Out of the Closet

Richard Altick

  • The Private Case: An Annotated Bibliography of the Private Case Erotica Collection in the British Library by Patrick Kearney
    Jay Landesman, 354 pp, £45.00, July 1981, ISBN 0 905150 24 4

Erotica are the non-books of the bibliographical world. In most, if not all, of the standard records of book production and book possession their existence has gone unnoticed. They have seldom been recorded in the lists of books entered for copyright at the British Library or the Library of Congress, for the understandable reason that their secret publishers did not wish to bring them to any form of official attention. Historically, in nearly all libraries they have not only been segregated from other books but kept in limbo, their catalogues, if any, withheld from the public as resolutely as the collections themselves. The fact that, in British and American libraries, ‘curiosa’ (another euphemism for sex books) were kept under lock and key in the head librarian’s office gave rise to the perennial fancy in the profession – a gossipy morsel that must already have been making the rounds in the staff canteen at Alexandria – that he sometimes sequestered himself in order to have a furtive go at some choice item in the closet. In Victorian times, this might have been interpreted as an indulgence he allowed himself after having performed another service incumbent on him as a guardian of public morality, the daily scissoring of racing news from the papers before they were put on the reading-room racks.

This venerable policy of obscurantism (by a pleasant lexicographical accident, the word in the Concise Oxford Dictionary immediately follows ‘obscenity’) was forced on librarians by the irresistible pressures of society, although many, no doubt, wholeheartedly agreed with the principle. But it had the practical effect of suppressing not only the books but the very mention of them in the libraries’ official catalogues, with the result that they do not appear in the vast National Union Catalog of the holdings of more than two thousand libraries in the United States and Canada. The late Dr Kinsey’s Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, which has issued over three hundred bibliographies of special subjects based on its collection of 46,000 volumes and bound periodicals, is feeding cataloguing data to the NUC and other agencies, in the expectation that other libraries will eventually report their own holdings. In the past the only major library to have publicised its erotica, to the extent of freely letting the public know what it had, was the Bibliothèque Nationale, the contents of whose Enfer, the French term for bibliothecal exile, are listed in its general catalogue. Only in the last decade, however, has the British Library distributed into its General Catalogue of Printed Books the entries for its own Enfer, known internally as ‘the Private Case’.

The present volume is the first publicly available catalogue of the British Library collection, though it lacks the Library’s imprimatur. Its usefulness is not limited to Great Russell Street, however. It is an important tool for any interested scholar whom the much-advertised New Freedom of the present day enables to work among hitherto ‘forbidden’ books in public and academic libraries without fear and with considerably less hindrance than formerly. He needs all the help he can get, because there are no more than half a dozen bibliographies of erotica as such. In his introduction to The Private Case, G. Legman, the doyen of erotic bibliographers, mentions a melancholy number of projected master lists that never got beyond the point Mr Casaubon reached in his Key to All Mythologies.

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