1st Time in Oxford University’s History, Collection of ‘obscene’ books on display.

The Bodleian Libraries is lifting the lid on its collection of ‘obscene’ and ‘improper’ books in the first ever display of items from the Libraries’ restricted ‘Phi’ category, which has spent 136 years hidden away within the university’s largest library, is now seeing the light of day.

Story of Phi: Restricted Books explores changing ideas about sexuality and censorship and runs from 15 November 2018 – 13 January 2019 at the Bodleian’s Weston Library.

In the Victorian age, the Bodleian created a restricted library within the Library, a special category for books that were deemed by librarians to be too sexually explicit. These books were given the shelfmark Φ – the Greek letter Phi. Students had to submit a college tutor’s letter of support in order to read Phi materials.

The Phi shelfmark was established in 1882 and remained in use until recently. It was designed to protect young minds from material that was considered immoral while also protecting the books themselves from unwanted attention or damage. The c. 3,000 items in the Phi collection are extremely diverse, 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. The Phi collection is a valuable sociological snapshot, charting how perceptions of sexuality and appropriateness have changed over time.

As a legal deposit library, the Bodleian is entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. This partly accounts for the Libraries’ large Phi collection although the collection 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. In the UK, the Phi collection is paralleled by Cambridge University Library’s Arc. or Arcana collection and the British Library’s Private Case.

Highlights of the Phi collection on display include:

Phallic objects book – front coverAn illustrated volume of The Love Books of Ovid, which was restricted due to its illustrations while Ovid’s unillustrated erotic poems were freely available on the Libraries’ open shelves;

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was restricted presumably because of its homoerotic subtext and Wilde’s notoriety;

A signed first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover which was smuggled into Britain in a diplomatic bag in order to evade British censorship laws;

Press clippings related to the restriction of certain medical texts, which were subsequently reclassified and placed on open shelves in the 1930s;

Sex manuals such as the best-seller, The Joy of Sex ; Humorous works such as The Brand New Monty Python Bok [sic], which features a naked posterior on its cover, and The Pop-Up Kama Sutra;

Books about phallic symbolism; Modern works ranging from Madonna’s book, Sex to the iconic homoerotic drawings of the Finnish artist known as ‘Tom of Finland’;

The first modern European work of pornography, the Satyra Sotadica. Written in Latin in the 17th century, it influenced many later writings on the topic of sex, and a long tradition of using Rome as a model for sexual license and frankness.

The free display is curated by Jennifer Ingleheart, Professor of Latin at the University of Durham, and draws on her expertise in obscene works and their reception. She said, “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’.

“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.”

Ingleheart hopes the exhibition, which opens for eight weeks from November 15, will explore “how ideas about sexuality and suitable reading material have changed over time.”

Students at Oxford, the world’s oldest university, had previously needed a letter of approval from a tutor if they wished to read one of the books.

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