During the 19th century, some librarians became preoccupied with the morality (or lack thereof) of some of their titles. As a result, a number of libraries created special collections for "obscene" works, to ensure that only readers with a valid academic purpose might access them. Below are six examples, adapted from Claire Cock-Starkey’s new book A Library Miscellany.
1. THE "PRIVATE CASE" // THE BRITISH LIBRARY
At the British Library (or British Museum Library, as it was called then), it was John Winter Jones, Keeper of Printed Books from 1856, who was responsible for the creation of the “Private Case.” Titles that were deemed subversive, heretical, libelous, obscene, or that contained state secrets were kept out of the general catalog, stored in separate shelving, and marked with the shelfmark category “PC” (for private case). By far the majority of books in the private case were pornographic or erotic texts; it's rumored that by the mid-1960s the case contained over 5000 such texts, including George Witt’s collection of books on phallicism and Charles Reginald Dawes’s collection of French erotica from 1880–1930.
What was unusual about the Private Case was that it was so secretive: None of the books were recorded in any catalog, as if the collection didn’t exist. But starting in 1983, all books once in the Private Case have been listed in the catalog, and many have been returned to the main collection—although librarians may still check that a reader has academic reasons for consulting some of the more scandalous titles.
2. L’ENFER // BIBLIOTHEQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE
L’Enfer, which translates as “the hell,” was created in 1830 to house the French national library’s large collection of erotica and other books that were considered “contrary to good morals.” Many of the works were obtained by the library through confiscation, but fortunately the librarians had the foresight to preserve these scandalous texts. The collection—which still exists—has been largely kept private and was only fully cataloged in 1913, when about 855 titles were recorded.
Modern pornographic magazines and erotic fiction do not get cast into L’Enfer: It is only for rare works or works of cultural significance, such as a handwritten copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1787) and The Story of O by Pauline Réage (1954). In 2007, the library put on a public exhibition of some of the more fascinating (and titillating) texts in L’Enfer, finally granting the public a glimpse of this hidden collection.
3. TRIPLE-STAR COLLECTION // NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
At the New York Public Library, some obscene works were once hand-marked with "***", which indicated that readers who wanted to consult those volumes had to be supervised. (Librarians regularly collected erotica, including from nearby Times Square, as part of their "mandate to collect life as it was lived," according to The New York Times.) This system began in the mid-20th century and caused certain titles to be locked in caged shelves; it also meant that the items could only be consulted in a small restricted part of the reading rooms after special permission was granted.
4. PHI COLLECTION // OXFORD'S BODLEIAN LIBRARY
The restricted collection at the Bodleian Library was created by E. W. B. Nicholson, who was head librarian from 1886–1913. No one is quite sure why it was named after the Greek letter phi, but some have suggested it was because it sounds like “fie!” which you might exclaim when asked to retrieve a book from this collection. Or, perhaps it stems from the first letter “phi” of the Greek “phaula” or “phaulos,” meaning worthless, wicked, or base. The collection included pornography alongside works of sexual pathology, and students needed to ask a tutor to confirm their academic need for a book before the librarians would let them consult any texts with a phi shelfmark. Today, many of the books have been reclassified into the general collection, but the phi shelfmark still persists.
5. "XR" COLLECTION // HARVARD’S WIDENER LIBRARY
The Widener Library still holds its restricted collection behind a locked copper door in the basement of the library—not because they still want to hide it, but simply because (it's said) no one has the time to redistribute the collection back into main circulation. The collection was thought to have been set up in the 1950s, after a sociology professor complained that many texts he needed for his class were missing or defaced (the Playboy centerfold was apparently always going astray), and thus the restricted collection was created to protect and preserve rather than to censor. The collection was only added to for a 30-year period and is now closed; however, its classification reveals something of the social attitudes of the times towards titles such as The Passions and Lechery of Catherine the Great (1971) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The X part of the shelfmark does not stand for X-rated but indicates that the books are unusual; the R part stands for “restricted.”
6. THE ARC // CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY
As library collections are frequently made up of a series of smaller collections donated to the institution, they may often acquire titles that the library may otherwise have not chosen to collect—such as some of the more risqué works. Cambridge University Library felt it had a duty to students to protect them from some of the more offensive books in their collection, and for this reason the Arc (short for arcana—meaning secrets or mysteries) classification was created. As with other restricted collections, Cambridge’s Arc provides a fascinating insight into changing moral attitudes. Some of the highlights included what is considered by some historians as the first gay novel, L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the Schoolboy), published in 1652; a 1922 copy of Ulysses by James Joyce (notable because at that time the book was being burned by UK Customs Officers); and a misprinted copy of the Cambridge Bible.
BONUS: "INFERNO" // THE VATICAN LIBRARY
There has always been a rumor that the Vatican Library holds the largest collection of pornographic material in the world, in a collection supposedly known as the “Inferno,” but in fact this honor goes to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. It is thought that the Vatican Library’s collection was created from the thousands of erotic works that have been confiscated by the Vatican over the years. However, no evidence for the collection has been found, and the (admittedly incredibly secretive) Vatican librarians deny its very existence.
This article is an expanded version of an entry in Claire Cock-Starkey’s A Library Miscellany, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.