Recently an all-too-brief visit was paid to the Junipero Serra Museum and its library by Dr. Walter Muir Whitehill, Director and Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum; he was making a survey of historical societies and their holdings, throughout the United States. Shortly afterward, a copy of Dr. Whitehill’s annual report for 1959 came into the hands of the museum staff. It contained a brief account of a minor problem and the adroit manner in which Dr. Whitehill handled it, which is reprinted herewith:
Among those who do not use it, the Boston Athenaeum has an unjustified reputation for owning a great collection of pornography. This myth arose from the squeamishness of some of my predecessors, who locked up works like Eleanor Glyn’s Three Weeks and some of the novels of Zola. The call marks of these literary pariahs were preceded by an apothecary’s “scruple” symbol in the catalogue, while the books themselves were placed for safe keeping on a few shelves in the Locked Room in the company of entirely respectable bibliographical rarities. Some time before I came to the Athenaeum, a group of Trustees had “liberated” the English captives from the “scruple” shelves. I restored Zola to circulation and abolished the “scruple” classification. Nevertheless the myth lingered in the popular imagination. When a lewd fellow appeared one day, inventing specious reasons for wishing to see the Locked Room, I wasted a couple of hours in showing him through it. I bored him to desperation by showing him Eliot Indian Bibles, seventeenth-century laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, thousands of colonial tracts, first editions of Emerson, incunabula, Western Americana, and much else that he did not want to see. As reticence prevented him from disclosing his true interest, which the Locked Room would not have satisfied, he was obliged to simulate a show of politeness. I have not seen him since.