The Library of Dust

Booknotes looks at a bizarre discovery in an Oregon hospital.

Mike Selby

It was horrible.

That was the general consensus reached by the group touring the Oregon State Hospital in 2004. Complaints of deplorable conditions sparked the inspection by a State Senator and a handful of journalists. Originally built in 1883 (then called the Oregon State Insane Asylum), the Salem hospital appeared to have received little upkeep since then.  Leaky roofs, mold-covered hallways, rooms littered with waste and exposed asbestos had rendered almost half of the hospital unusable.  If not for the uncounted years of human suffering, it would make a great setting for a horror film (which it did in 1975 when ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was filmed there).

While touring the hospital grounds, photojournalist David Maisel noticed a small decaying structure which was unattached to the rest of the hospital. Wandering over to take a look, he was stopped by a series of locked doors.  After acquiring a key, Maisel entered a small room, and could not believe his eyes. As he lifted his camera to document his find, he felt a chill of warm breath on the back of his neck. A patient had followed Maisel into the building.  As he turned, the patient whispered four words into the startled photographer’s ear:

“The Library of Dust.”

Scanning the room again, Maisel realized the patient was absolutely correct. This small outbuilding certainly was a library. The walls were lined with old pine shelves, holding up thousands of items. A large handwritten catalogue laid open on a small desk positioned in the room’s center.  Yet even with all these characteristics, Maisel knew this was unlike any other library he had ever encountered.

It was a library of human beings.

3600 copper canisters contained the cremated ashes of patients whose bodies were never claimed by friends or family after their death. The hospital began this practice when it first opened, and this library represented 125 years of unclaimed, unwanted, or simply forgotten about people.

Yet something had happened in the Library of Dust which no one counted on — and it was this which first caused Maisel to lift his camera up.  The ashes in the oldest canisters had begun to chemically react with their copper containers. This caused crystal-like minerals to grow on the outside of the canisters, creating a stunning bloom of mixed colors. Maisel compared them to “the northern lights, the moons of some alien planet, or constellations in the night sky.” Some of the most beautiful ones resemble crystal blue coastal landscapes speckled with deep green islands.

In 2008 Maisel published his photographs in a book he aptly named ‘Library of Dust.’  More importantly, his work brought attention to the forgotten deceased, and currently 320 canisters have been claimed by living relatives.

The hospital was finally torn down that same year, replaced with a modern and humane structure.  The remaining unclaimed canisters were placed in protective bags and then stored in individual black boxes made for cremated remains.  It is hoped the future will see more of the deceased reunited with their families.

One reviewer of Maisel’s work cautioned admirers not to be too caught up in the beauty of the photos. “It is not a library at all,” he warns. “But a room full of souls nobody wanted.”

(photos of the canisters can be viewed at


Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public LIbrary.

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