When you think of libraries and archives, you usually think of books. Libraries are typically set up for day-to-day book lending, while archives typically hold documents of historical importance. But a number of far more bizarre objects also lurk within some of these literal buildings. Here are 10 of the strangest things found in libraries and archives around the world.
Related: Top 10 stolen artefacts displayed in museums
10 A preserved mole
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) houses many of America’s most important documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. But it’s also home to a mole’s preserved skin. The small mammal was discovered in 2005 by an employee going through Civil War Widows Certificate approved pension case files.
The subterranean creature found its way into the tent of Union soldier James J. Van Liew, who (for reasons unknown) captured it and mailed its skin along with a letter to his “dear wife,” Charity Snider. Years later, in 1900, Charity had to prove she was married to James in order to claim her Civil War widow’s pension, but she had no official documents (records were less consistent at the time).
While Charity had lost the letter, titled “Mrs.”, she had shown it to her friends, along with the enclosed mole skin (which she was holding on to for some reason). They agreed to testify that they had seen the letter, and Charity sent the mole’s skin to authorities as evidence. Whether or not the mole helped her case is unknown, but she was granted the pension.
9 A book made of cheese
Ben Denzers 20 discs was created to challenge the definition of a book. In its traditional hardcover binding, instead of paper pages with inked words, there are 20 slices of Kraft cheese. Although this art project is not legible beyond the few words on the cover, it is officially counted as a book. Six libraries currently own a copy, including the University of Oxford.
Tufts University Library in Massachusetts also has a copy, and Darin Murphy, director of the library’s fine arts department, reports that the book is a conversation starter among students. “They say, ‘What? You spent my tuition money on cheese? How much did you pay for it?’” says Murphy. “It’s a great educational tool because it’s so provocative.” Although the plastic-wrapped cheese pages last a long time, they break down much faster than paper pages, leaving only a limited amount of time to see the edible book.
8th The hair of notable historical figures
It’s not uncommon for loose strands of human hair to end up in books, but some archives go a step further: they have specifically preserved strands of hair from notable figures from history. For example, the British Library in London has a manuscript containing a decorative lining showing hair belonging to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein (1818) and her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington has a bracelet made from Edwin Booth’s hair. Booth was a Shakespearean actor whose achievements were overshadowed by his younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
A lock of George Washington’s hair was found in an envelope in an almanac in the Schaffer Library at Union College in New York. The book belonged to Philip Schuyler, and the cover said it was “from James A. Hamilton, given to him by his mother August 10, 1871.” James was Alexander Hamilton’s son and the family had probably been given the hair as a souvenir, as was customary at the time. Although it hasn’t been DNA tested, it’s believed to be real.
7 death masks
The State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia has a small collection of death masks, which are plaster casts of a person’s face after death. Her most famous death mask is that of Ned Kelly, the notorious bushranger and outlaw. The mask was made shortly after Kelly was hanged on November 11, 1880, and then put on public display. It yielded to the public’s fascination with Kelly and served as a deterrent to other criminals. The mask was also examined to determine if the bumps on its skull corresponded to criminal tendencies; This is known as phrenology and is now discredited as pseudoscience.
Other libraries around the world also have death masks. For example, the New York Public Library has those of poets EE Cummings and James Merrill.
6 A ghost trumpet
Many of the items kept at Cambridge University Library in England are, as you might expect, made of paper, but one particularly curious item is a cardboard ghost trumpet. A spirit trumpet, created for use during séances, would be placed on a table and then supposedly rise into the air, emitting spirit voices and ectoplasm.
The Cambridge University Library ghost trumpet was manufactured by The Two Worlds Publishing Co. Ltd of Manchester in the 1920s. It is part of the archives of the Society for Psychical Research, which also holds a photo of ectoplasm (which is of course fake) taken during a séance conducted by medium Helen Duncan. In 1944, Duncan was one of the last people to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.
5 A booklet encased in concrete
Books are usually made to be read, but Wolf Vostell’s are concrete book (concrete book) deliberately defies readers. Vostell made 100 copies of his specific book in 1971. Copy 83 of this impenetrable book resides in the University of Chicago Library. Inside the concrete is said to be a 26-page pamphlet entitled “Concretions,” which outlines his other concrete art projects, some realized and others unrealized.
“He wanted to give concrete form to the city of West Berlin. He wanted to flesh out clouds,” explains Patti Gibbons, Head of Collection Management at the Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, who read the loose copy of the booklet owned by the library. However, Vostell was known for his sense of humor, so there may be something very different, or nothing at all, hidden in the concrete. Despite various attempts to examine the concrete non-invasively, scientists have not been able to determine what is inside.
4 An elephant’s tail
The most requested item at Tufts Digital Collections and Archive is an elephant tail. More specifically, it’s the tail of a circus elephant named Jumbo, whose stuffed fur was donated to the university by PT Barnum, a founding administrator of Tufts. Jumbo, who was 11 feet (3.4 meters) tall and weighed 5 tons (4.5 tons), became the university’s mascot, which is why today’s students want to see his tail (the only remaining part of the elephant).
Back when Jumbo was whole, “Tufts students would pull his tail and put pennies in his suitcase for luck,” but eventually his tail was accidentally ripped off. However, this accident is the only reason why Jumbo still exists. While the tail was preserved in the university archives, the remainder of the body was cremated in the 1975 Barnum Hall fire.
Although Jumbo’s cock is the only whole body part left, someone from the athletics department scooped some of his ashes into a peanut butter jar. This is now used at a ceremonial “passing of the ashes” when hiring a new sporting director.
3 Jack Kerouac’s blood
Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac is best remembered for writing Traveling (1957), but before writing this iconic novel, Kerouac made an unusual promise to his nascent literary career. While living with his parents in Queens, New York, Kerouac wrote “The Blood of the Poet” on an index card, based on the 1930 film by Jean Cocteau, and then cut his finger to record “BLOOD”. writing blood on the card. which he then hung over his desk.
Kerouac allegedly performed this strange act “as a reference to his calling.” He also wrote “Blood-stained string used as tourniquet for finger, Nov. 10, 1944” on the card. The bloodied map, still attached to the string it was hung from, is now in the New York Public Library in the Berg Collection.
This bloody deed wasn’t just a one-time thing either; Kerouac also wrote “BLOOD” on the first leaf of the as yet unpublished novella I forbid you to love melater renamed as Galloway.
2 Charles Dickens’ Cat’s Paw Letter Knife
Another odd item in the NYPL’s Berg Collection is an ivory letter opener with a cat’s paw handle. The strange knife belonged to Charles Dickens, author of many classic Victorian novels, including A Christmas song (1843). “CD in memory of Bob 1862” is engraved on top of the blade near the cat’s paw hilt. Bob, of course, is his beloved late cat.
His daughter, Mamie, said Bob would “follow her father like a dog through the yard and sit with him while he wrote.” That affection clearly went both ways, because when Bob died, Dickens had stuffed the paw and attached it to the blade as decoration. During the Victorian era, taxidermy wasn’t all that weird or unusual, but attaching a stuffed paw to a knife definitely was.
1 KKK robes
The Cushing Memorial Library & Archives at Texas A&M University houses Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods embroidered with the names of individuals associated with the university. One of the prominent names is that of soccer player Dana X. Bible, who was the university’s head soccer coach in 1917 and then from 1919 to 1928. He also served most of the time as head basketball and had a brief stint as baseball coach.
The university’s yearbooks have also been digitized, allowing the public to access images of students and staff in KKK robes, as well as racist caricatures. David Carlson, the library’s dean, explains that they refuse to hide the university’s historical connection to racism: “Mistakes of the past, mistakes as they may be, are mistakes from which we can learn. If we hide them, we will never learn from them.”