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

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam