Magicians and libraries that aren’t libraries

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(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the television show The Magicians through the end of its fourth season)

I spent some time recently watching the first few seasons of The Magicians. Yes, I’m still getting over that ending. But I also felt the need to comment on the Library and libraries on pop culture in general.

In the show,(1) the Library is its own world (hence the capitalization). Sort of like the library in the two-part episode of Doctor Who “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” but without the carnivorous shadow monsters. Probably. The Library is overseen by Zelda, the Head Librarian, who is played by Mageina Tovah.(2) She is very protective of the books in her collection. So much so that when two of the characters break the Library’s rules about touching the books, they are banished from the Library forever. Which seems fair since the books in the Library contain all of the knowledge in the universe and are also one of a kind.

So the Library is not, in fact, a library. It’s an archive.

This is something that pop culture gets wrong about libraries a lot. In real life, librarians are generally not that protective of their books. Which is to say, we prefer for them not to be damaged or stolen but the whole reason a library exists is to give its users access to information. If we fetishized our books and other materials to the point of not wanting them to be touched, this would be a problem because we do not, in fact, worship at the altar of books. We worship at the altar of circulation numbers. The more the library’s materials are being used, the higher the circulation numbers. The higher the circulation numbers, the easier it is to prove the value of the library to the people who decide what the library’s budget is going to be from year to year. At least in theory.

Another key point: most of the materials in your average library are highly replaceable. Like I said, we prefer not to replace stuff if we don’t have to, but if it’s on a shelf in a public area of the library, there’s probably not too much concern about it being one of a kind or uniquely valuable, per se.

Now let’s talk about archives.

I may get some stuff wrong here because I myself am not an archivist, but I think it’s safe to say that if libraries are about providing access of information, archives are more about the preservation of information. Which is to say, they still want you to be able to access their materials and even work to expand access to these materials as much as possible through things like digitization. But the stuff in an archive is more likely to be important and valuable. And also to be one of a kind. Archives prove their value not through circulation numbers but by how prestigious their collection is. Like if a famous writer gifts their papers to a university, you can bet that shit’s going in the archive, not the library. Not unless it’s going to be put in a glass display case or something.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the Restricted Section of the library, which in The Magicians is called the Poison Room.

I feel like the concept that a library would have a restricted section was probably made popular by the Harry Potter books. In Harry Potter, it makes sense to have a restricted section because there are magical books in that world that are literally trying to kill people. Although what those books are doing in a collection in a school full of children, I have no idea.

In The Magicians, the Poison Room is filled with books with dangerous knowledge. This is the place where they put their equivalent of a book that tells you how to make a bomb in your basement. The Library has to have this stuff because the library collects all knowledge but for obvious reasons they don’t want just anyone to have access to this particular knowledge, so they put it in a room that’s impossible to enter without getting radiation poisoning.

It’s really more of a plot device than anything else.

It’s true that in real life, libraries in the United States and elsewhere used to issue special cards to minors that restricted them from taking out books in the adult section. (The movie Billy Elliot actually has a scene that shows this in action.) While there are places in the world that used closed stack models where the public has limited or no access to the materials, I don’t know that this is something libraries do anymore because acting in loco parentis is really not our thing, but I’m guessing this is where the idea of a restricted section might have come from.

Either that or it came from the porn room in old video stores.

I feel it’s necessary to point out here that I’m not saying any of this as a criticism of any of the pieces of pop culture I’ve named so far, especially The Magicians, which I love for many reasons, not least of which is the plot point early in the third season where the first step in a magical quest entails finding a book in a public library in New Jersey. I’m also not suggesting that libraries shouldn’t be used as a story element unless the writers using them do so in a way that is 100% accurate. That’s not how fiction works and in the end the choices writers make are going to be based on what serves the story best.

It’s mostly a matter of terminology. Because The Magicians gets a lot wrong about libraries (at least where the Library is concerned). But it gets a lot right about archives. If only it would use the right word.


(1) I haven’t read the books. Oh, irony.

(2) Who very recently made number 11 on this list of 50 Best Fictional Librarians:

4 thoughts on “Magicians and libraries that aren’t libraries

  1. I’m way, way late to this, but …

    Most of the books in the capital-L Library are just regular old books that anyone can handle, check out, and read. Exceptions are the books that chronicle a person’s life from beginning to end; you can read those, but you have to be careful with them because there’s only one copy of every life book … because plot, I guess. Our heroes get kicked out when a character sets fire to one of those books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s been a while since I watched The Magicians now but I do remember that Marlee Matlin’s character gets pursued at one point because she had an overdue book from the Library, so you’re right that my impression of that might not have been entirely accurate. Looking at it now, I think some of my impressions in this post were based more on how the librarian characters act–generally very protective and worshipful of the materials in their collection. No librarian wants anyone setting fire to their books, accidentally or otherwise, but this “protective librarian” attitude is very common in pop culture portrayals of librarians and is very much the opposite of how most librarians actually feel about their collections, at least in my experience. The books are there to be used and damage is undesirable but probably inevitable (though, again, not fires). Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Also, when did kids’ library cards become a thing of the past? I’m a gen-Xer who still remembers having a card that didn’t give me access to the adult books, and I had no idea that the policy ever changed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I work in an academic library rather than a public library, so it could be that some libraries still use this system but generally speaking most places these days consider it the responsibility of the parent/guardian to monitor what a child takes out of the library rather than the library’s. That said, there might be differences in how many items you can check out on a kid’s card versus an adult’s card (to limit the financial liability if the kid loses or ruins materials they’ve checked out, perhaps without their parent/guardian’s knowledge) but not necessarily the type of materials. I’m pretty sure that’s how it works now, at least in a lot of places.

      Liked by 1 person

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