Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Libraries Have Books Bound in Human Skin - Yahoo! News

Libraries Have Books Bound in Human Skin - Yahoo! News

By M.L. JOHNSON, Associated Press Writer
46 minutes ago

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Brown University's library boasts an anatomy book that combines form and function in macabre fashion. Its cover — tanned and polished to a smooth golden brown, like fine leather — is made of human skin.

In fact, a number of the nation's finest libraries, including Harvard's, have such books in their collections. The practice of binding books in human skin was not uncommon in centuries past, even if it was not always discussed in polite society.

At the time, the best libraries belonged to private collectors. Some were doctors who had access to skin from amputated parts and patients whose bodies had gone unclaimed. In other cases, wealthy bibliophiles acquired skin from executed criminals, medical school cadavers and people who died in the poor house.

Nowadays, libraries typically keep such volumes in their rare book collections and do not allow them to circulate. But scholars can examine them.

Brown's John Hay Library has three books bound in human skin — the 1568 anatomy text by the Belgian surgeon Andreas Vesalius, and two 19th-century editions of "The Dance of Death," a medieval morality tale.

One copy of "The Dance of Death" was rebound in 1893 by Joseph Zaehnsdorf, a master binder in London. A note to his client reports that he did not have enough skin and had to split it. The front cover, bound in the outer layer of skin, has a slightly bumpy texture, like soft sandpaper. The spine and back cover, made from the inner layer, feel like suede.

"The Dance of Death" is about how death prevails over all, rich or poor. As with many other skin-bound volumes, "there was some tie-in with the content of the book," said Sam Streit, director of the John Hay Library.

On the Net:
John Hay Library: http://www.brown.edu/Facilities/University_Library/libs/hay/
Boston Athenaeum: http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/highwayman.html
College of Physicians of Philadelphia: http://www.collphyphil.org/

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