Most of the books that were part of the Library of Congress' Delta Collection are now on various stacks, including the rare books collection.
“It is the answer to every voyeur’s secret dream, this quiet corridor behind the locked wire mesh door known as ‘The Cage,’ where three large file cabinets are crammed full of such tantalizing titles as ‘Hot Girls,’ ‘Cleavage’ and ‘Black Nylons,’” reads a Los Angeles Times newspaper article from 1973.
It continues: “It is the Delta Collection and it is available upon request to any member of the public… who has the nerve to walk into the Library of Congress and ask for it.”
The Delta Collection referenced in the story was the library’s compilation of books, magazines, photos and other materials that were thought to be too titillating for the public eye. Years ago, segregating supposedly saucy materials was common.
Many universities, public libraries, even European institutions like the Bodleian Library at Oxford have similar collections. The National Library of France’s erotica section, called l’Enfer, or Hell, was kept out of public view until just a few years ago.
“It’s either the Locked Cabinet or Cabinet X or the Delta Collection,” said Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections at the Library of Congress. “Whatever it is, they were gatherings of materials that were thought to be a little too provocative to be on the general stacks, especially if you had open stacks.”
Today, there is no quiet corridor, no file cabinets, no cage. The materials that made up the collection were long ago dispersed into the library’s general holdings as Americans became less prudish.
The very fact that they were separated tells us a lot about the mores of a bygone era, Dimunation says.
Mark Dimunation, chief of rare books and special collections at the Library of Congress, sits with some books that were previously part of The Delta Collection. (Lauren Ober/WAMU)
“What was left when everything was dispersed then is this sort of interesting slice of attitudes toward sexuality at a certain period of time, almost like a time capsule,” he said. “And that’s what’s come to rare books. There’s not a lot of really hardcore kinds of materials here. It’s much more innocent.”
The library still maintains bound versions of spicy periodicals like Playboy, Penthouse and the vaguely gay After Dark. There are also bodice-ripping romance novels, adult joke books and other texts so benign that no one would look askance at them today.
On a recent weekday, Mark Dimunation wheeled a small cart into the Lessing J. Rosenwald Reading Room. On the cart were nine books of various size and vintage. They were part of the Delta Collection and until the mid 1960s had been kept under lock and key.
Dimunation pulled a book from the cart — an early book about birth control by Dorothy Dunbar Bromley.
“It was probably seen as prurient to be able to read about various approaches to birth control and so the entire work was set aside,” Dimunation said.
Other authors whose works got stashed in the Delta Collection include Simone de Beauvoir, Havelock Ellis and Alfred Kinsey, the biologist best known for his reports on human sexual behavior.
“One imagines that it’s the much more illicit material that would be set aside. But you can see that in the 50s, there was a very strong filter of what would be appropriate for public shelving,” he said.
Today, it might seem silly to quarantine certain books and materials just because they seem a bit scandalous. Especially since each text offers little revelations about race, gender, sexuality and all their various intersections.
“They're not just oddities. They're the results of human expression or the description of human behavior. And are as legitimate as the ones that describe the majority culture,” Dimunation said. “In fact, you can't have one without the other. And the fact that they're blended within my collections means we take this quite seriously. We're talking about the fabric of a diverse culture in the 20th Century.”
Music: "Coralia" by Mark Adler from Henry & June (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)