A COLLECTION of ‘improper and obscene’ books is to go on show at Oxford Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian’s Weston Library is staging its first ever display of books from the restricted ‘Phi’ category, which staff assembled despite illegalities.

The category originated in 1882 when the Bodleian created a restricted category for books that were deemed by librarians to be too sexually explicit for young minds.

These books were given the shelfmark of the Greek letter ‘Phi’ and student had to submit a college tutor’s letter of support in order to read Phi materials.

The 3,000 ‘obscene’ items in the collection range from scientific works and scholarly studies of ancient cultures to novels that were once controversial but are now recognised as important works of literature.

Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden 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 on display from Thursday include Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, thought to have been included because of its homoerotic subtext, 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, and an 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

Sex manuals such as the bestseller The Joy of Sex, also feature, together with books about phallic symbolism.

Modern works include Madonna’s book, Sex, to the iconic homoerotic drawings of the Finnish artist known as ‘Tom of Finland’.

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

She 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.”

In addition to Ingleheart’s own research on the Phi collection, the display draws upon research conducted by Lloyd Houston, a graduate student whose paper Towards a History of the Phi Collection, 1882-1945 was published in 2015 in the Bodleian Library Record, the Libraries’ scholarly journal.

Due to 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.