Q&A with Houghton Library about the book Des destinées de l’âme

This month, Harvard Library announced that they had removed human skin from the binding of their copy of Des destinées de l’âme, a book first published in 1879 by French author Arsène Houssaye.  

The decision to remove the human skin from the binding followed a review by Harvard Library of the book’s stewardship, which was prompted by recommendations from the Report of the Harvard University Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections, issued in fall 2022. The review concluded that the human remains in the book’s binding no longer have a place in Harvard Library’s collections.  

The Library is now in the process of conducting additional provenance and biographical research into the book and the anonymous female patient whose skin was used to make the binding. The Library will be consulting with appropriate authorities at the University and in France to determine a final respectful disposition of these human remains. 

Tom Hyry, Associate University Librarian for Archives and Special Collections and Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library, and Anne-Marie Eze, Associate Librarian of Houghton Library, spoke with Harvard Library Communications about the path forward for Des destinées de l’âme. Their answers have been edited for clarity and length.  


First of all, can you tell us more about the book and how it came to Harvard?  

HYRY: The book, a copy of Arsène Houssaye’s Des destinées de l’âme, has been at Harvard since 1934, when Harvard College Library accepted it first on deposit from American diplomat and Harvard alumnus John B. Stetson. Considered a rare book, it was transferred to Houghton Library in 1944. It was formally donated to Harvard in 1954 by Stetson’s widow Ruby F. Stetson.  

The book is a meditation on the soul and life after death. The book’s first owner, Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a French physician and bibliophile, bound the book with human skin. A handwritten note by Bouland inserted into the volume states that “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.” Evidence indicates that Bouland bound the book with skin, taken from a woman, which he had acquired as a medical student. A memo accompanying the book written by John Stetson, which has since been lost, told us that Bouland took this skin from the body of an unknown deceased woman patient from a French psychiatric hospital.   

As this book has been in your collections for almost a century and you have known about the human origins of the binding for a decade, what was the impetus for removing the book’s cover now? 

EZE: We’ve been working towards this for a few years now as part of the University’s larger project of addressing human remains in its collections.  

Houghton provided the University Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections with information about the Houssaye volume as part of a Harvard-wide survey of collections conducted by the committee. While focusing predominately on human remains of enslaved people and Native Americans held at the University, the committee mentions the book in its report published in 2022. This gave us an imperative to review our stewardship, past and present. Houghton Library created a task force, which I chaired, that conducted research into the history of the book and an in-depth analysis of the extant literature regarding the practice of binding books in human skin. Our review included a stakeholder engagement process where we consulted with faculty, students, librarians, museum curators, external researchers, administrators, and others, some of whom had consulted the volume, and some who had not. The review confirmed that we can have reasonable certainty that Bouland removed and utilized the skin without consent.   

Based on the review, Harvard Library and the Harvard Museum Collections Returns Committee concluded that due to the ethically fraught nature of the book’s origins and history, the human remains used in the Houssaye book’s binding no longer belong in the Harvard Library collections. In March 2024, Des destinées de l’âme was disbound, removing the human skin cover.  

Our review also made clear that we have fallen short of an ethic of care in stewardship over the years. For example, when the book’s binding was originally confirmed to be human in 2014, Harvard Library announced the news in two sensationalistic blog posts focused on the morbid nature of the object, rather than on the person whose skin was used without consent or its moral implications. The post fueled similar international media coverage, and while the blog posts were later amended, their tone is something we regret deeply. Library lore also suggests that decades ago, students employed to page collections in Houghton’s stacks were hazed by being asked to retrieve the book without being told it included human remains.

HYRY: We apologize on behalf of Harvard Library for past failures in our stewardship of the book that further objectified and compromised the dignity of the human being at the center. We are determined to move forward with care, sensitivity, and ethical responsibility and are committed to best practices in the field, including reflection and correcting historical errors.  

What’s the status of the book now? Can people still use it for research?

EZE: The book itself without the binding has been fully digitized and the digitized scans are publicly available. The human skin used to bind the book is not available, in person or digitally, to any researcher.

We started placing restrictions on access in 2015 and instituted a full moratorium on new research access in February 2023. We have removed all images of the skin from the HOLLIS catalog, online blog posts, and other channels. The disbound book will remain in Houghton Library’s collection, and will be available to researchers once again, but without its cover. 

This is happening against a background of a wider reckoning on human remains and cultural objects in museums and institutions in general. How are libraries wrestling with this?

HYRY: As you can imagine, this has been an unusual circumstance for us in the library and we have learned a great deal as we arrived at our decision. For some, the decision to remove the binding from this book may feel counterintuitive for a library like Houghton, one of whose central purposes relates to preserving material evidence of the past in the form of physical objects such as books, manuscripts, and archival materials. The library also remains committed to the principles of intellectual and academic freedom. We take seriously the responsibility of acquiring, stewarding, and helping scholars, students, and the public access collections that support the understanding of our past as holistically as possible, which often means preserving and providing access to evidence of human history with all its triumphs and failures in forms that some may find objectionable. And yet we also believe that human remains must always be treated with dignity, and this has become the higher institutional priority as we considered the future of this book.  

The core problem with the volume’s creation was a doctor who didn’t see a whole person in front of him and carried out an odious act of removing a piece of skin from a deceased patient, almost certainly without consent, and used it in a book binding that has been handled by many for more than a century. We believe it’s time the remains be put to rest.  

What’s the current status of the binding? What are next steps for Harvard Library?

EZE: The human remains removed from Des destinées de l’âme are currently in secure storage at Harvard Library while we carry out deeper provenance and biographical research related to the book and the woman whose skin was used in the binding. The library is consulting with appropriate authorities at the University and in France to determine an appropriate and respectful way of laying the remains to rest.  

As we make progress on next steps for Des destinées de l’âme, further details will be available on the book’s dedicated webpage, which will continue to be updated. We want to be open and transparent about our process and our progress and acknowledge that this will take time.