The naughty table

28/06/2011 by Louise Levene

The British Library has over four million items of "special material": where they can be found is an indicator of changing times—and taboos.

It's no secret that the British Library has whole bedside cupboards full of restricted material: much of it rare and precious erotica, much of it common or garden smut.

Summon any of this stuff from the stacks and you will need to report to Rare Books and Music. Once you check in at the desk, you and your precious porn will be consigned to a specially designated table under the watchful eyes of the Music Issue librarian with strict instructions never to leave the book unattended. Sharing your table will be a middle-aged scholar leafing through four bound volumes of Men Only and a rather cross-looking minor novelist—me.

I first served time on the naughty table over 20 years ago in the old Bloomsbury Reading Room when researching my PhD in English Language. I had filled in six book requisition forms and only five titles appeared. I got an old-fashioned look at Delivery Enquiries when my chit was returned with 'North Library' stamped accusingly across it. Had I asked for a rare or precious volume? A fragile map? A crumbling paperback? No. It was a bibliography. A gay bibliography (I was hunting for sociolinguistic work on homophobia and English pronunciation since you ask). It was a useful enough little list but could only be consulted while flanked by academics in raincoats poring over readers' wives (different readers, obviously).

Much has changed in 20 years but the naughty table is still very much alive as I discovered while researching my second novel, Ghastly Business, a black comedy set in a 1920s pathology lab. Magnus Hirschfeld's groundbreaking 1930 study 'Sexual History of the World War' was one of countless enormously useful sources to be found in the British Library catalogue but Hirschfeld's dry, scholarly reflections on war and its psychosexual repercussions could only be read when sharing a table with a heavy user of, ahem, Gender Studies. My suggestion that readers of illustrated material be given their own (preferably wipe-clean) table met with no reply.

Far too busy, probably. The British Library has over four million pieces of 'special' material as Adrian Edwards, lead curator of printed historical sources at St Pancras patiently explains. Most of it is classified not in order to restrain the appetites of ticket holders but purely to protect the volumes themselves. Many of these works are eminently collectable and even the humblest jazz mags have been targeted by specialists: "there's a long history of centrefolds being removed" he sighs. But pornography is by no means the only genre requiring close invigilation. Holocaust-denial material is every bit as prone to attack. Occasionally a perfectly ordinary book can acquire "controversial, valuable or beautiful" status long after publication: "like the first edition of Harry Potter".

Tastes and taboos change—postage stamp catalogues were once a magnet for sneak thieves—but the library is in no special hurry to remove volumes from the restricted list. They're far too busy for one thing and besides, the classifications themselves are of historical interest to researchers who deliberately trawl the catalogue for the tell-tale shelfmark ('cup' for cupboard) "to gain an understanding of what was seen as salacious, taboo or just plain nickable in times past".

It looks as if the father of European sexology (and his readers) will be rubbing spines with top-shelf material for some time to come: "I suspect he's still fairly collectable" reckons Edwards. Exceptions are sometimes made—I see that the gay bibliography has been rehabilitated—but the BL's librarians clearly have better things to do than worry about readers' squeamishness:

"Over time we will become aware of books that need reclassifying"' concedes Edwards patiently ' but we don't go looking for it'.

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