I visited the Mütter Museum in Philadephia a few years ago with a friend and absolutely loved it. When I found out Megan Rosenbloom, a rare books librarian with ties to this unique museum, was writing a book about anthropodermic books – a fancy way to say books wrapped in leather made from human skin – I knew I would have to give it a read.

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The summary, from Amazon:

On bookshelves around the world, surrounded by ordinary books bound in paper and leather, rest other volumes of a distinctly strange and grisly sort: those bound in human skin. Would you know one if you held it in your hand?

In Dark Archives, Megan Rosenbloom seeks out the historic and scientific truths behind anthropodermic bibliopegy—the practice of binding books in this most intimate covering. Dozens of such books live on in the world’s most famous libraries and museums. Dark Archives exhumes their origins and brings to life the doctors, murderers, and indigents whose lives are sewn together in this disquieting collection. Along the way, Rosenbloom tells the story of how her team of scientists, curators, and librarians test rumored anthropodermic books, untangling the myths around their creation and reckoning with the ethics of their custodianship.

A librarian and journalist, Rosenbloom is a member of The Order of the Good Death and a cofounder of their Death Salon, a community that encourages conversations, scholarship, and art about mortality and mourning. In Dark Archives—captivating and macabre in all the right ways—she has crafted a narrative that is equal parts detective work, academic intrigue, history, and medical curiosity: a book as rare and thrilling as its subject.

Buy Dark Archives here.

This book was creepy and fascinating. Rosenbloom explores the origins of anthropodermic books, how she and other scientists test them to prove that they are really bound in human leather, and the history behind identified anthropodermic books. She also discusses the ethic of owning these books and displaying them in museums.

From a geekier point of view, I really found it interesting how my ethics as a public librarian are drastically different from the ethics of a rare book librarian. Of course, Rosenbloom’s job (even outside of this creepy collection) involves preserving rare treasures. While simply throwing out books wouldn’t cross her mind, as a public librarian, it’s something I do on a daily basis with books in poor condition or books that aren’t being used. Obviously our situations are very different, but the core values of librarianship are the same. This book made me want to sit down and discuss my profession with an archivist, rare book librarian, or academic librarian.

Overall, this is a creepy and interesting read for true history and bookish nerds. Check it out if you can stomach the content! While the creation of human skin bound books is certainly wrapped in the racism and misogyny I expected, their origins are still surprising!

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Dark Archives: A Librarian's Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human SkinDark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin by Megan Rosenbloom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was such an interesting listen though the narrator’s use of accents kind of took away from things at times. As a public librarian it was so interesting to me how my ethics of librarianship are so different than the author’s as a rare book librarian. Gruesome subject but I learned a lot and it was handled so well.

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Book Club Questions

  1. What surprised you about these books?
  2. What didn’t surprise you?
  3. How does the way Rosenbloom and other rare book librarians handle books differ from the way librarians in other fields might do so?

Interested? Buy Dark Archives.
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