Thursday, August 28, 2014

Unusual Library Collections and Customs in History

Chained Library, Chelsea Old Church [Colin Smith]
From age to age, libraries grow and change, flourish and disappear, blossom and contract...
~Matthew Battles

There's a book in the library catalog called Library: An Unquiet History.  We've only skimmed it, but it tells the stories you might already know about libraries - the burning of Alexandria's papyrus scrolls in 48 B.C. (author Matthew Battles calls it a "biblioclasm"); that "[i]n the Middle Ages, access to books, even literacy itself, was parceled out on a strict 'need to know' basis"; that " the nineteenth century, the sheer proliferation of books in number and kind transformed the library from temple to market, from canon to cornucopia"; and the birth of the modern public library, with the help of folks like Andrew Carnegie.  What this most excellent volume does not mention (though, granted, we've only skimmed its 214 pages) is some of the more unusual, and now mostly archaic, traditions of libraries through the ages.  For example...

  • Anthropodermic Bibliopegy: As was widely reported earlier this year, there are multiple libraries (at Harvard University, at Brown University, at the Boston Athenaeum, at the University of Georgia) that include in their collections books bound in human skin. A volume at Harvard, Des destinees de l'ame (Destinies of the Soul), contains a note by the binder which reads"'A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.'"* Anthropodermic bibliopegy, basically tanning human skin as one would tan leather, has been practiced since the 16th century, with a rise in popularity during the 19th century, when the skins of criminals who had been executed were given to bookbinders. The practice has also been used by doctors to honor a deceased patient or colleague. Philadelphia's Mutter Museum also features a collection of books bound in this manner by 19th century doctor Joseph Leidy, and a human-skin wallet owned by the same.
  • Chained Libraries: During the Middle Ages, a popular practice was chaining books, especially large, valuable reference books, to the bookshelf to prevent theft.  The chains, generally fitted to the corner or cover of the book to avoid wear and tear, would be long enough to remove the book from the shelf and read, but not take the book from the library. There are still a few chained libraries which have survived in Europe, mostly in England. The film of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone featured chained books in the restricted section of the library at Hogwarts.
  • Scholars' (or Reading) Cages: Marsh Library in Dublin, Ireland went a step further to secure their books - they actually locked borrowers in cages! These cages are actually three alcoves with wire doors, perhaps an early and less trusting version of the library carrels you see in the college libraries today. (Shields Library at UC Davis has something similar for the convenience of their graduate students, though students do find them "creepy".)
  • Xylothek or Wooden Libraries: These libraries, relatives of Wunderkammern or cabinets of curiosities, reached the height of popularity in Germany in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Each "book" is made out of a particular type of wood, covered in bark, with moss and lichen from the tree used to decorate the cover.  Inside, "readers" generally find leaves, flowers, fruits, seedlings, root, cut branches, and seeds, along with a special compartment with a written description of the tree and its uses. Great for those studying forestry, botany, or related fields.

    Do you know of any interesting library collections or customs from history that we've missed?  Let us know in the comments!

    1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Really cool post! I had heard of some of these methods and not of others, very very interesting.