‘Obscene’ books go on display at Bodleian Libraries

    Weston Library ©John Cairns

    The Bodleian Libraries will be displaying ‘obscene’ and ‘improper’ books from the Libraries’ restricted ‘Phi’ category for the first time ever

    Story of Phi: Restricted Books will run from 15 November 2018 — 13 January 2019 at the Bodleian’s Weston Library. The exhibition will explore changing ideas about sexuality and censorship.

    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.  
    Title page of The Joy of Sex. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/ © ChrisFossArt.com

    The restricted section in the library was created in the Victorian age for books that were deemed by librarians to be too sexually explicit. These books were given the shelfmark Φ – the Greek letter Phi and students had to submit a college tutor’s letter of support in order to read them.

    Established in 1882 the Phi shelfmark remained in use until recently. The aim of this was to protect young minds from material that was considered immoral while also protecting the books themselves from unwanted attention or damage. There are around 3,000 items in the Phi collection and they are extremely varied. They range 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 highlights how perceptions of sexuality and appropriateness have changed over time.

    Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian said: “This display puts the spotlight on the fascinating but little-known Phi collection. It shows the varied and sometimes surprising functions that libraries perform in order to preserve culturally important works for the nation and reveals how librarians have navigated the tension between making materials available for scholarly research while also protecting readers and books.”

    Some of the books on display in the Phi collection include Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was restricted presumably because of its homoerotic subtext, an illustrated version of The Love Books of Ovid, which was restricted due to its illustrations and erotic poems and sex manual The Joy of Sex. 

    The free display is curated by Jennifer Ingleheart, Professor of Latin at the University of Durham.

    Ingleheart 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.”



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