Dec 7, 2016
“Death Librarians” Shed Light on Mortality and Grief
Sometimes the weight of the world’s recorded information seems impossibly vast. Sometimes you’re looking for a more personal touch than Google can offer. Hell, sometimes you just really want to know more about Victorian freakshows or books bound in human skin.
This is where a specialized librarian comes in. Megan Rosenbloom and Laetitia Barbier are two librarians navigating a topic that’s especially hard to grapple with: death. Both have an abiding interest in death, and both have found quirky niches to explore it. By connecting their work with old books to their work with live audiences, these librarians aim to counter the silence around mortality.
The facilitator: the morbid anatomy librarian
Laetitia Barbier has an art history background, and moved from Paris to Brooklyn to study the outsider artist Joe Coleman. She was a regular visitor to the Morbid Anatomy blog, and became an intern when the blog grew into a physical space, the Morbid Anatomy Museum. She’s now the head librarian, after having catalogued the entire book collection of the Morbid Anatomy Library.
This taxonomy is unusual, like the library itself. Barbier comments, “We don’t label the sections because we want people to discover the invisible threads” among, say, art on death, freaks and sideshows, medical history, and vernacular Catholicism. One of Barbier’s favorite sections is gentleman’s erotica. The link between this collection and the morbid anatomy theme may not be immediately clear, but around the turn of the 20th century, anatomy books of nude women were sold to men who viewed them as pornography. The connection between death and sex is a recurring one.
The Morbid Anatomy Library, photo by Shannon Taggart
Barbier calls the Morbid Anatomy Library “many things at once”: a curiosity cabinet, a workspace, a meeting place for like-minded individuals. Like the pieces in the museum, the holdings in the library are intended to be as accessible as possible: “We want items that are less precious, so that people can handle them.” At the same time, the library contains books on obscure interests that aren’t necessarily available in mainstream libraries, including a substantial collection on anatomical wax models. Thus the library is intended for both specialist researchers and the general public; children get particularly excited.
The point of the library’s collections and events, says Barbier, is ultimately to allow the sharing of experiences, whether about family history or dealing with grief. Regarding the modern-day disconnection from funeral practices, Barbier comments, “One of the things we’re trying to do is reconnect people with that, because it’s part of a larger human history.” Even for people who aren’t experiencing bereavement, the library is a welcoming space. “People might feel like outcasts because their interests might be considered morbid,” but in Barbier’s experience find connections and an outlet for their shared interests in the library.
Barbier is self-effacing, seeing her role as being a facilitator of connections — between people and ideas, and between the past and the present. Her love of the library items shines through. One of her favorite books in the collection is The Heart: Its History, Its symbolism, Its Iconography and Its Diseases, by N. Boyadjian. Boyadjian, a Dutch cardiologist, began collecting heart-related objects due to his fascination with both the concept and the organ itself. His collection spans card games, Valentine’s objects, religious symbols, and much more — and like the Morbid Anatomy Library, is clearly a labor of love.
Sample of photography in The Anatomical Basis of Practice
The educator: the medical librarian and anthropodermic bibliopegy researcher
Like Barbier at the Morbid Anatomy Library, who’s fascinated by gentleman’s erotica, Megan Rosenbloom, who manages USC’s medical library collection, has a soft spot for a work that straddles the line between medical and pornographic. Rosenbloom’s favorite book in the USC medical library is the notorious The Anatomical Basis of Practice, a 1970s textbook on medical anatomy. It was written by a trio of Duke University medical professors, with photos by a Playboy photographer. Unsurprisingly, then, these photos show curvaceous women contorted in ways that aren’t strictly medical. Rosenbloom calls this a “time capsule” of its period, which shows medical students how far the profession has come in terms of attitudes toward women.
“The Heart Specialist and His Hearts”, 1971 painting of N. Boyadjian by Micheline Boyadjian
Rosenbloom had been a journalist since she was a teenager. She was inspired to go into library science after reporting for NPR on the activist librarians challenging the Patriot Act, which contained a (now-expired) stipulation that library users’ reading records could be turned over to law enforcement.
Once at USC, Rosenbloom became fascinated by rare medical books. One particularly interesting theme was medical education, and how hard it’s historically been to gain access to cadavers for educational purposes. Rosenbloom says that the notion of giving consent about what would happen to your body after death didn’t really arise until the Nuremberg trials, following World War II. And for the most part, “People didn’t donate bodies until the 1970s, so there was a really long time that donating bodies and organs wasn’t a thing.”
Rosenbloom started doing public talks about how bodies were sourced for medical purposes: First doctors seized executed prisoners, and then, when there weren’t enough executions to meet medical demand, encouraged wealthy students to pay for grave-robbers and poorer students to dig up corpses themselves.
This interest in the darker corners of medical ethics also led to her research niche: anthropodermic books, or books bound in human skin. Together with other members of the Anthropodermic Book Project, Rosenbloom tests and catalogues books rumored to be bound in human flesh. The science behind differentiating between human and non-human skin is fairly new, and fewer than 50 such books have been confirmed so far.
Interestingly, Rosenbloom notes, “there’s almost always a doctor involved” in the story of these books. As clinical medicine took hold, and the medical profession became more prestigious, well-respected doctors treated these uniquely grisly books as status symbols. The practice seems to have died out toward the end of the 19th century, but more testing will be needed to confirm this.
In general, Rosenbloom uses her knowledge of medical history to understand contemporary conversations about death, with medical students as well as the general public. This knowledge shows how very rare and culturally specific many of our taken-for-granted practices are. Rosenbloom points to embalming, the default option after death in the U.S., as an example. Embalming is believed to be necessary for legal and sanitary reasons, but neither is true; it’s a particularly American phenomenon, and the use of toxic chemicals means that it’s not particularly healthy for embalmers.
Megan Rosenbloom, photo by Elli & Polly Photography
This public engagement work has really taken off with Death Salon, a series of events (talks, film screenings, discussions, etc.) that Rosenbloom has been organizing since 2013. Part of the interest, she thinks, has to do with the changing world of funeral directing, which in the U.S. has become steadily less dominated by white men. Not only do many of the newer voices have different — more public-facing — approaches to their work, but Death Salon and the wider death positivity movement have tapped into a real hunger for these kinds of conversations.
Again, Rosenbloom situates this in a historical context: “Younger people had never had this conversation or anything like this in their lives at all. 100 years ago, you would have had multiple siblings who would die and you would take care of them in the home, and would have death a lot closer to you.” Today, we’re largely unequipped to handle death, whether emotionally, logistically, or financially. “We live in this culture of death denial, where it’s uncomfortable and impolite and creepy and weird. So we push it aside and pretend it’s never going to happen,” but this doesn’t help the bereaved to understand the full range of options available to themselves or the deceased.
Bring on the death librarians
Barbier and Rosenbloom aren’t the only librarians who curate materials related to death. The online Death Reference Desk, for instance, is staffed by two death librarians and a professional death researcher. In general, death librarians are as interested in people as they are in tomes, as interested in sharing knowledge as they are in cataloguing it.
What, then, might a more death-aware society look like? To Rosenbloom, it would be one where, following a loss, “you’re able to focus on the person who died, and not just your own existential crisis.” For Barbier, it would make life more pleasurable, knowing that “we should take advantage of life, because it’s short.”
As their work shows, books are one gateway for doing just that.
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