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Michigan State University

Artifacts in Special Collections: Unusual books

Technically, everything in Special Collections is an artifact. But here are some of the more unusual ones!


Special Collections is the library's department for rare, valuable, and fragile materials.

Materials from this department do not check out, but we welcome you in the Special Collections Reading Room in the Main Library lobby, across from the Circulation Desk. We're open by appointment.

Sample books

Cigar label scrapbook

Manufacturers produced various types of sample books for their salesmen to show customers:

More salesmen's sample books

From the days when books were sold door-to-door, we have about a dozen "salesmen's dummies." These typically contain sample pages from the book, examples of the different types of binding available, and subscription prices.

Use the MSU library catalog advanced search.

  • Limit to Special Collections.
  • Subject search dummies (bookselling) -- specimens
  • Kayword search salesman's sample

Indonesian book with carved cover

This unusual little book was purchased as a souvenir in Indonesia. The cover is carved from bone, and the interior has palm-leaf pages filled with sketches and an imaginary script.

Incomplete illuminated manuscript

An illuminated manuscript could take months to complete. This one was never finished, allowing you to see the work in progress.

Some illustrations are sketched out but not filled in, and the pages have been ruled to guide the calligrapher.

The loose pages were produced some time between 1450 and 1550 (we think) and were later bound into a book.

Cartonera books

Cartonera books are inexpensive printings of short literature (poetry, stories, essays) bound in hand-painted cardboard covers.

The first publisher of this genre, Eloísa Cartonera, started in 2001 as a response to the Argentine economic crisis of that year. Since then, cartonera publishing has spread throughout Central and South America as a political and social movement.

The cardboard for the covers is collected from garbage dumps by low-income residents. The publishers pay more than recyclers for the raw material, and also employ the cardboard collectors to paint the covers.

Searching the publisher's name as a keyword is the easiest way to retrieve these titles.

Use the MSU library catalog advanced search.

  • Limit to Special Collections.
  • Keyword search eloisa cartonera (Argentina)
  • Keyword search la propia cartonera (Uruguay)
  • Keyword search dulcineia catadora (Brazil)
  • Keyword search yiyi jambo (Paraguay)
  • Keyword search animita cartonera (Chile)
  • Keyword search sarita cartonera (Peru)

Chained book

This volume of legal essays from 1561 could be chained to a reading stand to prevent a thief from taking it.

Mesopotamian clay tablet

Hand holding cuneiform clay tablet

Have you ever held a Mesopotamian clay tablet with cuneiform script from 1800 B.C.E.?

You can in Special Collections!

Fore-edge paintings

Fore-edge paintings were especially popular in Europe in the 1800s, as a way of embellishing books for wealthy customers.

The painting was created on the edges of the text block while the pages were fanned. It disappears when the book is closed normally; you have to fan the pages to see it again.

Use the MSU library catalog advanced search.

  • Limit to Special Collections.
  • Subject search fore-edge painting--specimens

Manuscript cookbooks