For decades it has been a source of myth-making, sealed off from most scholars and rumoured to house an abundance of illicit literature from the 19th century.

But while the Cambridge University Library Tower may not be awash with the vintage erotica renowned in student legend, staff sorting through its contents have discovered that love is in the air. About 157 feet and 17 floors in the air, to be exact.

Since its construction in 1934, generations of undergraduates have speculated about what mysterious titles might be kept in the library tower. Now librarians putting the books into an online catalogue are finally producing answers – and seem to have uncovered a more sober set of guidelines from Valentine's Days of old.

Bearing titles like A Golden Guide To Matrimony, The Lover's Guide To Courtship (Illustrated) and Flirting Made Easy, the books hark back to the days when couples starting out on the road to marital bliss were taught to seek their parents' blessing and women were careful never to make the first move.

“The traditional student rumour is that the contents of the tower are pornographic,” Vanessa Lacey, manager of the Cambridge University Library Tower Project, said.

“In fact we now know it to be a treasure trove for people who want to know more about Victorian society, and among the books are these late 19th and early 20th century lifestyle guides designed to teach young couples the art of courting. At the time they were acquired, they were not considered the sort of thing that serious students should be reading, so they were put away.

“Many of the 200,000 books in the tower have barely been read and some were never opened, but now they give us a fascinating insight into the life and society of the time. By creating an online catalogue, we hope to open them up to researchers and students alike.”

Although Valentine's Day was a well-established part of British culture by the Victorian Age, the books show how differently would-be lovers of the time might have attempted to woo their heart's desire.

Marriage, for example, is high on the agenda in G. Cohen and Co's Courtship And Marriage (1887): “The young man who marries not, except in a few exceptional cases arising out of ill health, deformity, malformation, or great perversity of temper, or eccentricity of character fails in one of the most palpable duties of life,” it warns.

Men should always make the first move according to A Golden Guide To Matrimony (Job Flower, 1882). “It should be the young man's duty to make the first overtures towards a closer relationship than that of mere friendship,” it says. “Young women cannot be too reserved in this respect. Prudence is of the highest importance.”

Women who had not yet won the attentions of a young man could meanwhile have put themselves out of their misery using the mysterious Oracle, a pocket fortune-teller devised by John Heywood in 1889. Using nothing more than a pen, paper and a rather complicated system of predictive tables, it offered answers to some of life's most pressing questions, such as “Who loves me?”, “Whom do I love?” and – perhaps most crucially of all – “What is my best feature?”.

No matter what the stage of their relationship, true romantics were sure never to be lost for words thanks to the Letter Writer For Lovers, published by Ward, Lock & Co. in 1879. This even includes a template for women who have been deeply insulted by their correspondent's last missive.

By 2010, all these titles, along with thousands of other cookbooks, photo albums, school registers and ‘penny dreadfuls', will be searchable online in the Library's catalogue.

“When they first arrived, their existence was recorded in old-fashioned binders,” Vanessa Lacey said. “These were handwritten, they are difficult to search and nowadays they are increasingly faded and illegible. Library users have never really had proper access to the books as a result, but with the online catalogue, readers will be able to search the collection in its entirety.”

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