'Obscene' books in Bodleian Libraries' restricted collection on display for first time

Story of Phi: Restricted Books | Weston Library, Broad Street | 15 November 2018 - 13 January 2019

The Bodleian Libraries is lifting the lid on its collection of 'obscene' and 'improper' books in the first ever display of items from the Libraries' restricted 'Phi' category. 

Illustration from the The Love Books of Ovid

Story of Phi: Restricted Books explores changing ideas about sexuality and censorship and runs from 15 November 2018 - 13 January 2019 at the Bodleian's Weston Library.

In the Victorian age, the Bodleian created a restricted library within the 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 Phi 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. The c. 3,000 items in the Phi collection are extremely diverse, ranging 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 is a valuable sociological snapshot, charting how perceptions of sexuality and appropriateness have changed over time.

As a legal deposit library, the Bodleian is entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. This partly accounts for the Libraries' large Phi collection although the collection has also grown through donations and bequests. In addition, librarians have preserved culturally important books for the nation by actively acquiring works whose UK publication was prevented by obscenity laws. In the UK, the Phi collection is paralleled by Cambridge University Library’s Arc. or Arcana collection and the British Library's Private Case.

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."

Highlights of the Phi collection on display include:

  • Phallic objects book - front coverAn illustrated volume of The Love Books of Ovid, which was restricted due to its illustrations while Ovid's unillustrated erotic poems were freely available on the Libraries' open shelves;
  • Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was restricted presumably because of its homoerotic subtext and Wilde's notoriety;
  • A signed first edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover which was smuggled into Britain in a diplomatic bag in order to evade British censorship laws;
  • Press clippings related to the restriction of certain medical texts, which were subsequently reclassified and placed on open shelves in the 1930s;
  • Sex manuals such as the best-seller, The Joy of Sex ;
  • Humorous works such as The Brand New Monty Python Bok [sic], which features a naked posterior on its cover, and The Pop-Up Kama Sutra;
  • Books about phallic symbolism;
  • Modern works ranging from Madonna’s book, Sex to the iconic homoerotic drawings of the Finnish artist known as 'Tom of Finland'; and
  • The first modern European work of pornography, the Satyra Sotadica. Written in Latin in the 17th century, it influenced many later writings on the topic of sex, and a long tradition of using Rome as a model for sexual license and frankness.

The free display is curated by Jennifer Ingleheart, Professor of Latin at the University of Durham, and draws on her expertise in obscene works and their reception.

Jennifer 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."

The Picture of Dorian Gray title page with illustration In addition to Ingleheart's own research on the Phi collection, the display draws upon research conducted by Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston, a graduate student at Hertford College, whose paper Towards a History of the Phi Collection, 1882-1945 was published in 2015 in the Bodleian Library Record, the Libraries' scholarly journal.

Ingleheart and Houston are leading a study day related to the display on Saturday 1 December titled Finding ourselves in the library: Queer people and closeted books. The event is free but registration is required. During the morning of 1 December, Ingleheart will be giving a series of short pop-up talks in front of the display case in Blackwell Hall in the Weston Library.

Story of Phi: Restricted Books includes adult themes and images which some might find offensive. Because of the explicit nature of the content, a visual barrier with warning signs will be placed around the display case in the Weston Library’s Blackwell Hall to limit access to the display for visitors who may find the content offensive.

For more information about the Story of Phi display, including opening times, visit Story of Phi: Restricted Books.


Image credits, top to bottom:

  • Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford / Reproduced with the kind permission of Alain Bilot
  • Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
  • Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
Back to top