John Hay Library – Providence, Rhode Island - Atlas Obscura

AO Edited

John Hay Library

Books bound in human skin and H. P. Lovecraft's letters are among a few of the treasures this library has to offer. 


Many prestigious universities have correlating prestigious libraries: the Bancroft Library at the University of Berkeley, California, the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, the Loeb Library at Harvard. But the John Hay Library, at Brown University, has some particularly rare specimens. This library, in Providence, Rhode Island, houses an extraordinary collection of one-of-a-kind books and manuscripts.

For example, the John Hay has three anthropodermic books. If you can decode the word’s Greek roots, you know it means books “bound in human skin.” Perhaps this goes without saying, but it is very rare to bind a book with human skin. Historically, an anatomy textbook could be bound with the skin of a cadaver, and, in a few cases, eccentrics requested that upon their deaths their skin be used to bind favorite books.

There are three books in the John Hay Library bound with human skin. Appropriately, one is the famous anatomy textbook De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius. They also have two copies of Dance of Death by Hans Holbein the Younger, which were both rebound anthropodermically in 1898.

The library has other, less hair-raising collections, including the papers and personal library of John Hay, Class of 1858, who was the private secretary of Abraham Lincoln and late Secretary of State, as well as more modern treasures, such as the personal manuscripts and letters of science fiction and horror master H. P. Lovecraft.

Know Before You Go

The John Hay Library is open to all members of the Brown community and to the general public. Any researcher presenting a valid personal identification card with photo is welcome to use the collections during service hours. Entry into the John Hay Library after 6:00pm weekdays and on weekends requires access by Brown ID card-swipe.

From Around the Web