Speaking in purely mercenary terms, writing about magical libraries is a good bet: readers are readers, which means they likely have many happy memories of libraries as safe havens from the world. While I wasn’t always seeking enlightenment when I stole into my local library—I’ll admit there were shenanigans, though nothing truly damaging—I spent a lot of quiet time amongst the smell of glue and paper, the hushed noise of pages turning. It’s an incredible sense memory that is easy to conjure.
Libraries serve many purposes; they are archives of important literature, warm community spaces for people to gather, and handy spots to pickup odious tax forms. Libraries nurture the magic of imagination, and they become that more intense with the introduction of actual magic. Fantasy writers return again and again to the place where they likely learned that magic can seep into our world through the pages of books. Here are 7 magical libraries for you to explore, ranging from comforting and cozy to sinister and scary. (In the interest of not duplicating the efforts of my colleagues, I purposefully didn’t include the five strange libraries on this list. But you should check them out too!)
The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman
The Sandman comics detail the lives of the Endless—embodiments of natural forces—most specifically, the character of Dream. Dream was imprisoned for much of the 20th Century, leaving his realm to crumble and decay. The only person not to leave his service in his absence was Lucien, keeper of his library. (Though the library did vanish along with its master.) As befits the embodiment of dreaming, Lucien’s library contains all books even conceived of (even if they were never written), and all the books we’ve lost to the ages. I used to play a game with co-workers trying to cast a Sandman movie: any actor, from any period, at any age was fair game. Every time I think of Lucien’s Library, I play a different, more personal game: what book that never existed do I want to read? The sequel to Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s last novel? The wolf novel that Angela Carter never quite wrote? There are so, so many.
Paperback $14.50 | $16.00
The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman
Cogman’s Library acts as an interdenominational porthole to all possible universes, its librarians tasked with retrieving and preserving the various permutations of great works, or the rarer single volume that exists only in one universe. Because the Library exists outside of time, its librarians never age (at least while they are in the library). The internal politics are, therefore, pretty gnarly. Librarian Irene is a rarity among librarians: she is herself the daughter of two librarians. At the opening of The Invisible Library, Irene is saddled with a new recruit and sent into a restricted world, one where magic and science are in chaotic disequilibrium. By which I mean, the world is steampunk as hell, and just a rip-roaring good time. Great detectives, dirigible chases, shadowy masterminds, a cat burglar, and more await you in this novel, which is, blessedly, the first of a series.
Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine
Like The Invisible Library, Ink and Bone reads like a mystery and a thriller. The Great Library is a sinister, controlling presence in this world, acting as sole gatekeeper to all of the greatest works of history. The personal ownership of books is illegal, and Jess Brightwell’s family lives by the trade of illegal books. Though much of his knowledge of the world come from this illicit source, he jumps at the chance to compete for a position in The Library. This competition isn’t just a serious of bubble-tests, but something much more grueling and deadly. While we think of librarians as open source heroes—and they are, often—there has always been a kind of librarian who guards information jealously, doling it out by whim, or prejudice.
Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, by Brandon Sanderson
To continue the theme of evil librarians, let us consider the fate of Alcatraz Smedry. A motherless child, Alcatraz can’t but help breaking things, a talent that comes in handy once he discovers that evil librarians are secretly running the world. (Boy, I wish my
abyssmal abysmal spelling served a divine purpose.) After receiving his inheritance from his long-lost parents, he’s thrown into a search for the truth. Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians plays with children’s quest fictions, skewering tropes while having an absolute ball. I’ll show you to shush me!
Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville
Un Lun Dun is a gleeful riff on Chosen One fiction, compete with a protagonist switch and all sorts of derring-do. At one point, our intrepid unChosen One meets an extreme librarian of the Wordhoard Pit, a truly prodigious mound of books reaching to the sky and beyond. Librarians have to link to one another like mountaineers (“bookaneers”) to find a particularly recalcitrant tome. Like other libraries on this list, the books in the hoard contain everything that has been written or lost, in addition to being a portal to other worlds. This is perfect: the unbelievable potential of even the smallest library to transport you to another place, setting you on a chain of seeking that leads off to somewhere beyond your horizon.
Paperback $9.99 | $10.99
Lirael, by Garth Nix
The second of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series introduces us to the Library of the Clayr, a repository of magical books and items, recipes, weapons, and who knows what else. The eponymous Lirael begins the novel as third assistant librarian in this massive, mountain-bound library, though she doesn’t have the powers of her fellow Clayr. Much of this story takes place within the library, but the sense of adventure is no less acute for being set in quiet, curving place. (I think this one may be my personal favorite, as the sense of secret, deliciously occult knowledge existing just around the bend is particularly strong.) And everyone should have a Disreputable Dog with them on their adventures through the stacks.
The Archived, by Victoria Schwab
This is more an archive than a library, but let’s not split hairs. Mackenzie Bishop is a Keeper of the Archive, where the memories of the dead are bound into Histories. Being a Keeper is hereditary, and Mackenzie has come to it very young, after the untimely death of both her grandfather and brother. Something is going wrong in the Archive, as more and more Histories attempt to escape back into the world of the living. Mackenzie struggles with that, and with her recent losses, patrolling the borders of memory. The Archive is a moody, introspective book, and captures the quiet contemplation of libraries as reliquaries of history.
There are so many magical libraries to chose from…which one suits you?