Sent to the tower: the books too lowbrow for Cambridge

The rumour had been that the books and papers lodged in Cambridge University's library tower were little more than pornography.

But for the first time the university is set to reveal that the 170,000 books and papers previously consigned to the tower for being too populist and lowbrow to be of academic interest contain unique literary gems.

An entire social history is recorded in assorted cookbooks, photo albums, school registers and cheap novels known as penny dreadfuls, which will now be available to the public. There are also first edition novels by authors such as Charles Dickens, Henry James and Sir Walter Scott.

The first online catalogue of these books is to be created thanks to a $1m (£536,000) grant from the foundation of the late American philanthropist Andrew W Mellon.

Jim Secord, a professor of the history of science who has explored the contents of the tower, said: "In most places, history is buried. You think of history being under the ground.

"In Cambridge, the main body of history has always been looming above the town in this big Stalinist building of eight or nine storeys [designed by Giles Gilbert Scott of telephone box and Battersea Power Station fame]. It's always had this mass of hidden history inside."

The collection includes popular Victorian and early 20th-century novels with beguiling titles such as Tempted of the Devil, Love Affairs of a Curate and Only a Village Maiden (which, despite the implications, has an entirely innocent content). As the definition of academic in the 19th century was very restricted, it also covers translations of foreign and classical literature and authors not studied at Cambridge.

Among these are valuable first editions of novels by Arthur Conan Doyle and the three women of the Brontë family, including works published under their pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

Some of the works have never been read and are in mint condition. However, as their existence was recorded only in increasingly illegible hand-written catalogues with no keyword search facility, most of the material has been invisible to scholars.

Professor Secord said: "The bulk of it still hasn't been touched. The typical book in there that you order up hasn't really been looked at before.When you go in to use the collection, you put in your slip and have the librarian bring up the paper knife so you can cut open the pages."

One colleague who had been researching the Religious Tract Society, which was founded in 1799 for the dissemination of Christian literature, discovered everything that she needed for her work in the tower. "There were 120 books all in original bindings," Professor Secord said.

And for his own research, which included an investigation of the 19th-century public's understanding of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, Professor Secord discovered a range of useful material such as sermons, children's books and catalogues for zoos and fairs.

Although some of the material regarded as not worthy of inclusion in the main catalogue was surprising, more intriguing was how many of the books they kept anyway.

"It's really quite remarkable when you see these tiny little bits of the past," Professor Secord said. "If you like browsing in old bookshops then this is about 10 times better."

Vanessa Lacey, who is managing the scheme to produce a complete online catalogue, said it should make a significant impact on what researchers can discover about the Victorian period.

"This project will uncover the overlooked treasures in our attic," she said.

The work is due to be completed by 2010.

Read all about it: what the collection includes

* A map of the route of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee procession

* First editions by Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Brontës and Sir Walter Scott

* Cookery books including one called Cheap, Nice and Nourishing Cookery, which recommends boiling carrots for two hours, and a Handbook of Domestic Cookery, with a recipe for calf's head and calf's foot soup

* Home guides on health and beauty including Dr Foote's Home Cyclopedia of Popular Medical, Social and Sexual Science which recommended married people should not sleep together as the practice led to "uncongeniality"

* School registers

* A collection of "penny dreadfuls", cheap and entertaining novels

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