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vintage books on shelf at museum

Xylotheques, Libraries of Trees


A collection of books-objects that contain material syntheses of the trees they represent.

Imagine a book that is literally made out of its subject matter, in this case a specific species of tree: the book would have a cover made from the wood of the tree in question, the spine would be a piece of bark cut and decorated – perhaps – with lichen and engraved with the title; opening the book-box you might find leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, pieces of root and, in some cases, written descriptions of the tree and the diseases it might suffer from.

From the Greek root xylos, ‘wood’ and theque ‘depository’, xylotheque refers to collections or vegetal samples that imply a sensory journey – and not just imaginary – to unknown and distant landscapes, through remote forests and prairies, a particular and – in some way fragmentary – unique view of the beauty of trees and their components.

leaves and beetle in a box at a museum display

Could a book contain a tree or the essence of one? And can a tree be a book? The mere existence of xylotheques not only provides an affirmative answer to those questions but suggests the possibility of creating a kind of ‘ouroboros,’ an archive of almost any object, a collection of objects presented as books, made of the material they refer to and organized according to the information on their spines, alluding to the format of a library.

There are many well-preserved xylotheques around the world, the largest being the Samuel James Record Collection at Yale University, which has more than 60,000 editions in different woods. And these sanctuaries that are a convergence of the architecture of information and arboreal diversity are exhibited as part of a cabinet of curiosities or antique and eccentric objects, echoes of a past that tried to illustrate and register all of humankind’s knowledge. Their beauty – full of different textures, colors and aromas – lies in a place between art and science, between the beauty of trees and biological information about the species.

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