Many years ago, I was looking for a book in my public library. I would find it in the catalog and amble back to the shelf where it should have been, and it would not be there. Week after week, it was just not on the shelf. I felt that someone had either stolen it, or had checked it out and was taking a long time to finish. If I just kept going back, I would eventually find the book I’d heard about.
It was my mother who finally asked the librarian and was told that the book was on another shelf entirely. Though the card didn’t mention this, the book was always locked in the head librarian’s office. It was too obscene to be out on the shelf where the general public could find it.
I’ve mentioned this before. We at the Book Fair do not have any great problem with pornography. We simply don’t see much of it being dropped off. Oh, now and again we’ll get a donation from someone who should have paid more attention to what was in that storage locker, but this happens, say, every two or three years, not every week.
What we do have the occasional problem with is studies of pornography. The whole question of what previous generations thought, said, and did about the business of the bathroom and bedroom is a field of scholarly study which has been growing over the last fifty to sixty years. (One of the giants in the field died young and left his collection to the Newberry Book Fair, but mighty little of his research material was obscene because, being a pioneer in the field, he had to find what he could in books about other subjects.)
I think it’s a viable part of history: we have deep historical studies of what people wore in Shakespeare’s day. Why shouldn’t we study what they did when they weren’t wearing it?
The problem, dear Horatio, is that this presents us with scholarly tomes filled with dirty pictures. And where does a Book Fair manager put these things?
The book I was hunting for back in the day was the landmark Seduction of the Innocent, a now largely discredited book which sought to prove that violent comic books caused juvenile delinquency and sexual depravity. It DID, however, change the course of comic book publishing in America, and is still historically important. The illustrations (some of which the author, um, augmented to make his case more obvious) are still troubling but not outright obscene and, anyhow, the price of a good copy means I can put it in Collectibles. The same goes for this classic: an enterprising publisher took the text of President Nixon’s Report on Pornography (since U.S. government publications are not copyrighted) and illustrated it with the raunchiest pictures he could get hold of. It goes next to Seduction of the Innocent.
But do I have to put this history of pornographic movies next to the others, or can I put it in Show Biz? This is not one of those “Sex in Cinema” books with stills from the nudie cutie movies (that’s an actual film historian’s classification; I didn’t make it up). This frankly considers the history of movies largely shown in back rooms of men’s clubs.
What about this compilation of Tijuana Bibles, those under-the-counter comics also known as “dirty little 8-pagers”? Caricatures of movie and radio stars are cavorting with great gusto, printed more clearly and on better paper than the originals. Do I need to lock this on a special shelf and put up a sign, “For Sex, See Manager”?
There are two easy ways out of this dilemma, of course. There are those who tell me, no matter what the problem, that if a book takes more than a minute to sort, it should just be thrown away. (“If you don’t know where to put it, how will anybody else know where to find it? It won’t sell.”) This is mere defeatism.
But whenever I suggest the other—that the Newberry just keep all these things for the collection, and build up a history of western erotic life—I just get a Look. Maybe they recognize a blatant case of passing the buck.
Or maybe the Newberry already HAS all these books. Maybe every library has a shelf somewhere that they just don’t tell me about.