The Tufts Libraries Hold Surprises Both Beautiful and Strange

You can find glass sea creatures, gruesome medical devices, and other wonders in the university’s libraries and archives

The Tufts libraries hold books, naturally—more than 1.2 million at last count. But they’re also home to an astounding array of objects you might not expect.

We asked the university’s librarians and archivists to share some of the ancient artifacts, jaw-dropping art, and quirky curiosities in the collections. Here are a few of our favorites.

A lifelike glass replica of a sea creature, against a blue background.

Blaschka Beauties

Fusing scientific accuracy and art, this sea creature is one of 24 glass models of marine invertebrates in the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives, located in the Tisch Library building. Father and son glassworkers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka of Dresden, Germany, crafted thousands of these fragile treasures for use as teaching tools in the late 1800s. Once believed lost in the 1975 Barnum Hall fire, the anemone, sea angel, feather duster worm, and other tentacled wonders of the Tufts collection had actually been loaned to the Corning Museum of Glass, where they survived a flood.


A brown walking cane with an ivory-colored handle, against a black background.

Ballou’s Cane

No respectable gentleman in the 1800s—including Tufts’ first president, the Rev. Hosea Ballou II—left home without his walking cane. Canes conferred status and gave users an air of authority, attributes the upright Ballou, a theologian and minister, already possessed in abundance. When offered the inaugural position, he confidently told his brother, “I shut my eyes to the consequence, and rush forward.” Today the cane, whose ball handle is likely ivory, may be viewed in the Digital Collections and Archives reading room.


three pieces of a stuffed elephant's tail

Jumbo’s Tail

Showman P.T. Barnum, an original Tufts trustee, donated the stuffed hide of his 11-foot-tall, 5-ton circus elephant to Tufts after a train killed the mighty animal in 1885. Jumbo was popular with students, who tugged his tail and put pennies in his trunk for luck. The tail eventually was pulled right off and was sent to the university archives for safekeeping; the rest of Jumbo was reduced to ashes in the 1975 Barnum Hall fire. Jumbo’s tail is among the most requested items at Tufts Digital Collections and Archives. Many students want to see it before they graduate, but touching the relic is not allowed, said Pam Hopkins, public services and outreach archivist.


Colorful postage stamps from around the world, all depicting horses, against a black background

Horsing Around

Self-described “omnivorous collector” and horse enthusiast John Seaverns of Wellesley, Massachusetts, bequeathed more than 6,500 nonfiction equestrian books to the Webster Family Library at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Spanning five centuries, the works include such titles as How Women Should Ride and Stag Hunting on Exmoor. He also left the school a collection of stamps that feature horses, like these, and the gift of his house to pay for his bequest’s installation and upkeep.  

A book with orange covers, titled "20 Slices" and filled with pages of moldy cheese

No Baloney?

20 Slices of American Cheese, made of wrapped cheese singles bound between covers, blurs the line between book and work of art. Created in 2018 as part of a limited edition of 10, the Tufts version has unfortunately not aged well. The book is “infested with a moldy mess of growth and is highly unappealing to look at,” according to Darin Murphy, assistant director of the W. Van Alan Clark Jr. Library at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. But that’s the point, said artist Ben Denzer. “All books disintegrate, but we don’t think about that because people tend to disappear before books do,” he said. “20 Slices flips that relationship with time.” To ensure that the book grows undisturbed, it is now sandwiched in a Plexiglas box.


A white wheel chart with black musical notation

A Musical Chart

Medieval astronomers invented the volvelle (wheel chart) to track the stars. More recently, volvelles have been used to calculate mileage and convert metric measures. Led Zeppelin inserted one into the surreal cover of its third album. The late Robert Givler, longtime chair of the Department of Psychology, designed this circular calculator, which resides in the Digital Collections and Archives, for students of harmony and composition. When all six of the volvelle’s discs turn, they offer a musical journey that reveals the harmonic relationships between chords, “many demonstrating how near all the doors of the House of Music are to each other,” according to an accompanying text by Givler.


An old wooden case, with a metal medical device leaning against it

Cutting-Edge Technology

Scarificators (the correct pronunciation is SCARE-if-e-cators) were used from the 17th through 19th centuries for bloodletting, a practice believed to balance bodily “humours” to ensure good health. Inside each are as many as 16 spring-loaded blades.

A metal device with sharp retractable blades sticking out of one side

A physician would place a scarificator on a patient’s skin and press a button to deploy the cutters. George Washington’s doctors relieved him of 40 percent of his blood this way in the 12 hours before his death. “I collected these items locally,” said Sherwood Gorbach, professor emeritus at Tufts University School of Medicine, who donated the scarificators to the school’s Hirsh Health Sciences Library. “We in austere Boston participated in the bleeding that was part of 18th-century medical practice.”

A transparent CD case with a wired circuit inside, attached to a pair of headphones, against a black background

Sound Art

1-Bit Music comes in a CD case. This hand-crafted electronic circuit—a chip, battery, volume knob, fast-forward switch, and on/off button—is the 2010 creation of New York composer Tristan Perich, who made 1,000 copies with his assistants. By plugging your headphones into the CD case and flipping it “on,” you can listen to his 45-minute five-movement post-minimalist symphony. “The oscillations have an intense, hypnotic force and a surprising emotional depth,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Music professor Joseph Auner plays the piece, which can be found at the Lilly Music Library on the lower level of Granoff Music Center, for several of his classes. “It’s a big, ambitious musical work,” he said. “This sound sculpture creates a remarkable musical, tactile, and thought-provoking experience for the person who uses it.”
Hear a sample of 1-Bit Music via the Lilly Music Library website.


Colorful buttons displaying slogans about women's rights and other issues, against a black background

The Rights Stuff

Small buttons on women’s lib, Vietnam, and Nixon sent big messages in the early 1970s. That’s when these manufacturer’s samples landed at the Women’s Center. “Biology is not Destiny,” “Equal Rights for Women,” “Uppity Women Unite,” and “Women Do It Better” still pack a punch in the Digital Collections and Archives. “They reveal a spectrum of ideas about women, a focus on public and private life, as well as women’s claim to being equal and superior to men at the same time,” said history professor Virginia Drachman, the author of the book Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business.


an open book displays two pages of the text and illuminations

A Good Book

One day in about the year 1240, a wealthy Parisian went to a stationer to place his order for a Bible. Six months to a year later, he received his 8 x 5-inch Latin Vulgate Bible. Handcrafted by a team of artists on vellum, each chapter opens with a lavish historiated initial—an enlarged letter that contains an illustration of people or animals from the Bible. Tisch Library acquired this treasure in 2018. “I like to think of it as a compact, portable gallery of medieval art,” says Christopher Barbour, curator of rare books.


A two-page Western Union telegram

McCarthy’s Telegram

Sen. Joe McCarthy’s “Red Scare” hunt for Soviet spies began to crumble in 1954, thanks in part to CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow. When invited to appear on Murrow’s show, the Wisconsin senator telegrammed the TV host and accused him of “consciously serv[ing] the Communist cause.” By year’s end, the Senate voted to condemn McCarthy. The Western Union wire may be viewed in the reading room of Digital Collections and Archives, which maintains the world’s largest collection of Murrow’s papers. Other Murrow memorabilia are displayed at the Murrow Memorial Room at The Fletcher School, and Fletcher’s Edward R. Murrow Center for a Digital World continues his trailblazing legacy.

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