library, Hermione is able to pinpoint the source of the problem and respond accordingly, ultimately saving her own life.  Her unique relationship with the school library provides a model for our own approach to Stanford’s resources and suggests that the library can be unexpectedly empowering.

At Stanford, our 20 libraries are generally places for cramming, sleeping, and streaking.  For the most part, they are viewed simply as quiet spaces where we students can fully immerse ourselves in academic concentration.  While there is nothing wrong with using them as a places to pursue our studies, it would be a sore mistake to only see them as such and forget what they are in their very essence – a vast collection of knowledge and record of human accomplishments and failures.  What can so easily be overlooked at times as we scurry about trying to find the quietest, most anti-social cubby is this essence and the extent to which libraries can then tie us to the greater world.

As Hermione is able to recognize throughout the series, the library has the potential to broaden her world rather than limit it.  For us, it is so tempting to transport ourselves physically out of the Stanford bubble instead of realizing that this transportation is possible with a quick trek to Meyer or Terman. However, if we take just a few moments to actually take in the stacks that surround us or to even pluck a dust-coated book off the shelf, we might gain the perspective that we so desperately long to experience off campus.  The familiarity of the library suddenly fades, as we recognize how insignificant both Stanford and we are against the backdrop of centuries of accumulation of knowledge.  We are reminded of the people who have gone before us in exploring the field that captivates us, and we are struck with an appreciation for how much we do not and will not ever know.

As mentioned previously, Hermione’s ability to fully embrace the Hogwarts library has startling implications for her own life.  After she runs to the library to better understand the frightening events plaguing Hogwarts, she is able determine that a basilisk is responsible for the student attacks and quickly takes precautions to protect herself with a mirror, which eventually saves her from a terrible death. While Green may not literally enable us to save our own lives, it does have the power to preserve our sanity and provide us with the glimpse of the outside world that we so desperately seek.  Our libraries remind us that there is more to our lives than the vicious cycle of school and sleep deprivation, and they push us to realize that our current and future accomplishments can be both meaningful and insignificant.

Of course, if one still insists on leaving campus to gain perspective, we’d like to recommend a quick trip to IKEA.  After all, Hermione would probably agree that IKEA Swedish meatballs and Hogsmeade butterbeer are essentially the same thing.

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