The dirty books in the library tower
Every Cambridge undergraduate, as well as a fair few of the dons, believes that the University Library stores its collection of pornography in the tower. It’s a myth encouraged, I suspect, by the distinctively phallic shape of this structure, which rises almost twenty floors over the main entrance to the Library.
But it is just a myth. I now know that the tower contains something much more exciting than pornography – and something more exciting than its title, “The Supplementary Collection”, would hint.
Cambridge, like the Bodleian, the British Library and a few others, is what is known as a Legal Deposit Library, which means that since the eighteenth century it has received a copy of every book published in the country. Nineteenth-century academic librarians operated a hard-line policy on these books: those that were considered “academic” were fully catalogued and put into the main system; the rest (from school textbooks through Christmas annuals to board games and Penny Dreadfuls) were put into the B stream, with just a rudimentary hand-written slip for a catalogue entry.
When in the 1930s the Library moved into its new Giles Gilbert Scott, industrial-style, building, the B stream was lodged in the tower – which I visited for the first time a few days ago. It was an utterly memorable occasion, and not just for the lift getting stuck repeatedly on the way up!
The occasion for the visit was a meeting of two Cambridge projects. For the University Library has just secured a very large grant indeed from the Mellon Foundation to make a proper catalogue of all the nineteenth century books in the tower – now a potential goldmine for researchers, partly because they were “non-academic” in the eyes of those early librarians. At the same time, ten minutes walk away Library, a group of historians, classicists and literary specialists – me included – have won another very large grant indeed from the Leverhulme Trust to investigate changing ideas of history and the past in the nineteenth century.
Thinking that much important material for us must be up the tower, we paid a visit and were kindly shown round by the head of the Tower Project, Vanessa Lacey (originally a classicist).
It was mind blowing. There are fabulous views over Cambridge (which would have been even better if they had ever sussed how to clean the windows). But more interesting for us were the rows and rows of dusty but mint condition, “low-brow” publications, sorted not by subject at all, but simply by size and date. It was, as one of my colleagues nicely observed, like walking into a book shop of an earlier era.
Many of these had the kind of title which instantly evokes the reading culture of the past: A Good Boy’s Diary (by the author of A Bad Boy’s Diary); The Little Savage and Captured by Cannibals (neither of which would be allowed in a multi-cultural primary school today); and more handbooks on home pet care than I could ever imagined the Victorians could consume.
But I was particularly interested, of course, in those with a classical theme. I’m hoping to use our Leverhulme project to write about the ways those outside the “elite’ explored and enjoyed the classical world in the nineteenth century. I’m fed up with the constantly repeated falsehood that Greece and Rome did not impact then on anyone below the upper middle-class; indeed that its study was an elitist, imperialist conspiracy designed to keep 95% of the population in their place. So I homed in on all those boyish novels about legionary life on the German frontier, Andrew Haggard’s wonderful Hannibal’s Daughter , and Charlotte M Yonge’s Aunt Charlotte’s Stories of Roman History for the Little Ones. I should have known about these before (they are mostly listed in online bibliographies of fiction set in Greece and Rome). But I confess I didn’t – and anyway spotting them on the shelves makes the discovery all the more vivid.
I foresee spending rather more time in the tower over the next year or so. Perhaps I’ll then find out where they actually keep the pornography.