“Accio Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone!” UBC’s journey to acquire a magical first edition

Vancouverites don’t need a Time-Turner to thumb through a first edition, first printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Instead, any muggle or wizard can head down to the basement of Irving K. Barber Library to see the book themselves, which was acquired by UBC Rare Books and Special Collections for $36,500 USD in March.

Acquiring the book was much more challenging than merely waving a wand, reciting a summoning charm and having it appear. Katherine Kalsbeek, head of Rare Books and Special Collections, called the process “a bit of a journey.”

Rare Books and Special Collections started purchasing the Harry Potter books in 2015 to add to its Historical Children’s Literature Collection.

“Some books were easier to find than others,” Kalsbeek said. “We found ourselves in September of 2017 with an almost complete collection, and we realized that the only significant book missing was the first edition, first printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was published in 1997 and was the book that sort of began this Harry Potter phenomenon.”

Finding this book, however, was perhaps even more challenging than brewing a batch of polyjuice potion. Only 500 hardcovers were produced in the first printing, and most of those copies went into libraries where they were quickly disposed of and replaced once they got worn out.

“Before Harry Potter, [there wasn’t] the expectation that you could sell millions of copies right off the bat and have people lining up and putting in advanced orders,” said Chelsea Shriver, a librarian at Rare Books and Special Collections. “It was by an unknown author, and it was a fantasy. ... [Printing a small number of books] was pretty typical for that time, and it seems very strange to us now, because of the success of Harry Potter, that there only would have been 500 copies printed.”

“Now, 500 million copies have been printed and published internationally,” Kalsbeek pointed out. “You go from 500 to 500 million, who could have foreseen that?”

The scarcity of the book, along with its success and its impact on children’s literature, are what makes it so expensive and hard to find. When Kalsbeek and Shriver started looking for the book they saw copies being auctioned off for around $100,000 Canadian. They knew that wasn’t in their budget, so they put out the word to their bookselling partners. In October 2017, they heard back from a partner in New York, saying that they had a client who was willing to offer them an ex-library copy of the book for $36,500 USD.

“I think because of UBC’s existing relationship with this dealer, I think it’s one of respect, rather than send it to auction where he probably could have achieved a way higher price he gave us first refusal,” Kalsbeek explained.

“We were really pleased [with the price], because although it seems like a lot of money for a book that was published in 1997 that we all feel very familiar with … it is actually a rare book. … A lot of people feel like they have copies of this book in their home collections, in their home libraries, and that’s just simply not the case.”

Kalsbeek also addressed students’ fears that the book was too expensive. “Whatever material we add to the collection, whether it be the first edition first printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or whether it’s the manuscript journal of the first woman to visit the coast of British Columbia, we think very carefully about every acquisition we make. We have a limited acquisitions budget that represents only 2 per cent of the library’s overall collections budget. … When we’re making acquisitions we consult with many faculty members to ensure that what we’re buying is really going to be used by faculty, by students, here and now.”

“I know some students are concerned that perhaps their tuition might get higher, or their tuition might be used for things like this,” Kalsbeek added, “but the funds that were used came in part from donated funds. … Whatever we’re buying, rest assured that we take our responsibility as a public institution and the fact that we’re using, in most cases, public funds, very seriously and really carefully consider every acquisition we make.”

While part of the goal of building the collection is for current students to enjoy it, it will also become an important reference for future students. It definitely won’t be kept in the restricted section!

“A hundred years from now, students who are reading about this phenomenon that is Harry Potter will actually be able to consult the primary source materials, and see for themselves what a first edition first printing of the book looked like, and not just have to read about it in some historical textbook reflecting on the years of 1997,” said Kalsbeek.

“We want to take you on that journey from the very, very first edition to the modern editions that we’ll probably continue to collect in the future as they come out,” added Shriver. “We want to have that physical evidence.”

This evidence is important, especially considering the impact that Harry Potter has had on Vancouver as a city.

“There are all these surprising connections between Harry Potter and Vancouver,” Shriver revealed, who put together a symposium in 2015 called “Harry Potter and the Rain City” on this topic.

Kidsbooks (a bookstore in Kitsilano) was the very first bookstore in Canada to sell Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. After the owners read some positive reviews, they contacted Raincoast Books, a Canadian distributor for Bloomsbury. Due to the successful sales at Kidsbooks, Raincoast eventually decided to purchase the Canadian rights to publish the books.

“For a number of years, it really did put what had been a smaller Canadian publisher in the spotlight,” stated Shriver. “There’s a lot of business connections, academic connections, and just fan connections. The impact has been pretty large here in Vancouver.”

Shriver also spoke of the community the series has created, which manifests itself everywhere, from quidditch games to charity events, and includes everyone, be it kids discovering magic for the first time or adults who are still hoping to get their Hogwarts acceptance letter.

Students are more than welcome to visit the reading room at Rare Books and Special Collections. Although they probably won’t stumble across Hogwarts: A History or The Monster Book of Monsters, they will have access to medieval manuscripts, and a 13th century student bible, as well as all the Canadian, American, and UK editions of the Harry Potter books — including the first edition, first printing of The Philosopher’s Stone.