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Cambridge University Library


This Banned Books Week (23-29 September), the University Library looks at a collection called ‘Arc’ (from the Latin ‘arcana’, meaning ‘secret things’). In the early years of the twentieth century, in common with other major British research libraries, the University Library created the ‘Arc’ class for books considered offensive or immoral. This was partly to protect students when the age of majority was still set at 21, but it was also to protect the books from unwanted attention, not just from prurient readers, but potentially also from the police. Arc. also housed books suppressed for legal reasons (for example in libel cases), and it still does – now the only ones which are in any way restricted – as well as books withdrawn by publishers because they contained misprints.

Today the great majority of the Arc. books can be ordered up to the Rare Books Room, where they are read under supervision – no longer to protect the readers, but the books, many of which are rare, fragile or valuable.  They range from seventeenth-century Italian erotica and illustrated editions of Casanova’s memoirs, through to Victorian sexual health guides, Bibles with unfortunate printers’ errors, and medical textbooks with catastrophic mistakes in dosages (these are also restricted, for obvious reasons). 

Books have arrived under the Copyright Act, as part of donations or bequests (the diplomat Stephen Gaselee and poet and classical scholar A. E. Housman in particular) or as transfers from other libraries. Arc remains a valuable sociological time-capsule, created over many years, which will tell the future much about the reception and treatment of the forbidden books of previous generations.

To mark Banned Books Week, we will be sharing a selection of items from the arc collection on our Facebook page, so make sure you ‘Like’ our page!