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Lifting the Veil on the New York Public Library’s Erotica Collection
***, the symbol was called.
When *** was handwritten on books and periodicals in the New York Public Library’s permanent collection, it meant one thing: supervision required.
The triple-star code, created some time in the first part of the 20th century, identified the printed works that were considered too hot for the general reader to handle.
Playboy was once classified with a triple star. So were raunchy pulp novels, fliers for Times Square massage parlors, business cards offering phone sex for $2 a minute, even playing cards with illustrations of naked women.
For decades, they were kept in locked cages, accessible only with special permission and viewed in a small, secured area in the main research library.
More recently, hundreds of works that make up the triple-star collection have been liberated from the restricted controls. An adult with a library card can simply fill out a request and peruse the material on the premises. (The library maintains a filter system to restrict access to erotic materials on the Internet.)
“Erotica was not something we were particularly going after, but we needed to collect life as it was lived,” said Jason Baumann, a collections curator. “We needed to understand and document for history what the city of New York was like. That meant collecting the good and the bad. It was always part of our mandate.”
The triple-star collection is a miniature version of the vast archive of erotica at France’s National Library. That collection, called “L’Enfer” (“Hell”), dates from the 19th century, when the library, in Paris, isolated any work considered “contrary to good morals.” In 2008, the National Library mounted its first major exhibition of highlights from the collection. It drew record crowds; no one under 16 was admitted.
The New York Public Library, by contrast, has never had a similar exhibition. The materials are not as rich, and the standards of what is considered proper for an exhibition in a public institution differ in France from those in the United States.
And unlike France’s National Library, whose sexually explicit material is contained in one archive, only a part of the Public Library’s erotica was designated triple star. The rest is dispersed in other collections in the building, including in the Berg Collection of English and American Literature (rare books and manuscripts) and the Spencer Collection(artists’ books and illuminated manuscripts).
A guided visit to the library revealed some of the richness of its erotic (or pornographic, depending on who was doing the classification) material. The works are hidden treasures, many of them awaiting discovery. Not even the curators and librarians know everything that is there.
“There were many materials in the library’s special collections that I had never seen before,” Mr. Baumann said. “The range and depth of our collections never ceases to astonish me.”
The main building of the Public Library had such an impact on the neighborhood that there was once a massage parlor a block away on West 43rd Street named the Library. A 1976 flier in the *** collection advertised its $10, tip-included service, with “7 Beautiful Librarians to Service You.” The flier shows a longhaired “librarian” dressed in a necklace and high heels. A large bunch of feathers covers her private parts.
As part of the library’s mandate to collect life as it was lived, small teams of librarians were dispatched in the 1970s to Times Square pornography shops to scoop up representative samples of the latest erotica. Among the paperback titles in the collection: “Animal Urge,” “The 48-Hour Orgy,” “Beach Stud” and “All Day Sucker.”
“The bookstore owners hated it when we showed up,” said Christopher Filstrup, a former librarian who was part of the shopping brigade. “But we loved it. Books and magazines were organized just the way librarians do it, by subject — fetish, S and M, black and white, that kind of thing. Since I was head of the Oriental Division my assignment was Asians.
“Oh, I did chubby, too.”
The pulp novels and sexually explicit how-to books were printed on such poor-quality paper that the bulk of them were preserved on microfilm; the original books were discarded.
But hundreds were kept, including books disguised as sociology whose aim was titillation. They had titles like “Mass Orgasms: A Study of Group Sex Activity” and “Fornication and the Law.”
The library was one of the first major American institutions to invest heavily in the collection of erotic gay and lesbian literature, and it now boasts one of the country’s finest collections in American gay history. “We collected in the heyday of midcentury gay erotica,” Mr. Baumann said. “Looking back, we were pioneers.”
The library’s collection was enhanced in 1988 when it was given the archives of the New York-based International Gay Information Center, much of which dealt with gay and lesbian sex and sexuality.
The library has highbrow erotica as well. Deep in the Berg rare book collection, for example, is a work that has never been publicly displayed: William Faulkner’s pencil drawings of him and Meta Carpenter Wilde, his mistress, having sex.
Ms. Wilde gave the drawings to the library on condition that they remain inaccessible until the death of Faulkner’s daughter, Jill Faulkner Summers, who died in 2008.
“No researchers have been in to see them, but they certainly could do so,” said Isaac Gewirtz, the Berg’s curator of literary manuscripts.
Asked why the library had not publicized the availability of the drawings, he replied, “I thought it would be unseemly, since we know the identity of the persons in the drawings. They’re listed in our catalog for anyone to see.”
Mr. Gewirtz displayed the drawings on a long table along with other prizes in his collection, including Henry Miller’s typewritten manuscript for “Tropic of Capricorn,” with his handwritten edits; a 1947 humorous, pornographic cartoon by the novelist Jack Kerouac; a first edition of a pornographic poem by W. H. Auden; a first edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s English-language novel “Lolita,” published in Paris in 1955 after Nabokov failed to find a publisher in the United States.
Also in the Berg Collection, in the archived papers of Terry Southern, the writer, is a carbon copy typescript of the comic, erotic novel “Candy,” with emendations in Southern’s hand.