Oxford’s Library Once Branded Its Sauciest Books With a Greek Letter - Atlas Obscura
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Oxford’s Library Once Branded Its Sauciest Books With a Greek Letter

How James Joyce, Madonna, and Monty Python ended up on the same restricted shelf.

This illustration of <em>The Love Books of Ovid</em> was, apparently, too much for young minds.
This illustration of The Love Books of Ovid was, apparently, too much for young minds. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/Reproduced with the kind permission of Alain Bilot

For more than a hundred years, deep in a dusty enclave of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, there sat a restricted collection—2,100 books deemed too subversive, too toxic, too scandalous for eager minds. These books, principally concerned with sex, made up the “Phi” collection, bearing the Greek “Φ” on their spines like a mark of sin. But things are different now, and these books are proudly on display at the Bodleian, in the Story of Phi: Restricted Books exhibit that opened on November 15, 2018.

Built in 1602 and home to more than 13 million items, the Bodleian is the second-largest among British libraries behind only, well, the British Library. It’s a point of pride for the university, but keeping it all running smoothly can be “a bit of a ‘mare,” says Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston, an Oxford graduate student who published a 2015 history of the Phi collection in the Bodleian Library Record. In 1882, head librarian E.W.B. Nicholson set out to make things more orderly, by schematizing some 7,000 different classifications. One stood out among the traditional numbers and letters used in the classification system: a lone Greek symbol chosen, most likely, as a pun on “Fie!” (As in, “Fie on you for such prurient proclivities!”).

By 1892, it had been loaded with centuries’ worth of older works that met its salacious criteria, outlined in 1937 as vivid depictions/discussions of sex, “Obscene literature in general,” and “Drawings and photographs of nudes and similar subjects.” New titles continued to be added until the dissolution of the Phi collection in—wait for it—2010. While the restrictions on the collection were enforced, enterprising students could only access Phi materials if faculty submitted requests on their behalf, and even that didn’t mean the librarians would allow it.

The collection ranged from classics to kitsch: a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses and a lecherously illustrated version of The Love Books of Ovid sat alongside a volume from Monty Python—banished for including an illustration of a “naked posterior.” There was a book called Phallic Objects & Remains that features an erect Irish tower* on its cover, and 25 volumes of a magazine called Bananas, a British literary magazine from the 1970s. Sex wasn’t the only concern—the collection contained a book that instructs readers on how to grow marijuana—but it was clearly the focus. Even Madonna’s Sex, the singer’s 1992 bestseller, was sent to languish in what Houston calls the “literary Gulag.”

Just an ancient Irish tower.
Just an ancient Irish tower. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/Used With Permission

Jennifer Ingleheart, a scholar of classics and ancient history at Durham University who is curating the exhibit, says her favorite work in the display is the Satyra sotadica, which the Bodleian calls the “first modern work of European pornography.” The 17th-century book depicts, in a Latin dialogue, a woman seducing her female cousin under the pretense of preparing her for the marriage bed. “Its entire setup is quite … ‘porny,’” says Ingleheart, with refined British emphasis. But the book is more than just a surprising relic. For scholars and artists, it helped establish Latin as the “language of pornography,” Ingleheart adds, casting Rome as the lustful foil to a more pure Greece.

According to Houston, Nicholson and the Bodleian created the restricted collection in response to legislation such as 1857’s Obscene Publications Act and the subsequent establishment of the “Hicklin test,” which became the legal test for obscenity, despite obvious imprecision. The Hicklin test defined as obscene any work likely “to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences,” leaving libraries at risk of legal liability for distributing those works. In practice, the test often gave more latitude to works of the old Western canon rather than rising literary stars. That’s how Oscar Wilde got thrown into the Phi, while Shakespeare’s no-less-explicit sonnets got a pass.

<em>The Picture of Dorian Gray</em>, by Oscar Wilde, was likely restricted for its homoerotic allusions.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, was likely restricted for its homoerotic allusions. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford/Used With Permission

But it’s important to acknowledge, Houston points out, that the Phi also served the purpose of preserving vulnerable texts. It housed a signed first edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover—banned in its original form in the United Kingdom for three decades after its publication in 1928. This was possible only because government officials, upon request, delivered the copy to the library so it could be shelved in the restricted section—a display of what Houston calls “the quiet heroism of librarians.” There were at least some in the government who thought the edicts had gone too far, and were willing to quietly help librarians subvert the strictures.

Librarians also had to fight to keep the books safe from physical abuse. Everyone from a disgruntled puritan to an aroused reader might deface one of the volumes. Those concerns, says Houston, led the British Library to require browsers of its Phi-like “Private Case” to read the materials with a librarian watching, at what came to be known as “the wanker’s desk.” A Cambridge University librarian wrote in 1937 that obscene titles were returned to its similar “Arcana” collection with what he termed “phallic additions.”

No further detail necessary. Let’s just be glad that our most ribald scholarly pursuits are no longer demeaned by shaming shelfmarks, even if “Fie!” is among the best of those obsolete insults.

* Correction: This story originally identified the phallic architecture as a “lighthouse.” It is actually a depiction of a medieval Irish tower.