Interview with Megan Rosenbloom
By Alyssa Loera
Hough, John Stockton, 1845-1900, “Speculations on the mode and appearances of impregnation in the human female…,” The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library.
Megan Rosenbloom is a medical librarian and the Associate Director for Collection Resources at the Norris Medical Library of the University of Southern California. She is in the process of authoring a narrative non-fiction book titled Dark Archives, in which she discusses the intricate history of books made from human skin (also known as anthropodermic bibliopegy).
Let’s first talk about your trajectory, both in your library career and with subjects such as death, the history of medicine, and rare books. How did you first discover your desire to continue in depth study on these topics?
Hmm where to begin...My undergraduate degree was in journalism and French and I was working as a producer assistant and reporter for Morning Edition at Philadelphia’s NPR station before I decided to go work in medical publishing while I was pursuing my MLIS online at Pitt. I did a big feature on librarians and the USA PATRIOT Act on NPR and that was what really pushed me from “I love libraries and books” to “I could do this as a career.” I think journalists and librarians have very similar skill sets. I knew I liked to learn new things every day, and that I was good at knowing a little about a lot of different things and then finding out the information that people needed and getting it to them. Journalism was just starting to get to a place where making a reasonable living as a full time journalist was getting rarer and rarer, so librarianship seemed like a more sustainable but equally enjoyable career move.
While I was working at the publishing company and in school I wanted to get some sort of library experience so I volunteered as a docent at a rare book museum and as a cataloger at an AIDS library. So that early on, seeds were being planted towards medical librarianship (which I wasn’t initially seeking out) and the rare books interest was definitely built in already. When I decided to come out west to find my first library job, I was lucky to get a great job as a metadata and content management librarian at USC’s medical library because of my experience working at the medical publishing company; I’ve since been promoted to Associate Director of Collections at that library. At first I wasn’t sure whether medical librarianship would be for me. At my job interview, we were talking about my love of rare books and literature, and my library director told me he was like me too in library school, but ultimately he found his medical librarianship so rewarding because “No one is saving a life by getting someone the latest Joyce dissertation.” That really stuck with me. The idea that me doing my job means that doctors can have the latest, authoritative information to save people’s lives. That’s a huge responsibility and a great service. After that conversation, I really wanted to work in medical libraries.
Once I got there, I got to interact with our medical rare books and really fell in love with them and wanted to learn all that I could about them and what made them special, so that was the beginning of my interest in history of medicine. I wish I could get my PhD in history of medicine but I would have to quit my tenured faculty job to do that so, sadly, I don’t think it’s going to ever happen.
As for where death fits in, I don’t know how one couldn’t be interested in death, as it’s definitely going to happen to all of us, but there’s still so much mystery around it. Death is the end of medicine, so even though people today don’t often connect the two in their minds, they are inextricably linked. When I started speaking publicly about our library’s history of medicine rare books then I got the attention of Caitlin Doughty who asked me to join The Order of the Good Death.
The Order folks started talking about how great it’d be to get together to share ideas, then it morphed into a public event and conference hybrid that became Death Salon, which I am the director of now. So coming at death and rare books from the history of medicine perspective is my strange little wheelhouse that I’ve been working in lately. Also I think I’ve just always been inclined towards darker aesthetics and subjects.
The Anthropodermic Book Project is representative of a delightful confluence of science and history. Can you discuss the project, the team, and your role?
I was doing research on a different book that I’ve put aside for now that was more generally about death, and I got a grant to travel around to different libraries to explore their rare books and objects, and whenever a collection contained an anthropodermic book, I would request to see it.. While at Harvard, I interviewed chemist Daniel Kirby who had figured out that this chemical process called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting (PMF) could be used to test cultural objects and find out what animal family they came from. The library at Harvard then asked him to use that technique on the leather of three books they had that were claimed to be bound in human skin, known as anthropodermic bibliopegy. In that test he found out two of their books were from other animals and one was actually human. I was totally fascinated in learning more about these books as the academic literature out there was full of rumor and innuendo but little fact. Daniel and I decided we’d compare notes about which existed, as he wanted to test as many as he could, out of curiosity. We joined forces and then added another chemist and a museum curator to the team and became The Anthropodermic Book Project, and since then of the 47 alleged anthropodermic books we’ve discovered in public collections, we’ve managed to test 31 of them, and have found 18 to be real and 13 to be fake. I have made use of my librarian skills on the team by working on cleaning up our data and making it the most useful to us once we realized what we were really trying to accomplish, which is a census of the universe of anthropodermic books and trying to test as many as possible. I was able to identify a secure database tool we could use to keep the data orderly, and designed the way we’d keep the information for each entry, I also led the effort with the team to come up with data sharing documents that we send to the testing sites so we know how much of their results we’re at liberty to discuss publicly. I am also doing most of the historical digging into these books, as I’m writing a book about their history: a narrative nonfiction book called Dark Archives, to be published with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, telling the stories of those that made the books and those that the books were made of and all the ethical implications raised by anthropodermic books.
Are there any books currently in process that you are particularly excited to know more about? In one of your Lapham’s Quarterly articles you mention rumors of a tannery in the French city of Meudon said to produce human leather around 1794--rumors that are yet to be verified. Is your quest ignited by the potential to find a French Revolution-era anthropodermic book?
I can’t actually talk about any tests that are in progress, because we don’t share the results of who has tested and what the results are until after the libraries or museums have signed a release form. But I can say more generally that we have yet to find a bona fide example of an anthropodermic book from the French Revolution, but if we do, that’ll be a big game changer for our understanding of this practice. My current impression is that that era of anthropodermic book was mostly royalist propaganda, but it only takes one positive test to upend that belief.
In one of your articles for Lapham’s Quarterly, you discuss anthropodermic bibliopegy as representative of a time when humans were regarded as objects (and thus their skin used to bind books). Do you find Western medicine as it has developed has distanced itself from the human body as object notion?
I wouldn’t say necessarily that everyone regarded humans as objects, but that doctors were encouraged to view their patients with a distance so that they could do their jobs, but the result in the 19th century was that some were able to view their indigent patients or executed prisoners as source material for leather to bind their most precious books. It’s pretty astonishing for us today to think this was an acceptable practice, but a lot of latitude was given to medical professionals and there was little evidence of public outrage about the practice which we now know was fairly common.
You are the Director of Death Salon, the event arm of the Order of the Good Death, which seems like a community built around dispelling many taboos regarding death and dying, as well as a way for individuals to creatively engage with the topic. What are some of the modern views on death that the Death Salon brings to the forefront?
I’d say that in general we like to look to the past and other cultures to inform our options in our current, Western culture. So some of the topics include natural burial options and new technology like aquamation, as well as more personal interaction with dead loved ones’ corpses via home funerals, for example.
You have been a part of some discussions regarding the relationship between women and death. Can you describe this relationship? Do you see any connection between archivists and/or librarians and death?
Well there’s a lot to unpack in the relationship between women and death, and there are a lot of conversations going on around that topic right now, like our friends at Death and the Maiden and their associated conference. But one of the reasons I think people are noticing that most of the leaders of the death positive movement are women is that traditionally death was managed in the home, and it was considered women’s work (aka full of love, but also free labor). When the funeral industry became an industry, women were banished from it and only men could be funeral (or any kind of) professionals. Now women are finding their ways back into death practice, whether by breaking into the funeral industry or by bringing death back to nature and back into the home instead of as a business transaction. Archivists and librarians and death? We’re preservers of the past. That’s such an important role that we play. Our preservation tells the stories of the dead long after they’re gone.
The Death Salon main event brings together an assortment of individuals from historians and writers, to artists and death professionals. How does one organize an event that pulls from so many genres, especially in regards to planning panels, workshops, and speakers?
Well it’s a lot of work! I start planning Death Salons a year or more in advance. We’re lucky that we have such a robust community that we often have a pretty good group of potential speakers in each geographic area that we’re usually familiar with, but we’ll also ask around to find new voices from the local community we can showcase. We are always very excited to find experts on topics we haven’t covered. I know that we’ll never be able to show all that a city has to offer in terms of their thinkers in the death landscape but we try to be as diverse as possible in every conceivable way, as well as offering new topics and perspectives from event to event for the diehards who come to every Death Salon.
You have been a part of the Medical Library Association (MLA) for some time, in various roles. What do you see as a major issue confronting medical libraries today?
That’s a big question! I mostly deal with collections, so for me, I feel the big issue is when our collections are devalued. Often our patrons -- whether they’re clinicians, residents, faculty, or students -- don’t realize that it’s the library that’s bringing them millions of dollars worth of important, lifesaving information. Or other entities in our institutions see the library space as up for grabs because we have so much electronically, when in truth so many students and others rely heavily on the library as space and the fact that they don’t have to buy anything in order to do work there. Besides the quietude for study, having a neutral meeting ground is so important, and the library fulfills both of those crucial roles, as long as it retain its space. Hospital libraries are constantly under attack budgetarily; I think that people don’t realize what they’ve got until it’s gone, and then it’s too late. The cumulative good of medical libraries so far surpasses the expense, but sometimes we don’t do as good of a job of shouting about our value.
As Associate Director of Collection Resources at the Norris Medical Library at USC, what do you find to be key when generating interest in medical rare books? Who do think is the key audience for these materials?
The important thing is to find certain like-minded individuals in the schools who want to bring their students to see the rare books every term, and letting them talk up your excellent collection and teaching skills to other instructors. These evangelists are the core of keeping interest in medical rare books alive. Once the students see the books in person, see their secrets buried in their physicality, and hear the history behind them, they are usually completely hooked. It’s getting them in there that’s the big challenge. Sometimes classes from other institutions are more regular than those from my own. It’s the challenge of finding the right champions at one’s institution,getting them to give you a shot to show what you have and why the students are enriched by the collection , which is honestly evident if you witness their interactions with these materials and their stories.
I have done whole lectures on the topic of letting your outside interests inform your librarian activities; sometimes you’ll find that if you’re doing great at your expected job, you can infuse other elements of your job with your passions in mutually beneficial ways to you and your library. In terms of tenure, at the beginning you’re really finding your way in the field, so I would say throw whatever you’ve got at the wall and see what sticks -- volunteer for whatever positions, posters, presentations, papers you can in your area, and the highest impact that you can manage. After the first year or two you’ll often find that suddenly you have too much to do, and that certain areas of interest or expertise will emerge. Then you can winnow down your volunteer responsibilities to those that you are the most passionate about or those that are the most advantageous to your career goals. Whatever you volunteer for, though, make sure you have the time and bandwidth to follow through on it successfully--that will get you the reputation for someone who is enthusiastic and can get things done. Committee organizers, especially the more niche you go in terms of subject area, are usually very happy to have competent volunteers. Your mileage may vary, but this approach worked very well for me as I was figuring out what I found most fulfilling in my career as a medical librarian.
Megan writes about topics in the history of medicine for Lapham’s Quarterly, and serves as a member of the multidisciplinary Anthropodermic Book Project Team. Her interests in the history of medicine, as well as her interests in rare books, are further demonstrated through her service with the Medical Library Association and the Archivists and Librarians in the History of Health Sciences. In addition to her impressive professional endeavors, she also serves as the Director of Death Salon, the event arm of The Order of the Good Death which “encourages conversations on mortality and mourning and their resonating effects on our culture and history.”
Be sure to follow Megan on Twitter: @LibraryatNight