Book Review: Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin

Book Review, Professional Ethics
Cover of Dark Archives b Medan Rosenbloom

Over winter break I picked up Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom. My thought process was basically “a librarian wrote this, and it seems like it might combine two of my interests: history and medicine, or history and murder. Or both. I’m in.” It didn’t occur to me at the time that it might raise some really interesting ethical questions for librarians and archivists. 

Rosenbloom is part of a group that has been scientifically testing human “skin books” to determine which are actually made of human skin, and she then investigates their provenance. Some of the individual stories are interesting – my personal favorite was the criminal who asked to have a book made out of his skin. Apparently he really liked books. She also gives us a fascinating look at the history and artistry of book-binding and leatherworking, which was a nice side benefit for a bibliophile reader. 

I was also really intrigued by how many had connections to doctors, and she discussed the questions this raises regarding medical ethics, a topic I happen to have an amateur interest in. That portion was fascinating; she focused in particular on the concern that doctors can become desentized over time and begin to see patients as cases and not individual people – what she refers to as “the price of a distanced clinical gaze” and the viewing of the sick “as a commodity” (Rosenbloom, pg. 17 & pg. 46)  She then connected this back to efforts in medical education to create more empathy, which made me wonder what role medical librarians can play in that effort.  

She also raised some ethical considerations for librarians and archivists that I had not anticipated (although in retrospect, I probably should have). 

She says “the weight of these objects’ fraught legacy transfers to the institutions where they are housed, and the library and museum professionals who are responsible for them.” (Rosenbloom, pg. 8) She discusses the concerns these books often raise about power disparities and the use of the bodies of disenfranchised people. 

These concerns sometimes lead to calls for the books to be unbound, buried, or destroyed, which then raises “concerns about calls for the destruction of an artifact when so much about its individual history is unknown.” (Rosenbloom, pg. 27) Rosenbloom reiterates that preservation is a central responsibility for libraries, and gives the reader room to consider how that concerns butts up against other ethical concerns. This is especially challenging when we often do not know where the skin came from or what, if any, consent was involved. 

However, “artifacts of abominable acts” also have “research value,” as Rosenbloom points out (pg. 28) She goes on to discuss what we can learn from paper and book bindings themselves (which reminded me a bit of Paper: Paging Through History, which made me need to buy all of Mark Kurlansky’s books). Apparently for a while the Syracuse Daily Standard was made with rags from Egyptian mummies, which makes the paper itself of historical value. (Rosenbloom, pg. 87) Who knew?  

A notebook allegedly covered in human skin from the Wellcome Trust, discussed in Rosenbloom’s book.
A notebook allegedly covered in human skin from the Wellcome Trust, discussed in Rosenbloom’s book. 

There was even a discussion of whether the term “anthropodermic” is even appropriate. “I think it’s sanitizing,” says Paul Needham, a librarian at Princeton. (Rosenbloom, pg. 86) Rosenbloom argues that “we can’t go back in time and stop anthropodermic books from being created, but since they exist, they have important lessons to teach us – if we’re willing to reckon with their dark past and all that it tells us about the culture in which they were created.” (Rosenbloom, pg. 86-87)

Overall Rosenbloom’s book engaged me intellectually in a way I was not expecting, and still addressed the issue (who the heck makes books made out of human skin?) that got me to pick up the book in the first place. It turned out to be a really interesting lens through which to consider medical ethics, ethics regarding human remains, and collection development ethics all rolled in to one unique issue. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in ethical questions about how we educate the next generation of doctors, but also of interest to anyone interested in how we collect and study our cultural heritage – even (or maybe especially) the disturbing parts.

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