Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Phi Collection

I have been collecting information about Private Case (i.e. erotica) collections for the last few years for an article I am planning. One of the older and larger collections that gets an occasional mention is the Phi collection at the Bodleian library. The Bodleian has hundreds of collections within the library as a whole, and many of the collections have their own sequence of call numbers (also called press marks, a "press" being a book case, and the "press mark" being the position a book sits in the "press").

The Bodleian is an amazing library, with some astonishing and wonderful books, so you would think that their collection of erotica would be pretty impressive too. Unfortunately, there is no catalogue of the collection, so there is no way of knowing just how good it is. It is possible, after all, that they destroyed a lot of the erotic material they received. Of course, the fact that they had a named collection of erotica suggested that they hadn't destroyed it all, but the only way to know would be to see the catalogue.

Anyway, I use the Bodleian library online catalogue, OLIS, all the time, but until I tried to do a search for books by their shelfmark I hadn't realised that this is not, in fact, possible to do. You can't just type is "Phi" as a call number to see pops up. After a lot of time wasted trying to do the impossible, I posted a query on the EXLIBRIS list and was offered a solution.

Remember telnet? No, neither do I, or at least only vaguely. It seems to be a sort-of peer-to-peer connection between libraries and users, but it was developed in 1969 (!!!) and so it is pretty primitive. Well, apparently, telnet was the answer, because the Bodleian still had a telnet catalogue and this catalogue was searchable by call number. (You have to go to the OLIS home page—pictured below—to find the link, which is why I didn't see this option.) Unfortunately, telnet requires you to have special software on your computer and this being the 21st century and all I was pretty sure it didn't come bundled with my Mac.

The Bodleian, however, have made a great leap forward. They have also made their telnet catalogue available via a Java interface, so those of us who are not familiar with "8-bit byte oriented data connections" can search their catalogue. Unfortunately, the Java flickers, often ignores or misses commands and the whole telnet thing is so dinosauric that it makes sundials seem bright, shiny and new. Copying and pasting is pretty well out of the question, so there is no way to download the catalogue records you retrieve.

My solution was to use used screen-caps: 289 of them, because—as you can see—you only get a few lines to a "page." It took a while, but after an hour of valve-era computer thinking I now have a complete catalogue of the Phi collection.

The results are, frankly, disappointing. I was looking for eighteenth-century material for my Checklist of Eighteenth-Century Erotica and there is hardly any, and even less in English. But at least now I know that there is nothing there …

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