The Obscene Books that Oxford Librarians Hid for Centuries

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, founded in 1602, is a legal deposit library which means that it is entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom — including what is considered obscene. At the height of the Victorian Era, the Obscene Publications Act was passed in 1857 which prohibits the distribution of obscene materials, defined as “[materials that] deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences.” Perhaps they were thinking of rebellious, inebriated, and horny college students. (But they clearly don’t understand college students — there is no greater encouragement for students to read particular literary works when they are classified as “obscene” and locked away. College students are amazingly resourceful — and they will find ways to get to the good stuff!) Nevertheless, any library that allowed individuals access to these books would incur serious legal consequences. Students who read these forbidden materials were warned that they would develop warts on their hands and go blind.

Accordingly the librarians at the Bodleian created the Phi collection (the Greek letter Phi was stamped on the spine of each book, although it is not clear why that particular letter was selected) for the obscene literary works they acquired. Up until 2010, students could not review, let alone check out, a book from the Phi collection unless they received prior permission from faculty and library staff (which means, in plain terms: rarely). There are currently about 3,000 titles in the Phi collection, ranging from scholarly or scientific studies of ancient cultures to novels that initially caused a scandal, that have never seen the light of day. By now you are wondering, “So, what did the library staff and the British bureaucrats consider absence?” Here are some of the titles that are included in the new exhibit at the Bodleian: Story of Phi: Restricted Books. The exhibit is curated by a Latin Professor Jennifer Ingleheart who commented, “The display invites visitors to consider the complexities behind what is currently in the Phi collection versus the hundreds of items that have been reclassified over the years, revealing how ideas about sexuality and suitable reading material have changed over time.” You be the judge if this are really obscene:

The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking by Alex Comfort

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

The Love Books of Ovid

The Pop-Up Kama Sutra by Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot

Phallic Objects & Remains: Illustrations of the Rise and Development of the Phallic Idea by Hargrave Jennings

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Satyra Sotadic, a 17th century work of European pornography, by Luisa Siegea de Velasco

Sex by Madonna

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For further reading: https://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson/whats-on/upcoming-events/2018/november/story-of-phi


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