Unusual Library Collections Around the World


Imagine walking into the home of a recently deceased resident after getting a mysterious phone call about a massive collection of maps. That’s what happened to Glen Creason, the map librarian at Los Angeles Central Library and author of Los Angeles in Maps. Creason walked out of the home with boxes of historical maps and coveted city guides that instantly doubled the library’s collection. L.A.-based filmmaker Alec Ernest captured the story of Creason and an unknown map collector named John Feathers in a mesmerizing short film about the beauty and power of physical objects, and the strange passions people have for them. Ernest’s film inspired us to travel libraries around the world and explore their unique and sometimes bizarre collections.

All of them witches at the Cornell University Witchcraft Collection, part of the library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection, started in the 1880s. Find the earliest books on the Inquisition, demonology, and more. The collection’s focus is on witchcraft as theology and religious heresy, not as folklore or anthropology. The library’s most important materials are court records of the trials of witches, including disturbing accounts from tortured victims. There are 104 English-language books that have been digitized, but a large part of the collection is best enjoyed in person. The greatest part of Cornell’s witchy collection? It’s open to the public.

The Robert A. Deshon and Karl J. Schlachter Library for Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning at the University of Cincinnati started its international snow globe collection in 1983 after a library employee returned from a trip to Florida with a souvenir. That globe had glitter galore and a bikini-clad woman water skiing behind a speedboat. The collection is displayed around the library for visitors to enjoy.

It should come as no surprise that the library at the University of Nevada Las Vegas has a stunning collection of showgirl photographs, costume drawings, and more. Seeing pictures of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (below) rubbing elbows with fancy dancers instantly transports us back to the heyday of the Vegas strip. We also love the library’s stance on nudity for any naysayers: “Nudity is an aspect of the theatrical history of Las Vegas, and it would be a misrepresentation of that history to ignore topless showgirls and their costumes. In the context of this exhibit the object is the costume, not the woman wearing it.”

Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum is a fascinating medical museum that contains an extensive collection of medical oddities, anatomical and pathological specimens, and other weirdsies. Their world-renowned library contains a collection of books bound in human skin (aka anthropodermic bibliopegy), several prepared by the anatomist Joseph Leidy.

Duke University’s History of Medicine Collections could be the Mütter Museum of North Carolina, featuring anatomical manikins, surgical saws, and other spine-tingling instruments you hope to never see in your doctor’s office. Students and researchers are free to study the institution’s collection of prosthetic glass eyeballs.

Party like it’s 1699 at the Princeton University Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections where you can read their early English libertine literature — including the Venus Miscellany, which is said to be the first American pornographic newspaper. The collection contains some of the earliest pornographic writings in English, such as a verse play about Sodom and the Earl of Rochester’s smutty poems. The non-stop naughty continues with the Bennett Gilbert collection, containing some of the most important French erotic works from the 18th century.

The New York Public Library knows we are fascinated by popular culture, so its various collections extends far beyond books. Take this treasured collection of Weird Tales magazines — a pulpy periodical first published in 1923. “As science fiction developed into a major literary genre, collection policy was revised accordingly, and the Library began building a research-level collection of primary and secondary [science fiction] sources, including the most famous of the many specialized magazines that appeared for the first time in the 1920s, Weird Tales. Its specialty was science fiction and supernatural fiction.”

The New York Public Library also has a charming collection of vintage Valentines that will put your lousy love notes to shame.

The University of London’s Warburg Institute is known for it’s unusual reference system. Collections are categorized by subject and the institute’s divisions of human history: action, orientation, word, and image. Also unusual is the Warburg’s collection of works on the occult sciences (like the bibliotheca astrologica — yes, a library that takes astrology seriously), including esoteric art and other arcane texts.

Here’s what the University of California has to say about its Betsy Brown Puppetry Collection, full of books, costumes, and materials focused on clowns (you have been warned):

Betsy Brown was an artist and storyteller who taught through the use of puppets. Growing up in Depression-era Texas, Brown learned storytelling from her grandfather and, inspired by Pinocchio, carved her first marionettes from balsa wood. After moving to Los Angeles and marrying an architect, she studied sculpture and made several terra cotta works for Catholic churches here. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Immaculate Heart College and a master’s degree from Cal State Northridge and taught puppetry in grade schools, at Cal State Northridge and at Los Angeles Valley College. She presented workshops on puppetry at UC and Cal State campuses and produced interactive puppet shows. In 1997 she received the annual Professional Artists in Schools Award. She was recognized by the Los Angeles Public Library and print edition B-8).