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Dark Archives by Megan Rosenbloom: A Book Review

Archivists, historians, librarians, and researchers all confront ethical concerns in the course of research. Yet among the ethical questions that researchers can ask themselves, one of the most troubling might be “should this object have been made at all? And what do I do about that now?” Librarian Megan Rosenbloom’s research tackles these kinds of controversial objects: her book discusses anthropodermic bibliopegy, or books bound in human skin.
Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin documents Rosenbloom and her colleagues at The Anthropodermic Book Project’s mission to understand these polarizing objects. The Anthropodermic Book project has identified about fifty alleged anthropodermic books in research libraries, museums, and private hands. As of the book’s publication in March 2020, the project confirmed that seventeen of these books were genuine. In response, some readers have expressed shocked disgust that anyone could want to make or own such an object. What kind of person would do such a thing? In the course of the book, Rosenbloom attempts to answer the instinctual, disgust-ridden “Why?” with a sincere answer. To do so, she first had to separate the real anthropodermic books from the frauds.
Libraries come to believe that their books are possibly anthropodermic in a number of ways: a patron may have donated the book with a note explaining its unusual material, or a previous dealer may have penciled in “bound in human skin” on the inside of the book. After this initial “diagnosis,” some librarians are reluctant to have the books tested, for multiple reasons. Some librarians are concerned about the condition of the books, since the Anthropodermic Book Project uses a process called peptide mass fingerprinting, which requires that a tiny fraction of the book be removed for testing. The size of the piece is miniscule: as Rosenbloom points out, a piece visible to the human eye is more than large enough, but some libraries still hold that any damage is too much damage.
Rosenbloom also encountered other reasons that libraries declined her offer to test the books: the bad publicity. Some, including scholars, librarians, and private persons, have expressed moral indignation at the very existence of the anthropodermic book. Paul Needham, a rare book librarian at Princeton, suggested that an anthropodermic book at Harvard University’s Hougton Library be interred, comparing the object’s very existence to a kind of “post-mortem rape.” Needham’s analogy to sexual assault is predicated on the concept of post-mortem consent, or the idea that people should have control over their bodies both before they die and afterwards. This comparison is controversial and introduces a psycho-sexual element to anthropodermic books which researchers must confront.
The intersection of human remains with art and material culture is contentious. In my own work, I have been analyzing the Sedlec Ossuary, a nineteenth-century chapel more commonly known as the “bone church.” This chapel, located in the Czech Republic, contains sculptural decorations constructed from human remains: a coat of arms, a chandelier, monstrances, and more. Like the anthropodermic books, the Sedlec Ossuary has been the subject of many ethical debates, with some writers calling for the ossuary to be dismantled and the remains buried in a more “respectful” manner. I have placed the ossuary within the context of nationalism and the gothic revival, and Rosenbloom has chosen a similar approach.
Rosenbloom approaches anthropodermic books by examining the cultural context. Rosenbloom notes commonalities in the provenance of these works: they tended to be owned by doctors. She draws comparisons to other instances of dubious medical ethics, such as the nineteenth-century “body snatchers” who stole corpses to give doctors bodies for autopsies. Since doctors had to perceive their patients as objects to justify the immoral but arguably essential crime of graverobbing, their relationships to their patients’ bodies changed from fellow human to medical supply. In essence, the doctors became so comfortable objectifying their patients that they saw removing skin and using it to bind their own books as just another perk of the medical profession.
Was this unethical? Surely by today’s standards, yes. Doctors and hospitals are subject to ethical guidelines to protect patients from this kind of abuse. These ethics are also enshrined in a rigid and elaborate body of federal and state laws, such as the Human Tissue Act of 2004 which demands post-mortem consent before body tissues can be removed (except in specific circumstances, none of which are bookbinding.) Yet death ethics are neither absolute nor unchanging. Alkaline hydrolysis, a cremation alternative that has been touted as being more environmentally friendly, only remains legal in a handful of states. In others, it has been derided as disrespectful for humans. In general when it comes to morbid subject matter, the instinctual disgust response has to be overcome before any cultural or legal change can be overcome. When it comes to art, these considerations are magnified even further, and people are more likely to argue that art which involves human remains is “disrespectful” of the dead. Yet what it means to be respectful of a dead person is culturally dependent. If death ethics evolve further, it is possible that later archivists would regret interring anthropodermic books. They would risk losing these rare windows into the lives and minds of bibliophiles, into the fraught history of medical ethics, and into the human psyche.
Megan Rosenbloom’s book succeeds because she answers the instinctual “yuck” with a sincere attempt to understand the people who created anthropodermic books. In my research on the Sedlec Ossuary, I have found that popular internet sources far outnumber scholarly articles. While Rosenbloom’s topic is different, her book addresses a similar void in the scholarship. Her choice to approach a contentious subject through the lens of cultural context renders her book historically valuable and completely fascinating. Dark Archives serves as a prescient reminder that librarians, researchers, and academics must bring scholarly standards to bear on the reprehensible, the disgusting, the edgy and the taboo. To leave it to the wild rumor-mongering of the internet leaves us all in the dark.

-Mary Bedell