On the ground floor of Widener, hidden at the entrance to administrative offices and blocked by equipment, lies a small vault.
"It has these wonderful things," says Marion E. Schoon, head of Widener's reference division, of the collection, known as the "X Vault" or "poison cage."
The collection houses about 1000 works on sexual themes, many risque at the time of their publication but now considered tame. Most of the works, in fact, can be found in the general stacks--books like D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, the poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and even the Kinsey report. The works of the self-styled Marquis de Sade, Honore de Balzac and William S. Burrough's Naked Lunch also take up space on the three rows of shelves that make up the "XR" collection.
But mixed in with The Journal of Sex Research and Havelock Ellis' class texts on sexuality, are other books. Bound volumes of Playboy sit quietly next to The Groupsex Tapes and Great Bordellos of the World: An Illustrated History. Others have titles like Meat: How Men Look, Act, Walk, Talk, Dress, Undress, Taste and Smell.
Access Not That Difficult
Although the vault is sealed and can only be visited with permission from the head of circulation services, Edward B. Doctoroff, getting access to the collection is not all that difficult. The process is similar to that for requesting a book from the overflow collection in the New England Depository Library--without the day-long wait. Just fill out a circulation card, hand it to a circulation worker, and soon The Memoirs of an Erotic Bookseller will be in your hands. But you can only keep it until the library closes.
Library officials say the reason the collection lies in closed stacks and does not circulate is not because of its licentious nature. Instead, they say, the works are hidden away to protect them from damage.
"The purpose of the designation, countrary to popular belief, is NOT censorship but preservation," according to an ancient document in the library's file on the "ubiquitous X" collection. Legend has it that the collection was started in the 1950s after a sociology professor found that the books on eroticism he needed for his research had been stolen or damaged. So the library set up the closed-stacks collection to make sure that scholars would have access to the research material.
"It was felt that the sexual theme would have promoted vandalism," says Doctoroff. "If it were received now, it wouldn't have been segregated." And he adds, "It's mostly research books--nothing real spicy."
Library officials still say that protection of the works--not the minds of the reader--underlies the secluded stacks. They point out that other "X" classifications include miniatures, unbound books and works in bad condition or with missing parts.
Some works, like Playboy magazine, may still require safeguarding, according to the library staff. In the past, Widener workers have complained that people were cutting out pictures from Playboy issues. And although Lamont now subscribes to the magazine as well, a note on the shelf where it is supposed to be kept reads, "This periodical is a frequent victim of theft or damage. For current issues see the reference librarian."
Of course, as Schoon says, an easy way to read the magazine is on microfilm. "The microfilm does not have centerfolds," she adds.
"There is another side of the argument for security. Our responsibility is not only to this generation, but to the next generation," says Yen-Tsai Feng, the Larsen librarian of Harvard College. "We must strike a balance."
Sex Scenes in Greek Art
But for some librarians security is not an issue. Wolfgang M. Freitag, the fine arts librarian, says his library does not segregate books on the basis of content. He says works like Eros Kalos, which depicts sex scenes in Greek art, have always been in the open stacks.
"We've never had any mutilation," he says, adding, "It has always seemed to indicate to me a particular professional maturity of art students."
And Widener Library officials are careful to say that they stopped adding to the collection in the 1970s. They stress that if they had the money, they would re-catalogue the works. But, as Warren Bibliographer F. Nathaniel Bunker says, "It's hard to get enough money to catalogue the books we are acquiring."
Does the added difficulty in getting to the books discourage people from using them? Says Heather E. Coleman, librarian of Hilles and Widener,"I would assume that any time you ask people to undergo a deviation, there's a filtering process."
And, as Bunker puts it, "It's kind of a dead collection, as far as I'm concerned."