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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
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.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on