Unusual Finds in Libraries

Generally, when you visit a library, you know what to expect: books for borrowing. Some people may have been shocked when shelves of CDs and DVDs for rent began cropping up, but here are a few libraries with even stranger finds amongst the stacks.

A Fatal Read

46906779 - wooden bookshelves with antique leather books
Copyright: Patricia Hofmeester 

The University of Michigan’s gorgeous library is the sixth largest in the United States and boasts over 12.8 million volumes, but only one of them might kill you. Printed in 1874, Shadows from the Walls of Death is a book of wallpaper samples, each saturated with arsenic, a toxin that can be mixed with copper to produce beautiful pigments for paint. Of the 100 original editions of Shadows printed in 1874, only four remain (many libraries intentionally destroyed their copies lest they poison visitors).

Despite sounding like a nefarious Slytherin plot, the intentions that led to the book’s creation were benign, even salubrious. Dr. Robert M. Kedzie, a surgeon during the American Civil War and later a professor of chemistry at what is now Michigan State University, collected the samples into a volume in order to raise awareness about the dangers of arsenic-pigmented wallpaper.

Invited Guests

National Palace of Mafra Library
Library at National Palace of Mafra. Copyright: joseelias

Colonies of bats aren’t generally welcomed into buildings with open arms, but this is exactly what happens every night in not one but two libraries in Coimbra, Portugal. Both date back to the 18th century and house a number of priceless manuscripts, including Homer’s Opera Omnia (over 600 years old) and the first Encyclopédie of Diderot et D’Alembert (published 1751).

The University of Coimbra’s Joanina Library colony of Common pipistrelle bats and the 300-year-old Library at the National Palace of Mafra‘s colony of grey long-eared bats have resided amongst the stacks for centuries. Why are they welcomed even today? Every night when they emerge, they eat insects like flies and gnats that might otherwise feed on manuscript pages. Even more bizarre, the librarians at the National Palace still use animal skins imported from Imperial Russia to shield the antique furniture from bat guano.

Human Beings

Copyright: The Human Library

Most libraries shush you when you talk but The Human Library™ actually encourages it. With the aim of challenging stereotypes and prejudices, the “books” in this library are living people from various walks of life — Autistic, polyamorous, Muslim, refugee, victim of abuse — that visitors can “borrow” for a conversation.

Began as a Danish ‘youth against violence’ project for the 2000 Roskilde Festival, The Human Library organizes open events not only in its hometown of Copenhagen, but all over the world. The hope is to create a space “where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered,” and takes the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” to fantastic new heights.


StraitsJourneys is a place for travelers to find and book deep travel experiences tailored to specific interests. The experiences are presented by carefully selected local experts. Click here to register your interest in StraitsJourneys and be the first to receive our stories, updates and offers.

An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.

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