For decades it has been an object of intrigue, speculation and myth making. However, a new cataloguing enterprise has dispelled the myth that the University Library tower houses a collection of pornographic texts.

Whilst established student hearsay has consistently nurtured visions of an illicit pornographic repository, as featured in Stephen Fry’s first novel The Liar, staff now busy classifying its contents insist that the tower contains “nothing racy”.
As part of a new cataloguing enterprise sponsored by the US-based Mellon Foundation, the Cambridge University Library Tower Project currently has a team of seven dedicated experts meticulously sorting through the tower’s 200,000 texts. Focused upon literature produced between 1805-1905, the cataloguers maintain that they have uncovered nothing more risqué than distinctly genteel guides to the finer points of Victorian romantic etiquette.

The Library tower has consistently captivated the student imagination ever since its construction in 1934. Although countless curious observers have attempted to gain access to the 157-foot high chamber, no student is believed to have successfully uncovered its contents.

Over generations of aborted exploratory missions, the answer to the tower’s enigma soon became evident – the seventeen floors of secrecy could only contain an illicit stash of scandalous pornographic literature. As a copyright library receiving copies of every published text, what else could explain the occult of a tower described by Neville Chamberlain as that “magnificent erection”?

The Tower Project has discredited the long established legends of scandal. Certain texts bear such interesting titles and chapter headings as ‘A Young Girl’s Wooing’, ‘Suggestive Tones’ and ‘His Secret Out’, but most of the books are romance novels of the most eminently polite flavour, in which superbly named characters such as Psyche Danvers and Lieutenant Jack Holdsworth trip to provincial France, face frightful emotional misunderstandings but eventually overcome Jack’s reticence and Psyche’s nervous “virgin imagination” to happy ever after with faithful butler Mr Moggs.

In one episode of deep romantic contemplation, Psyche is “aroused” by Jack “pulling out his...wristwatch” to disrupt her reverie in light of a pressing lunch engagement.

Although the one shilling edition of Flirting Made Easy: A Guide for Girls (Illustrated) includes most intriguingly named passages such as ‘The Seaside and the Girls at it’, ‘Cupboard Love and Policemen’ and ‘Rural Love Making’, its text in fact adopts a strictly pragmatic tone. Proffering detailed courtship advice to “sensible”, “impulsive” and “newly married” young ladies, the guide suggests such saucy flirtation techniques as “a gentle pause between questions” and far from titillating its readers through sexually explicit content, rather cautions against “the world of deep, deep love and passion” as “rather too wild and weird”.

So no pornography there. But might the remaining tower shelves still be hiding some as yet uncatalogued erotica? “I very much doubt it”, said Rosalind Esche from the Tower Project. Although there is some material the team “don’t yet know about”, their findings so far would suggest that the books in the tower were banished to faraway floors simply because they were deemed as non-intellectual, “grey” or “ephemera” texts, not on account of any X-rated content.

Up to the fourteenth floor of the “restricted access” library tower courtesy of a “temperamental” lift, the gloomy shelves certainly house some incongruous tomes, but nothing to merit scandal. Academic they are not, but pornographic they certainly are not either. In fact, the most surprising titles to be spotted were those more reminiscent of the Puffin Early Reader genre than anything resembling the lewd or obscene: Paul and Pam, The Teddy Bear’s Cruise and This is How We Go to School.
No smutty titles, no obscene illustrations, and more childhood stories than “adult literature”. The myth of the Cambridge “porn library” remains, at least for the time being, just a myth. Perhaps by 2010 when the Tower Project team conclude their mammoth task some saucy titles may be unearthed amid the innumerable book stacks of that magnificent erection. But, for the time being, the more erotica minded students among us must not be disheartened. As the Tower Project team noted, thanks to its copyright status the UL definitely does keep pornography. In fact, there’s “quite a bit of contemporary stuff which people can come and have a look at - for research purposes.”

Eliza Apperly