The truth behind Harry Potter


Earlier in the week, the Bodleian Libraries twitter account, @bodleianlibssolicited questions from our followers. Our plan was to choose one especially fun question and answer it in depth.

As it happens, there were several fun questions and we expect to answer more of them in future. We’ll also keep accepting new questions, so do send yours across. Today, though, let’s start with Duncan Taylor’s charming query.

What exactly are the books about on the shelves in the hp movies ?

Now, the headline to this Tumblr post is, you’ll soon see, quite literal, because we’re going to talk about the books behind Harry Potter.

That is to say, the ones literally behind Daniel Radcliffe in the following GIF. He’s even bought a special cloak along to help you see more of them. Cheers, Dan.


This scene, depicting Harry in the Restricted Section of Hogwarts’ library comes from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was filmed at the Bodleian Libraries, in Duke Humfrey’s Library, our oldest reading room. The lantern, as our Twitter followers will know, is a CG effect: flames of any kind are strictly forbidden in the Bodleian Libraries.

The books stored in Duke Humfrey’s Library are amongst the oldest in our archives, and certainly those we have been looking after the longest. Many of these books have been a part of the collection since the Bodleian opened in 1602, back when we held only 2,500 books or so, and nothing like the 12 million items in our archives today.

At that time, the books and manuscripts were classified with just four shelfmarks, denoting which part of the collection they belonged to, and where they should be shelved.

The subject of medicine was marked Med., while books on jurisprudence were marked Jur. All things theology were marked Th., and art was marked, super-simply, with Art.


The location for Mr. Potter’s misadventure was the Arts End of Duke Humfrey’s Library. Those books, therefore, are those on the subject of art as we classified them in 1602. Most of these books date back to the very first days of the Bodleian as we know it.

You’ll see that the books are chained to the shelves. This was quite normal when the Bodleian opened, and we still keep a demonstration chain in place to show visitors how the chaining system worked. Books are precious, and the chains were an early way to try to prevent their theft.


Since the filming of The Philosopher’s Stone there has been some reorganisation, thanks to the renovation of The Weston Library, which lies across the road from Duke Humfrey’s. Even since then, however, Arts End remains home to Special Collections items with Art. and Th. shelfmarks. When you visit Duke Humfrey’s today, you’ll be seeing the same historical books that young Harry Potter did.

Rather than protecting them with magic, however, we use cutting-edge alarms… but what was that Arthur C. Clarke said about “sufficiently advanced technology”?

Please do keep tweeting your questions with the hashtag #BOD1Q. We’ll be answering several more in the future.