Which of these titles is porn?

May 22, 1998

What's in and what's out of that special section the Bodleian Library reserves for books it thinks are too risque for an impressionable public? Jane Jakeman discovers some surprising inclusions.

There is often a sexual tension about libraries: the bookish atmosphere is outwardly so suppressive of physicality, yet some people find it deeply exciting. So do some librarians.

For more than a century, the Bodleian Library in Oxford has assigned the category PHI (the Greek letter f) to works considered to be pornographic, a classification around which many legends have accrued, even into the electronic age, since it appears that the Bodleian's computerised catalogue cannot cope with Greek letters, and interprets f as philosophy, making cheerful, if unexpected, additions to that faculty's reading material.

To consult a book in the f category, it is necessary to make special application and to read the volume in Duke Humphrey's Library. When I worked at the Bodleian in the 1970s, the Which? report on contraceptives had been put into the porn category and was formally handed over to applicants after a public grilling. Is my imagination playing tricks, or is it really possible that it was kept in a folder of shiny red plastic?

Recently, a young man regularly called up a publication from f and sat conspicuously reading Playboy in full subfusc beneath the hallowed timbers during the long weeks of his final examinations. Of course, he got a first.

The absurdity of placing under special custody a magazine which could be bought at any newsagent's seems obvious. Yet the collection solves a major problem besetting any large library, and this is not so much how to protect the readers from the books, as how to protect the books from the readers. One wonders how many libraries allowing unsupervised access to their copies of Playboy still possess a complete and undamaged collection. People should behave better with printed matter, but, without going into unpleasant details, it is the sad experience of librarians that they seldom do.

The existence of a similar category, such as the British Library's Private Case, gives hard-pressed librarians a breathing space between those who want open access to everything and those whose moral fervour demands censorship or destruction. The University of Central England's library is to be commended for its recent stance in refusing to remove a volume of the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's photos from its shelves. The Bodleian anticipated the problem by placing the photos in an acceptable halfway house between the factions. It seems absurd that at the end of the 20th century there is an outcry against Mapplethorpe; one would have thought this battle had been won some 30 years ago with the Lady Chatterley case. Yet periodically someone still discovers that some books contain sexy bits and Mrs Grundy sets about the shelves with her umbrella.

The Bodleian's collection of pornographic materials allows a fine-tuned historical analysis of British outrage, bearing in mind that Oxford has always been more skittish about sex than most places. The tide of repression probably reached Oxford well before 1883, when the fcategory was created. This coincided with the height of the scandalous relationship between Sir Charles Dilke and Emilia Frances Pattison, wife of the rector of Lincoln College, which may have shaken the university into acute awareness of the dangers of uncontrolled sex. Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall had been founded four years before, and there may also have been some notion of protecting the sensibilities of female students from any chance encounter with shocking literature.

Balzac and Wilde were early entrants to PHI, indeed, the first edition of the Picture of Dorian Gray made it into the category, though there is so little outwardly explicit in the book. It may have been simply the aura which surrounded Wilde, for later editions of Dorian Gray were not subjected to the same treatment, and homosexual themes seem overly represented in the f classification.

Another abnormally large quantity of the material is made up of translations from foreign languages, from Chinese and Arabic literature, from Cavafy and a 1925 translation of Ovid. The proportion of foreign material greatly outweighs any decent home-grown filth.

Many libraries, of course, need special reserved sections for books that are particularly rare or fragile, or works which might land them in some legal trouble, such as libellous material, but the idea of creating a special category for sex seems an altogether different kettle of fish, conferring an official endorsement of lasciviousness, and presumably obliging the censors to examine potentially offending works carefully. The Pop-Up Kama Sutra was presumably tasted before it achieved its f status, and the Second Monty Python Bumper Book has a bare behind on the cover, and so must have fallen within the net before it was even opened. Most of Andrea Dworkin's books too are included to protect a sensitive public.

There has always been much innocence among cataloguers, however: I recall that Linda Lovelace's autobiography, Deep Throat, was taken at face value when it came into the Bodleian catalogue rooms, and classified as history of the cinema. I suppose f is more of a comment on the lives of librarians than on the nature of the literature they guard.

Jane Jakeman is an art historian and an Oxford librarian.

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