LONDON -- For generations the legend of the British Museum's locked-up horde of books too sexy to circulate has tantalized whisperers. Now the museum's library offshoot is baring all.
'Up until now the British Library's collection was the only major collection of erotica that had not been cataloged,' said Patrick J. Kearney. He has spent seven years to change all that.
For more than 100 years the British Museum kept one of the largest collections of erotic literature in the world locked tight in the so-called 'Private Case.'
The literati buzzed with rumors of the sizzling material it might contain, with wild tales of how to get the key and enter the forbidden room. Yet nobody even knew what was there.
'Other libraries have been catalogued, but not this one,' said Kearney, who spent seven years working nights and weekends to sort through the 2,000 books in the Private Case.
'It posed a challenge, finding out what was in there, looking at each book and doing research,' he said in an interview.
The fruit of his labor is a complete catalog of the erotic collection, published in May as a dry-as-dust listing and description of every work. Its sexless title is 'The Private Case.'
'It's a very fine, rich collection,' said Kearney, 38. 'It has a very wide range of works covering a broad spectrum.'
The library has bawdy books in English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish spanning nearly 250 years. It includes a rare book of French brothel songs printed in 1830 and computer-written 1970s pornography from San Diego.
'It really is amazing stuff,' Kearney said, although he found modern pornography to be 'mostly rubbish. It is beneath contempt. I don't recommend reading it, but I suppose specimens should be preserved.'
The collection holds several rare and famous books. A first edition of John Cleland's 'Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure' is there, as well as a valuable copy of 'Justine' by the Marquis de Sade.
For decades the collection was locked away without public access, Kearney said. Only in the 1960s, just before the British Library split away from the British Museum, were rules loosened about who could see what in the collection. Now anyone with a legitimate interest has access to it.
As access rules were eased, 'for the first time they listed all the books in the general catalog,' Kearney said. 'But the British Library has over 8 million works, so they were just lost in all the other books.
'Now I have drawn them together in one place.'
Kearney spent years requesting books one at a time from the locked collection and then examining each book while librarians watched. Eventually the library encouraged him to compile a full catalog of the Private Case.
'It was basically detective work,' Kearney said. Many of the books were published anonymously or under pseudonyms and part of his task was to establish authorship.
Kearney said his study conviced him pornography has never been done well by English-speaking writers.
'Anglo-Saxon attitudes are much more puritanical, and it tends to show in the emphasis in sadism.
'In general the French are far superior. They take it much more seriously. Respected French writers can turn their hands to this sort of thing and not suffer from it. But can you imagine Graham Greene writing pornography?'