(S)ex libris – on the Bodleian’s ‘secret trove of obscene material’

Late in his tenure as head of the Bodleian Library, E. W. B. Nicholson received an unusual letter from a History fellow at Balliol College, Oxford. The correspondent explained that he had been asked to enquire on behalf of a “Cambridge don” whether there existed “any Siberia attached to [the] Bodleian Library to which books are banished”. Nicholson knew that such a thing did exist, for he had personally overseen its creation. Established in 1882, it was dubbed the “Φ” (Phi) collection: this was the shelf mark used by the Bodleian to identify those texts deemed too obscene, libellous or otherwise risqué to be made available to undergraduate readers. While the origins of the name are uncertain, it seems to be a librarian’s joke bringing together a “Fie!” of disapproval, an evocation of the Greek word phaulos (base, worthless, wicked) and an ancient phallic pun.

From (S)ex libris – TheTLS