From Madonna's Sex to Lady Chatterley: inside the Bodleian's explicit book club
Created at the height of Victorian prudishness, the Bodleian Library’s Phi collection was designed to protect young minds from ‘immoral’ books. More than a century later, they’re going on display for the first time
Libraries today take a dim view of censorship. They are places where knowledge is preserved and shared freely, and where ideas that may seem challenging to some, are nevertheless part of what libraries see as their role in society to make ideas accessible to all.
But this was not always the case. My own institution, the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, created a restricted class, a special category for books that were deemed 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 access the racy materials that were contained there. The Bodleian was certainly not alone in this approach to risqué books: one of my first jobs as a curator was in the National Library of Scotland, and the equivalent shelfmark there was frequently the target of break-ins which must have been perpetrated by library staff. (It is a closed-stack institution and only the librarians knew where such good stuff was kept.)
Related: The trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover