Megan Rosenbloom was first introduced to the concept of anthropodermic bipliopegy, the practice of binding books in human skin, during a visit to the Mütter Museum, a medical pathology museum in Philadelphia in 2008. Among all of the unusual corpses in the room, she noticed some very plain looking antique books with their covers closed.
“When I read the caption that they were bound in human skin by 19th century doctor bibliophiles I was totally shocked,” said Rosenbloom, a collection strategies librarian responsible for UCLA collections acquisitions. “I assumed that they were just another kind of artifact one can only find at the Mütter.”
After she became a librarian in 2008, Rosenbloom started asking around and heard there were many more alleged books than the few she had known about. In 2014 a new way of testing them to find out if they were genuine examples of anthropodermic bipliopegy was introduced. “That’s when I got very intrigued and wanted to follow the trail,” she said.
Rosenbloom’s curiosity has led to the recent release of her first book, “Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin,” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). As the title implies, this rare and macabre corner of the literary world is not always an easy subject for librarians, historians and medical professionals to discuss. Undeterred, Rosenbloom, who joined the UCLA Library this July, dives head-first into the subject, exposing her readers to its origins, myths and ethical considerations. “Dark Archives” has already attracted the attention of the New York Times Book Review, National Public Radio
What are some of the modern ethical discussions around anthropodermic bibliopegy? Do scholars believe they should have a home in libraries, in museums or nowhere?
These books are truly controversial in that there is a diversity of opinions about what should be done with them, so in the book I try to represent a sampling of some of those divergent opinions. For my part, I believe that it is important for research libraries to preserve and provide access to materials that we find objectionable. They are important historical evidence. We cannot change what was done to these people, but we can continue to learn important lessons from these objects and study them through new methods and points of view.
Have you ever held a book bound in human skin?
I have held many human skin books, at least a dozen. They truly are indistinguishable from any other antique book, I have seen them in all colors, some shiny or waxy or even suede. That is what makes the real thing creepier than any movie’s necronomicon or hocus pocus book; they hide a dark secret in plain sight.
Peptide mass fingerprint, or PMF, testing has brought the debunking of some books claimed to be bound in human skin, including one held in UCLA Library Special Collections. Can you briefly explain the PMF testing process?
For our purposes, peptide mass fingerprinting is a minimally invasive process during which one can remove the smallest possible visible sample from a leather binding, digest it in an enzyme called trypsin, and run the sample through a mass spectrometer. It analyzes the protein collagen in the skin, which is a lot less likely to degrade through time and harsh chemical processes — like leather tanning — than DNA is. What you get from the analysis is something that looks a bit like a line graph that you check against a known library of animal samples to see if the fingerprints match. How precise you can get — whether it’s down to a species level or only to the animal family — depends on how far back different species in an animal family diverge in evolutionary time. The Bovidae family represents many of the common animal sources for leather: cow, sheep, goat, but they each carry a different protein marker that allows us to distinguish among them. For the Hominidae or great ape family, that is the most precise we can get because humans are too close to chimpanzees and gorillas. Since I have yet to hear of a bookbinding from those animals, combining the test results with the claim usually written inside the book that it is bound in human skin, that’s how we make the human identification.
What do you suspect were some of the motivations to forge anthropodermic book bindings?
For those that intentionally set out to deceive, I think the motivation was financial, because using such a rare binding increases the value for a certain kind of collector. However, I also suspect there were plenty of cases where someone legitimately believed a story about a certain book being bound in human skin, wrote it inside the book, and no one was able to know for sure until very recently. The combination of scientific testing and provenance research can get us closer to the truth about these books than either could do alone.
Do you plan to reach out to faculty in literature and/or medicine about speaking to students regarding anthropodermic bibliopegy? And if so, what do you hope students would gain from this knowledge?
I would be delighted to talk to UCLA students about these books, because not only are they bibliographically interesting, but their creation by 19th century doctor bibliophiles from their indigent patients reveals a dark era in the history of clinical medicine. It shows how a distanced clinical gaze must be tempered with clinical empathy to avoid the depersonalization that can lead to lapses in medical ethics. I also believe that we cannot expect humane health care if we fail to prioritize health care workers’ humane treatment in their training and in the clinic.
“Dark Archives” is your first published book. Is there anything you learned throughout the research and publishing process that has lent insight to your work as a collection strategies librarian at UCLA?
I would say my book is an example of a few kinds of research that are emerging right now and that our collections should rise to meet, including interdisciplinary endeavors and work that interrogates long-held library collections using new lenses.
You’re also a leading voice in the “death positive” movement. Can you explain a bit about what death positive means, and how your views may have been informed or shaped through your research of anthropodermic bibliopegy?
I started working with the death positive movement in 2013 when Caitlin Doughty asked me to join her collective of academics, artists and death professionals called The Order of the Good Death. Shortly thereafter we held our first gathering that was a little bit like a conference but also a public intellectual event with performances, which we called Death Salon, and I became the director of Death Salon. We’re on hiatus from doing events right now of course but I’m still involved in death positive work, and I bring the mindset to everything I do. The main idea is that we’ve developed these defense mechanisms against the knowledge of our impending mortality that do not serve us. Opening up conversations and learning from other time periods and cultures’ death practices are instructive to empower people with knowledge and choice around death and dying. Interacting with one’s mortality early and often is less psychologically damaging than pretending death will never come into your life, so when it does you find yourself completely unprepared. My work in death positivity informed the book in some direct ways, as in the sections where I grapple with the idea of donating my body to a medical school, and also more generally in that working in this social justice movement that is always striving for intersectionality helped frame the questions I asked about these books and the power dynamics at play. What results, I hope, is a book that is far richer than just spooky tales of bygone horrors, but artifacts that allow us to reckon with a problematic history and instruct us toward a more equitable future.