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Magical Paper Sculptures From the 'Library Phantom' [Photos]

Detail from a sculpture made by the mysterious artist dubbed the "Library Phantom." PHOTO CREDIT: Chris Donia

A mystery has been delighting Edinburgh’s library patrons and literary community since last March, when a paper sculpture of a tree, both whimsical and stunningly intricate, was anonymously placed in the Scottish Poetry Library.

The thrilling mystery of the “Library Phantom”, as dubbed by NPR, spread throughout Edinburgh over the last eight months as ten elaborate and delicate sculptures were secretly placed in many of the city’s libraries, museums and literary community hotspots. The riddle ended, but was not solved, last week when the last of ten enchanting sculptures were found, with the mysterious artist’s farewell attached, “It’s important that a story is not too long ……does not become tedious …….”

In reality, the story couldn’t be further from “tedious”—it is an artful and generous reminder, in a world filled with self-serving publicity stunts, that adventures are out there waiting to be discovered in libraries. All you need do is take a closer look….

Click through the slideshow, which provides a timeline of when and where the sculptures were discovered, and then read on for the story behind these astounding and beautiful little treasures.

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  • The Poetree 1 of 24
    The Poetree
    The first of the anonymous sculptures to be found, it was discovered on a table in the Scottish Poetry Library. It's tag refers to the Patrick Geddes quote that inspired the library's Twitter handle, @byleaveswelive.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Gramophone and Coffin 2 of 24
    Gramophone and Coffin
    The second sculpture was secretly left at the National Library of Scotland. It was sculpted out of Ian Rankin's book "Exit Music" and left with a tag reading "For @natlibscot - A gift in support of libraries, books, words, ideas..... (& against their exit) "
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Magical Literary Cinema Sculpture 3 of 24
    Magical Literary Cinema Sculpture
    The third mysterious sculpture was found at the Filmhouse, an art film cinema. It is of a theater formed from two books, with the audience on one side watching figures burst off the screen opposite.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail from the Cinema 4 of 24
    Detail from the Cinema
    Delicate horses come charging out of the page, which has the words "I think cinema movies and magic have always been closely associated." pasted across it.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail from the Cinema 5 of 24
    Detail from the Cinema
    The spectators recline in the book spines opposite the screen. The tag included with this sculpture read "For @filmhouse - A gift in support of libraries, books, words, ideas..... and all things *magic*"
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Dragon Hatchling Found on Windowsill 6 of 24
    Dragon Hatchling Found on Windowsill
    The fourth gift appeared in early July at The Scottish Storytelling Centre.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • The Dragon’s Tag 7 of 24
    The Dragon's Tag
    The enchanting tag, included on the eggshell lid, said, "Once upon a time there was a book and in the book was a nest and in the nest was an egg and in the egg was a dragon and in the dragon was a story...."
    Click here for a closer look.
  • A Cup of Tea 8 of 24
    A Cup of Tea
    After appearing on a signing table at the Edinburgh Book Festival, everyone searched about for who could've secreted in such a delicate sculpture, but the search waned as people agreed that not knowing who was responsible was perhaps the most thrilling part. Note the paper teabag, which is filled with cut-up letters and has a tag inscribed "by leaves we live".
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail from A Cup of Tea 9 of 24
    Detail from A Cup of Tea
    The words "Nothing beats a nice cup of tea (or coffee) and a really good book." And on the tray below, "Except maybe a cake, as well." The tag with this scultpure read, "To @edbookfest 'A gift' This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas...... & festivals xx "
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Lost in Books 10 of 24
    Lost in Books
    A second gift secretly deposited at the Edinburgh Book Festival, this one's tag read, "To @edincityoflit 'A gift' LOST (albeit in a good book) This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas.... "No infant has the power of deciding..... by what circumstances (they) shall be surrounded.. Robert Owen"
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail of Carved Binding 11 of 24
    Detail of Carved Binding
    This particular book by James Hogg is known to have greatly influenced Ian Rankin, a favorite of the Edinburgh City of Literature team, to whom the book was given. Rankin, who is referred to in several of the artist's pieces, was also scheduled to appear at the festival later that day, sparking curiosity about the connection.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Magnifying Glass 12 of 24
    Magnifying Glass
    The seventh mysterious sculpture appeared at the Central Lending Library on the George IV bridge. It's note said, "For Central Library ‘A Gift' @Edinburgh_CC This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…. LIBRARIES ARE EXPANSIVE" It originally read "EXPENSIVE" and then the E was crossed out and replaced with an A.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Stories Are In the Stones 13 of 24
    Stories Are In the Stones
    The eighth sculpture in the series was actually discovered last, when it became clear upon the discovery of the final artwork in the series, that two sculptures had been missed.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail from Stories 14 of 24
    Detail from Stories
    This most intricate of sculptures was constructed from a copy of Ian Rankin's "Hide and Seek." The outside cover had the words "The stories are in the stones. -Ian Rankin" pasted on the cover.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail from Stories 15 of 24
    Detail from Stories
    The sculpture is packed with people and details. Right down to birds sitting on a wire.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail from Stories 16 of 24
    Detail from Stories
    Written on the tag for this little marvel that was discovered on top of a donations box at the Writer's Museum, it said, "@CuratorEMG A Gift "The stories are in the stones" Ian Rankin In support of Libraries, Books, Words, Ideas ...... and Writers."
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Another Treasure at the National Museum of Scotland 17 of 24
    Another Treasure at the National Museum of Scotland
    What surprise could be waiting inside this copy of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World"?
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Tyrannosaurus Rex 18 of 24
    Tyrannosaurus Rex
    The ninth anonymous gift was found under a stag's skeleton in the National Museum shortly after it reopened after renovations.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail from Tyrannosaurus Rex 19 of 24
    Detail from Tyrannosaurus Rex
    Appropriately, the treasure's creator had written ""For @NtlMuseumsScot A Gift Your friends at @edbookfest suggested you might like this. .... In support of libraries, books, words, ideas and those places that house our treasures......" on the tag.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail from Tyrannosaurus Rex 20 of 24
    Detail from Tyrannosaurus Rex
    These captivating tiny warriors are spread about the shredded book the giant T. Rex has burst from.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • A Farewell from the Artist 21 of 24
    A Farewell from the Artist
    A note in the Scottish Poetry Library's guest book that said, "Hopefully next time I'll be able to linger longer - I've left a little something for you near Women's Anthologies X. In support of Libraries, Books, Words and Ideas....", tipped off the staff that another gift from the anonymous artist was imminent. They soon discovered these precious gloves and hat in the library.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Gloves of Bee’s Fur 22 of 24
    Gloves of Bee's Fur
    The final tag read, "To @ByLeavesWeLive....... THE GIFTS "Gloves of bee's fur, cap of the Wren's Wings......." Norman McCaig .... maybe sometimes impossible things... In support of LIbraries, Books, Words Ideas...." The line was fittingly lifted from a poem that can be found in the library's collection. The note also included a new clue: "10/10". It signalled the end of the magical gifts and alerted the Edinburgh community that it still had two missing sculptures to search for.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • Detail of Cap of Wren’s Wing 23 of 24
    Detail of Cap of Wren's Wing
    The cap is crafted of the most delicately rendered feathers of paper. Stunning.
    Click here for a closer look.
  • A Note 24 of 24
    A Note
    The artist left a typeset note with her final gift, saying "'You need to know when to end a story,' she thought. Often a good story ends where it begins. This would mean a return to the Poetry Library. The very place where she had left the first of the ten. Back to those who had loved that little tree, and so encouraged her to try again .......and again. Some had wondered who it was, leaving these small strange objects. Some even thought it was a 'he'! ....... As if!" Ending with the words "Cheers Edinburgh It's been fun! x"
    Click here for a closer look.

The mystery kicked off when a delicate paper tree sculpture (quickly dubbed the “poetree”) was discovered by staff at the Scottish Poetry Library, without any trace of who had left it or when. The only evidence was a hand-written tag that said:

It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree.… … We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.… This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)

The excitement mounted as more sculptures turned up in other Edinburgh libraries, a cinema, and at the Edinburgh Book Festival over the summer. After the book festival, Neil Gaiman and BoingBoing both linked to the mystery on their sites, which created even more of a stir around the affair. The books continued to appear until the final one was spirited into the poetry library near the end of November, ending the mystery where it had begun in March.

Amazingly and inspiringly, an anonymous artist single-handedly managed to creatively translate her love of “libraries, books, words, ideas…” into a whimsical plot to raise awareness for libraries—a labor of love whose magical reverberations are slowly making their way around the world.

The “Banksy of books… Booksy, perhaps,” as The Guardian called the artist, managed to elude identification throughout all the surrounding excitement, and the literati of Edinburgh, despite early buzz and speculation, are satisfied not knowing. Edinburgh’s resident literary paparazzo and photographer of these exquisite creations, Chris Scott, said, “We’ve pretty much come to terms with the anonymity of the artist and every time someone says I WISH WE KNEW they follow it up with an admission that they don’t really.”

Scott has kindly allowed Strollerdery to share his photos of these stunning little masterpieces of paper sculpture that have captivated so many in Scotland. As only three of the ten sculptures are currently on display in Edinburgh, Scott’s photographs are the only way currently available to share in the joy of these delightful treasures.

When asked about the possibility of a show, Scott, said that while there has been discussion of mounting an exhibition since August, nothing yet has come of it. Perhaps, now that all the sculptures have been discovered, an exhibit can come together that will not only provide some closure to the mystery, but can share the magic of the event with a broader audience.

In the meantime, if you are travelling to Edinburgh, you can see two of the sculptures at the Scottish Poetry Library, where they have been drawing in people who have come to see the poetree and hat and gloves for themselves. The Storytelling Center also has it’s charming sculpture of the nesting dragon hatchling on display.

For a full history of the unfolding mystery of the sculptures, Edinburgh’s Central Station blog has thoroughly tracked all the summer’s events. Central Station was the source of much of the information found in the slideshow, as well.

You can find many more photos at Chris Scott’s flickr set devoted to the paper sculptures or his personal blog.

As a fellow lover of libraries and a believer in the power of whimsy, I hope these sculptures inspire some copycat artistic do-gooding. Imagine the delight to be had by children and adults alike, as random literature-based (figuratively and literally) art is discovered at the library. Are you inspired, as well? Or at the very least, inspired to bring your kids to the library today?

[Editor's Note: The photographer Chris Scott was mis-identified as Chris Donia, his actual surname is Scott. ]

Read more of Amy Windsor’s writing at Bitchin’ Wives Club.
Follow Amy on Twitter and Facebook.

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