Where the Only Question You Have to Answer is “What Can I Help You Find?”

Libraries as Sanctuary for Immigrants, Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and All Those Who Find Safety in Knowledge

by Cristina Kinsella

This piece is a part of our Accio Books series, exploring issues related to literacy, education, and libraries. To find out more about how to get involved and support Accio Books, visit thehpalliance.org/accio_books.

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, when Draco Malfoy lashes out at everyone’s favorite social justice witch, Hermione Granger, calling her a “filthy mudblood,” Ron Weasley jumps in to defend his friend and winds up vomiting slugs for his efforts. “Pure-blood” Ron recognizes something “pure-blood” Draco misses: Muggle-born wizards and witches are essential to the success and survival of the Wizarding World, and treating them as unwelcome encroachers has no place in society. Without Muggle-borns and “half-bloods” like Hermione and Harry, the Magical world would have died out long ago.

Image from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in which Ron Weasley is confronting Draco Malfoy for calling Hermione Granger a “ filthy mudblood.”

Our Muggle world currently finds itself in a similar situation. Political climates all around the globe label newcomers as job stealers, leeches to the economy, terrorists, and “illegal”. Anyone not “pure-blood” in the country they live in may face discrimination and hate for simply residing in a new place.

Image: No Human Being is Illegal followed by three faces and a quote from Eli Wiesel: “Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”

But standing up for what’s right, even when it isn’t easy, isn’t the only thing Harry, Ron, and Hermione taught us. There’s safety and power in knowledge, and the best source of that power is at the library.

Libraries are the ultimate sanctuary spaces; they are free to all people, all the time. Librarians don’t want to know what your immigration status is, or what country you were born in. They want to know what you’re looking for, what you need, and how they can help you find it.

In the United States, the Institute of Museum and Library Services reports that more than 55% of immigrants use their public library once a week. For immigrants and refugees, libraries are a gateway into their new community. They offer essential services like language classes, resume workshops, and legal resources. But it’s not these services alone that make the library a welcoming space for immigrants.

Libraries are an essential link to the community. Not only are there books on the shelves, but there are flyers about community events, information about classes, access to the Internet, and the opportunity to obtain information at your fingertips. For many newcomers, story time in the children’s section gives their children the opportunity to learn and interact with others and feel part of their community.

Image of a sign at the Hennepin County Library that says “All are welcome here.” Via School Library Journal

In the wake of several executive orders signed by the new U.S. president that targeted immigrants and refugees, libraries around the United States retaliated with four simple words: All Are Welcome Here. At a time when all immigrants and refugees, no matter their country of origin or documentation status, are worried about their security, libraries open their doors and tell everyone in their community that “you’re safe here.”

Many U.S. libraries located in Sanctuary Cities are standing by their local officials and, in the face of losing funding from the federal government, declaring themselves a place of sanctuary. Not just sanctuary from the hate and discrimination of an administration bound to cast them out, but a sanctuary of knowledge and information.

Nelson Mandela once said, “education is the greatest engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor…that a child of farm workers can become president of a great nation.” Libraries are the greatest source of information and education in the community. They are an equalizer of access, available to anyone who walks through the doors. They make knowledge accessible, fight prejudice through information, and promote the values of a fair and just society.

Graphic that says “Libraries are for everyone” with images of three different people. Via Hafuboti

In my own community, I have a similar kind of privilege to Malfoy and Ron. I was born in the country I call home, and I understand that I walk with a privilege my immigrant neighbors do not have. But like Ron, I know that the newcomers to my homeland are vital to my community. They make us stronger, they make us smarter, they make our food taste better and our communities richer — “they” are “us.” They are part of our communities, and they belong here. And I’ll happily spend a day vomiting up slugs in defense of anyone who wants to call my home their home.

I’m so proud to stand with an organization that fights for social justice using the love of books and fandom. Through the annual Accio Books campaign, the Harry Potter Alliance ensures that communities and the people that call them home all around the world have access to books and libraries.

Many of us don’t immediately think of libraries or librarians as a source of resistance or social change. But they are; they always have been, by quietly, patiently, and radically providing information and tools for free to the masses.

If you need proof, just look to everyone’s favorite Muggle-born warrior-witch Hermione. She knows that books and cleverness, combined with the love of our friends, can save us all. And when you’re in doubt, go to the library.

Cristina is a volunteer researcher with the HPA, focusing on issues of immigration and migration. She is also a very proud Hufflepuff. In her Muggle life, she enjoys spending time with her cat, Neville, and pursuing her passion as an amateur legal superhero.