Thursday, 20 June 2013

Illicit collections: some thoughts

One evening in February I rocked up at the Wellcome Trust for the start of the Library & Information History Group's walking tour of Bloomsbury and surrounds, 'Lonely hearts, wedding bells and illicit pleasures'.  Led by Alice Ford-Smith, the tour was absolutely super: I learnt new things, found new bits of London and had fun.  It started with an introduction to some of the Wellcome Library's superlatively diverse collections, given by the Wellcome Library's own Ross McFarlane, including a book on Psychopathia sexualis, the ephemera of King's Cross phone booths over 20 years, international AIDS-awareness posters and public health films and adverts.  After that we set off into the night, taking in John Bejteman's rather creepy advances towards Joan Hunter Dunn, the first lonely hearts ads (published in the eighteenth century), books banned at Bow Street Magistrate's Court (including Fanny Hill and The Well of Loneliness), the information management of an eighteenth-century pimp, and 84 Charing Cross Road.

Bow Street Magistrates by remittancegirl, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
Bow Street Magistrates
by  remittancegirl 
The stop that most caught my imagination was at the British Museum, where we heard about hidden collections at the museum and its library (now the British Library). The BM Secretum was a designated area intended to keep closed away items considered to be obscene, including ancient erotica donated by George Witt (1804–1869).  (I guess this post isn't going to get this blog well and truly blocked by all 'good' web filters. So be it.)  The secret or private area or class is by no means limited to the historical British Museum.  The British Library Private Case (with the unimaginative shelfmark 'pc') was a similar collection of donated material deemed far too corrupting for most people to access.  In Cambridge University Library the rare books class Arc (short, I believe, for 'Arcana'), holds material deemed at one point, either through morals or law, not to be fetched for readers.  Some particular historic items in the collection may still not be fetched, as they are still, technically, illegal. Some modern material is still placed in this class, as also happens with the Phi (a pun on "Fie!") class at the Bodleian in Oxford.

Another similar sort of collection acquired and amassed by different means is preserved by the Radzinowicz Library in the Institute of Criminology in at the University of Cambridge: it now houses a collection of printed books once held by the Home Office as examples of banned books.  Some of these books were, indeed, legally outlawed, but others are examples of books sent in by the public demanding that they be banned.  Obscenity trials and banned books featured in more than one of the National Archives' LGBT History Month podcasts, which I happened to be listening to shortly after the walking tour. I'd recommend 'Fictional obscenities: lesbianism and censorship in the early 20th century', and 'Genius on trial: key sources relating to Oscar Wilde at The National Archives'

These sorts of collections are fascinating to me, because they seem to bring to the surface a great number of questions which apply to most collecting.  Many of these books (or objects) were brought together and kept by individuals or institutions out of a particular interest or for a particular purpose.  Others drifted in through chance and accident, not deliberate action. But the controversial nature of the material throws into relief the chancy nature of preservation, especially of non-mainstream material.  The controversial nature of the material ensured it was kept together, and that's hugely useful to us now, as the grouping reveals a lot about historic attitudes. On the other hand, it's luck and chance that these books and objects were preserved at all: they may not have been accepted for inclusion in the collections at all.  What items do we all reject today (for whatever reasons) that we should be hanging on to instead?  Is controversial material, perhaps, more likely to be kept, but the mundane to be disregarded and lost?

How can we tread the line between keeping every last scrap and creating collections that can actually be managed? I've no idea.  But this tour and the thoughts it provoked have inspired me to consider the marginal more and the obvious a little less when considering collection development.

Edited to add Ross McFarlane's name.


  1. Glad to hear you enjoyed the Valentine's Day walk. Thanks for the further examples and sharing your thoughts about them. By the way, Ross MacFarlane should be given the credit for the mighty fine introduction to the Wellcome Library!

    Alice Ford-Smith

    1. Hi Alice,

      Thank you for reminding me Ross' name. I'll add him above.