Harvard Removes Binding of Human Skin From Book in Its Library

Of the roughly 20 million books in Harvard University’s libraries, one has long exerted a unique dark fascination, not for its contents, but for the material it was reputedly bound in: human skin.

For years, the volume — a 19th-century French treatise on the human soul — was brought out for show and tell, and sometimes, according to library lore, used to haze new employees. In 2014, the university drew jokey news coverage around the world with the announcement that it had used new technology to confirm that the binding was in fact human skin.

But on Wednesday, after years of criticism and debate, the university announced that it had removed the binding and would be exploring options for “a final respectful disposition of these human remains.”

“After careful study, stakeholder engagement, and consideration, Harvard Library and the Harvard Museum Collections Returns Committee concluded that the human remains used in the book’s binding no longer belong in the Harvard Library collections, due to the ethically fraught nature of the book’s origins and subsequent history,” the university said in a statement.

Harvard also said that its own handling of the book, a copy of Arsène Houssaye’s “Des Destinées de L’Ame,” or “The Destiny of Souls,” had failed to live up to the “ethical standards” of care, and had sometimes used an inappropriately “sensationalistic, morbid and humorous tone” in publicizing it.

The library apologized, saying that it had “further objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being whose remains were used for its binding.”

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