I’ve written previously about a different kind of library love: the ‘group love’ that is our collective love and respect for libraries. Those feelings were demonstrated in spectacular fashion last year when a Forbes magazine contributor wrote that Amazon bookshops should replace public libraries.
On social media, the article received a swift and emphatic response. Within hours, tens of thousands of people took issue with the article’s thesis. Almost as swiftly, Forbes took the article down and issued an awkward apology.
Another episode of book love was closer to home. In Ballarat, a council rates collector of modest means assembled in the 1960s and 70s a collection of worldwide importance. Alex Hamilton filled his weatherboard miner’s cottage with 30,000 books, most of them modern, many of them with racy and avant-garde content.
The walls of the cottage were lined with shelves, and in the middle of each room more books were piled waist-high in tidy blocks. Hamilton had a lady friend, whom he visited for dinner on Saturday evenings, but he always made sure he was home early so he could dust the books. Because of this obsessive care, almost every book in the collection was in immaculate condition.
After Hamilton’s death, the collection came on to the market. Book dealers around the world swooned when they saw Hamilton’s prizes, like a copy of Samuel Becket’s Murphy, in fine condition in an equally fine dust jacket. A bookseller would later offer that very copy for 62,500 pounds.
Another important Australian collector, Glen Ralph, was born in the depths of the Great Depression. With intermittent employment and an intermittent income he assembled in Adelaide a book collection that was rich in erotica, with volumes on flagellation, prostitution, classical erotology and sexual psychology.
One day, a friendly librarian at Adelaide’s Public Library told him the staff had been sorting books in the stacks and had come across a French edition of the Kama Sutra. Glen was intrigued. He borrowed the book and prepared a translation of the text.
Soon after, someone informed the authorities that Glen possessed indecent books. This was an era of aggressive censorship and tight customs controls. His home was raided and a large quantity of his books were confiscated. A Magistrate ordered that some of Glen’s manuscripts, including his copy of the Kama Sutra, had to be destroyed. The ‘inoffensive’ books were returned, and Glen was ordered to consult a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist, it turned out, was pleased to learn that Glen still had a collection of erotica that the raiding party had overlooked. On several occasions the psychiatrist borrowed volumes that interested him, always giving Glen ten shillings for the loan, and characterizing the transaction as legitimate psychiatric research.
Later, when the psychiatrist travelled to England, he helped Glen augment his collection by bringing back in his personal luggage a book that Glen had ordered from a London bookseller. It was a copy of the Ananga-ranga, an Indian sex manual written in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.
The State Library of Victoria contains some important erotica, as well as a remarkable document: Redmond Barry’s ‘day books’: the journals in which he recorded his affairs and trysts and assignations with prostitutes and mistresses and married women. An example of the text:
September 22. Sunday. church. Mrs S 4 times . . . September 25. Mrs S 3 times . . . October 8 went to Parramatta with Mrs S. Mrs S 10 times.
In her Redmond Barry biography, Ann Galbally likened these notes to the scoreboard in a game of cricket.
Other major institutions also collected pornography and erotica. The British Museum, for example, had a spectacular collection. In 1950, after viewing some Henry Fuseli drawings there, the American librarian Louis Wright observed that some of the drawings were regarded as so pornographic they were fit only for specialists, who were allowed just a few scientific peeks.
When people asked to see the Museum’s erotica, a superintendent would ask, ‘Are you a doctor or a psychologist?’ If the reader answered ‘No’, access would be refused.
In the New York Public Library, erotic books were identified in the catalogue with a discreet, triple-star code; and they spent many decades locked in cages.
Now, though, most of the books have been let out. Just a few days ago, the British Library’s ‘Private Case’ collection of 2,500 bawdy novels and other erotic texts were published online.
Apart from thinking differently about classic erotica, libraries are rethinking the place of everyday smut, like the kinds of novels people used to buy from newsagents – and hide when the vicar came round.
I’ve spoken previously about how pulp literature has infiltrated rare book collections, and how libraries are now welcoming these texts and their ‘bosoms and bottoms’ cover art.
In an even more important incursion, libraries are embracing and foregrounding the literature of the sexual revolution, the literatures of street cultures and counter cultures, and the literature of the fight for LQBTIQ rights.
At this very moment, the New York Public Library’s ‘Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50’ exhibition is celebrating the LGBTIQ civil rights movement, and commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
In 1962 Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes shared a thatch-roofed house with their two young children. Faced with Hughes’s adultery, Plath made a backyard bonfire in which she burned more than a thousand pages of Hughes’s manuscripts and letters and other papers. In a primal act of annihilation, Plath sprinkled Hughes’s documents with his dandruff flakes and fingernail trimmings, before consigning them to the fire.
Today, these facts are strangely important.
In private libraries, we allow books to share our most intimate moments. Jeanette Winterson hid Penguin paperbacks in her knickers and under her bed. The publisher Nicolas Barker kept a library of Penguins in the lavatory of his West London home.
Public libraries, too, are human places, into which people cry tears, moult hair, slough skin, sneeze snot, and deposit oil from their hands. A new branch of bibliography, ‘bio-codicology’, involves searching old books for proteins and other organic molecules.
Those chemicals tell stories about how books were made – from animal skins and linen rags and other materials. But they also tell stories about the books’ early readers – their hair, their acne, their diseases, their genomes.
This has led to a major rethinking, particularly of old collections. They aren’t just documentary archives. They’re also bio-archives. What used to be dust is now data. So one message is, next time you’re making love in the stacks, be careful what you leave behind.
Based on a speech given by La Trobe University Professor and award-winning author Stuart Kells for Caulfield Library, Text Publishing and Library Lovers’ Day, on 14 February 2019.