‘Obscene’ Books from the Bodleian’s Restricted Collection Now On Display for the First Time

Art & Lit Literature

Credit: Still Life with Books in Niche , Barthélemy d’Eyck

The Bodleian Libraries is lifting the lid on its collection of ‘obscene’ and ‘improper’ books for the first time ever in a display of items from the Libraries’ restricted ‘Phi’ category. The exhibition, Story of Phi: Restricted Books, explores changing ideas about sexuality and censorship and opened on the 15th of November at the Bodleian’s Weston Library. 

In the Victorian age, the Bodleian created a restricted library within the main 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 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. Around 3,000 items are in the Phi collection, they are extremely diverse, ranging from old to new, from scientific works and scholarly studies of ancient cultures to novels that were once controversial but are now recognised as important works of literature. 

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.”

The Phi collection is a valuable sociological snapshot, charting how perceptions of sexuality and appropriateness have changed over time. 

Explore more at the Bodleian’s Weston Library. Exhibtion is free and open until the 13th January, 2019.