"Dark Archives"

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

Megan Rosenbloom. Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. New York, NY: Picador, 2021. Paperback, 288p. $18.00 (ISBN: 978-1-2508-0016-9). Reviewed by Nicole Topich.

Beginning in the well-suited location of the Mütter Museum, Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin explores the subject of “anthropodermic bibliopegy,” an understudied macabre topic that elicits a wide range of reactions, from horror and disgust to morbid fascination. The core of the book is detailed through a captivating list of questions posed at the beginning: “What were the circumstances in the life of the author responsible for the creation of a text someone saw fit to bind in human skin?...Who supplied the skin that was used for this anthropodermic book, and how did this fate befall them? Who were the binders who agreed to put the skin on the book, and who were the collectors who commissioned the anthropodermic bindings?” (5). After laying out the basis of the book, Rosenbloom inserts an example of her personal experience and connection to this subject by describing how she collected a sample of a book binding at the Huntington Library: “But today there was some extra gravity in the air, because instead of coming to read the Huntington’s treasures, I was there to cut them” (8).

Rosenbloom is currently the Collection Strategies Librarian at the UCLA Library in Los Angeles and President of the Southern California Society for the History of Medicine, but previously worked as a medical librarian and leads a research team called the Anthropodermic Book Project, a group which scientifically tests skin-bound books to determine if their origins are human. She is also the co-founder and director of the Death Salon, the event arm of the Order of the Good Death, and a proponent of the Death Positive movement, a perfect combination of experience and knowledge to author this book.

The aim of the Anthropodermic Book Project is “to identify and test as many alleged anthropodermic books as possible and dispel long-held myths about the most macabre books in history,” with about 50 confirmed in public collections at the time of the book’s publication (9). After the first testing for human-skin bound books at Harvard University in 2014, her project began using their current process of peptide mass fingerprinting on the bindings. This requires a small sample and distinguishes between the three most common animal hides used in bookbinding: sheep, goat, and cow leather (13). Most of the books were not originally bound in human skin, but were rebound, usually by doctors, which leads to a thoughtful discussion on how to approach death and illness and what we owe to those wronged or used by medical practitioners. She sees the books “less as objects and more as vessels for stories,” which is how the rest of her narrative is framed as she narrates her own research journeys throughout each of the following chapters.

The first chapter begins with Rosenbloom visiting the only (at the time) scientifically-verified anthropodermic book. Although the follicles of the leather can be examined through high-powered microscopes to attempt to differentiate between skins like cow versus pig, this is unreliable because the tanning process stretches and warps the leather in unpredictable ways, and age can wear away the follicle patterns. Previously, a note about a book being bound in human skin was taken at face value — as she states, “Few things increase a book’s value like scarcity” (25)— but most ostensibly anthropodermic bindings have proven to be more mundane. Although disgust at such bindings is common, Rosenbloom argues that they should not be dismantled because it would deprive researchers of the ability to study them in the future.

The second chapter on the inception of clinical medicine covers the foundation for shared medical knowledge that was created during the French Revolution era, when the body was less mysterious, but the patient was viewed as an object to be studied. At this time, clinicians lost sight of the patient as a person in favor of the patient as a collection of symptoms and manifestations; as Michel Foucault described in his book The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, this change altered the doctor-patient relationship and brought with it a distanced view of patients, which he referred to as the “clinical gaze,” and was followed by an increase in the creation of anthropodermic books.

The third chapter begins by discussing three works on human reproduction bound in the skin of a woman named Mary Lynch; this is unusual information to have because typically the identity of the patient is lost to history. Rosenbloom provides her perspective on identifying and testing these books and describes how the one at the University of Pennsylvania seemed fake to her; but despite the contents being similar to a phone directory for nineteenth-century libraries, this volume was bound in real human skin. After learning about and discussing the processes for how human skin tanning was actually done, she states, “Now that I had an idea of all that went into making the leather, I was more gobsmacked than ever at [the owner’s] detachment…Even if he gave the pickled skin to someone else to tan, it was an exceedingly dirty business” (75). But she quickly became desensitized to the tannery’s animal gore, so it is not surprising that doctors would also lose sight of the humanity of people.

Rosenbloom then describes the use of an anthropodermic book for the London Dungeon attraction and another that was claimed to be bound in the skin of Crispus Attucks, both of which are now located at the Wellcome Collection. She states, “The idea that someone would try to trick collectors and museums about the true nature of an object fills me with a mix of fear, fascination, and disgust” (98), but because of the increased monetary value of anthropodermic books, this claim was probably financially motivated. In addition to the Attucks book, another one with a racial claim is at the University of Notre Dame; an article inside the book had a sentence underlined on the price an anthropodermic book fetched at auction, which she describes as a “naked attempt to add monetary value to the book” (102). This book was tested to be a fake, and she raises the question of why frauds so often focus on race, and then says, “To my knowledge, no anthropodermic book has ever mentioned Whiteness - perhaps because here, as so often elsewhere, Whiteness was assumed by default” (103). She then focuses on books by authors of color, including two confirmed anthropodermic bindings on a text written by Phillis Wheatley, one of the earliest African American authors, which is the only known edition with multiple confirmed human skin copies. She concludes this section by acknowledging the history of abuses suffered by Black people at the hands of American physicians.

Institutions continue to grapple with issues of ethics and consent in anthropodermic bindings, and an example is provided of two institutions with parts of the same person coming to very different conclusions on how to handle the materials, with one letting the relative cremate the remains and the other not allowing cremation. But there might be fake human skin books that purport to be real, and if the bindings are cremated, then the scientific and historical facts about them will be lost. After mentioning William Burke’s skin pocket book in Edinburgh, she broadens her discussion to the use of the bodies of poor people in general for dissection and anatomy and how the laws vary widely internationally and are often vague. All of the alleged examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy predate the mid-twentieth century, which was the era when consensual body donations increased and medical consent was codified into law, although unevenly applied.

To conclude the book, Rosenbloom describes a body donor ceremony and observing the students on the first day they met their cadavers. Although they receive training in “clinical empathy,” the inhumane expectations for medical students and doctors leads to dehumanization and is detrimental; as she states, “What we can do, and have a moral obligation to do, is examine the institutions in which these injustices were able to proceed, learn from their mistakes, and critically view the pernicious ways these mindsets might persist in our current society and fight to eradicate them.” (223). She then connects her mom’s medical experience to the display of the “American Giant’s” 7’6’’ skeleton at the Mutter Museum at the conclusion of the book and states, “Every time I see him, I feel pity and empathy for the life and death I presume he endured, even though I know it’s all just the speculation of a twenty-first century woman disconnected from his reality. Of all the complicated feelings I experience as I stand in front of his glass case, the strongest is gratitude for all that his presence in the museum has taught and continues to teach me” (226).

As shown by this conclusion, the author provides personal stories and perspectives to the research throughout the book, which makes the narrative captivating and enjoyable to read, in addition to being informative. The thoroughness of her research is clear, especially through her travels around the world to find and research these books, but her empathy and sensitivity to the subject matter feels both refreshing and necessary. In addition, because of her professional background, there are useful tips throughout the book specifically from the perspective of a librarian, like gloves not being needed to handle rare books. She also provides insight into the jobs of librarians and their daily tasks, such as the time when she was pricked by a needle while sorting through a donated box at work. In addition, she acknowledges her subjective role throughout the book, such as when she states that she would not seek out one of these books, but would gladly take care of one if it was donated to her institution (205). Dark Archives is very accessible to people outside of academia or the medical and library professions and can be read by the general public or anyone with an interest in medical history or books. Because the project is ongoing, follow-up publications to convey research updates will be necessary and looked forward to by any readers of this first book.

— Nicole Topich, Cornell University