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The Bodleian Library opens up its obscene book collection

a book cover with a big red lighthouse on its cover

Phallic Objects, Monuments and Remains; Illustrations of the Rise and Development of the Phallic Idea (Sex Worship) and Its Embodiment in Works of Nature and Art. This book, written by Hargrave Jennings, was first published in London in 1889.

Pssst… want to see The Boldeian’s collection of naughty books?

It may come as no surprise to find that it was the Victorians who decided the Bodleian should create a restricted library within the Library, with a special category for books that were deemed to be too sexually explicit.

And they weren’t alone, in the UK, the collection is paralleled by Cambridge University Library’s Arc. or Arcana collection and the British Library’s Private Case, but this being Oxford the Bodleian’s forbidden books were given the donnish shelf mark Φ – the Greek letter Phi. Students who wanted to read or look at them had to submit a college tutor’s letter of support.

Now after almost a century and a half of censorship, the Bodleian Libraries is lifting the lid on this collection of ‘improper’ books with its first ever display of items from the restricted category.

an open book with frontispiece illustration of a young man and a drawing of a butterfly

Title page of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (London, 1925), illustrated by Henry Keen.

The Phi category, which was introduced by the straitlaced gatekeepers of the University’s pool of bound knowledge in 1882, was in place until relatively recently – protecting young minds from material that was considered immoral while also protecting the books themselves from “unwanted attention or damage”.

After all, who wants to begin an academic survey of the first modern European work of pornography, the Satyra Sotadica (written in Latin in the 17th century) and be thwarted because somebody has been doing something naughty with it in a quiet cloister?

As Richard Ovenden, the Bodleian’s current librarian points out, the display of volumes from the forbidden haul of taboo tomes “shows the varied and sometimes surprising functions that libraries perform in order to preserve culturally important works for the nation.”

Empathetically nodding to his forebears, Ovenden adds that the exhibition also “reveals how librarians have navigated the tension between making materials available for scholarly research while also protecting readers and books.”

It should be noted here that, as a legal deposit library, the Bodleian is entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom, which partly accounts for the Libraries’ large Phi collection – although it has also grown through donations and bequests.

In addition, librarians have preserved culturally important books for the nation by actively acquiring works whose UK publication was prevented by obscenity laws.

an illustration from a book showing a bearded man kissing a women

Title page of The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking (London, 1974) by Alex Comfort, with illustrations by Chris Foss. This best-selling manual taught men and women how to enjoy a happy and varied sex life. It contains a broad menu of heterosexual options, illustrated in graphic images. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/ © ChrisFossArt.com

It seems smut can come in many guises and today the collection offers us a valuable sociological snapshot, charting how perceptions of sexuality and appropriateness ebb and flow with the times. The Phi collection currently comprises around 3,000 items ranging from scientific works and scholarly studies of ancient cultures to novels that were once controversial but are now recognised as important works of literature.

Highlights include an array of classical translations with illustrations produced by fine-art presses, like the illustrated volume of The Love Books of Ovid, which was restricted due to its vivid illustrations by Belgian artist/occultist Jean de Bosschère whose life and work were marked by an intense interest in sexual spirituality.

Ovid’s unillustrated erotic poems, meanwhile, were freely available on the Libraries’ open shelves, even though in his lifetime the Roman poet was no stranger to banning orders. He was exiled from Rome in AD 8 after the emperor Augustus alleged that the Ars amatoria (which can be found in the Love Books) taught women to commit adultery. Ovid also claimed that Augustus banished the book from public libraries in Rome.

“Madonna’s ‘Sex’ was deemed too hot for undergrads and staff alike”

Other forbidden treasures include Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was restricted presumably because of its homoerotic subtext and Wilde’s notoriety. There’s also a signed first edition of that most famous of banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was smuggled into Britain in a diplomatic bag in order to evade British censorship laws.

The exhibition also reveals press clippings that reported on Bodleian librarians’ restriction of certain medical texts, which were subsequently reclassified and placed on open shelves in the 1930s while recent titles, like the 1970s heterosexual sex manual, The Joy of Sex, which many students may well have already encountered (and instantly regretted finding it) in any search of their parents’ bedrooms – or on the top shelf of the WH Smith book department.

Humorous works such as The Brand New Monty Python Bok [sic], with its naked posterior on the cover, and The Pop-Up Kama Sutra were also more recently consigned to Phi. Similarly, modern works ranging from Madonna’s book, Sex, to the iconic homoerotic drawings of the Finnish artist known as ‘Tom of Finland’ were among the books deemed too hot for undergrads and staff alike.

an illustration of a partially naked woman with her hand resting on a vase

The Love Books of Ovid_Frontispiece. Credit: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/ Reproduced with the kind permission of Alain Bilot.

The free display is curated by Jennifer Ingleheart, Professor of Latin at the University of Durham, who has drawn on her expertise in obscene works and their reception.

“Many people would never guess that a major academic university library like the Bodleian holds one of the world’s most extensive collections of works deemed ‘obscene,’” she says. “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.”

In addition to Ingleheart’s own research, the display draws on research conducted by Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston, a graduate student at Hertford College, whose paper, Towards a History of the Phi Collection, 1882-1945, was published in 2015 in the Bodleian Library Record, the Libraries’ scholarly journal.

But what are the best books to found in this treasure trove of forbidden knowledge? Well, of course it’s a matter of taste, temperament and, let it be said, academic interests, but the Phi collection contains numerous volumes on phallic worship, with studies and illustrations of a range of phallic symbols.

Since the ancient world, it seems the phallus has been worshipped in many cultures and the books in Phi reveal a variety of symbols, from winged ancient Roman phalluses to the towers erected in prehistoric Ireland.

The latter provided the main focus of the brilliantly titled Phallic Objects, Monuments and Remains; Illustrations of the Rise and Development of the Phallic Idea (Sex Worship) and Its Embodiment in Works of Nature and Art, by Hargrave Jennings, first published in London in 1889.

Fittingly the Greek letter Phi (Φ) has itself been interpreted as a phallic symbol. Perhaps the Victorian librarians of Oxford had a sense of humour after all?

a frontispiece illustration featuring a naked man

The Love Books of Ovid, Title page. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/ Reproduced with the kind permission of Alain Bilot.

The Story of Phi: Restricted Books – a display is showing from November 15 2018 – January 13 2019 at the Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.


Bodleian Library

Oxford, Oxfordshire

The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years, as well as 27 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries…

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