Libraries at the Center of 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Controversy

Book cover: Fifty Shades of Grey

Libraries are sensitive to the demands of their customers.

This has been especially evident during the controversy involving the romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey.

The steamy novel by E. L. James, which has been dubbed "mommy porn," catapulted to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

So it was no surprise that the demand from library customers was high.

“This is the Lady Chatterley’s Lover of 2012,” Tim Cole, collections manager for the Greensboro Public Library in North Carolina, told the New York Times. “Demand is a big issue with us, because we want to be able to provide popular best-selling material to our patrons.”

And demand has dragged even reluctant libraries into providing the book to patrons. Initially Brevard County Public Library in Florida pulled the books from shelves after they were deemed inappropriate. 

It wasn't long before the library faced a backlash. According to an article in the Toronto Star, on May 15, a group of organizations that included the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Association of American Publishers sent a letter to the library board in Brevard County, criticizing it for not carrying a book that’s in the same genre as Tropic of Cancer and Fear of Flying.

“There is no rational basis to provide access to erotic novels like these, and at the same time exclude contemporary fiction with similar content,” read the letter. “The idea that ‘erotica’ should be categorically excluded from public libraries has no merit ... A policy that excludes an entire category of works that are protected by the first amendment is a censorship policy, impermissible in a public library.

“The very act of rejecting erotica as a category suitable for public libraries sends an unmistakable message of condemnation that is moralistic in tone, and totally inappropriate in a public institution dedicated to serving the needs and interests of all members of the community.”

The library wound up reversing its decision.

The Fifty Shades trilogy is about a young Seattle college student who falls for a handsome and wealthy businessman, who asks her to be his submissive.

“We have sold over ten million books in the Fifty Shades trilogy,” said Anthony Chirico, president of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, said in a statement.

In an article in American Libraries magazine, Barbara Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, wrote about reading the book.

She said, "the book is way too long and the writing often mundane and clichéd. Call it what you will — 'erotica,' 'mommy porn,' whatever — Fifty Shades of Grey has not been declared obscene or child pornography by any court of law. If libraries carry popular fiction—and classics, too, by the way—they have erotic content in their libraries already."

She wrote that the Office for Intellectual Freedom continues to speak with librarians, other concerned community groups and civil liberties organizations about its plans in the wake of the decision by some libraries to either pull the book from the shelves or not stock the shelves in the first place.

She wrote, "Of course, many libraries are also responding to community requests to provide it—according to WorldCat, at 800 other libraries."

She noted the example of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Ohio, which has 1,500 requests and will be adding more copies.

She added that the vast majority of reports OIF has had about the Fifty Shades series echo this librarian’s email, in which she said that in 12 years of service at one library “We had several requests for removing books from our shelves because certain patrons or groups found them offensive. We would explain to them that we were not in the censorship business and if they found certain materials offensive they didn’t have to read them but they do not have the right to prevent others from doing so.”

One library that has taken an anti-censorship stand - and where copies of the book are flying off the shelves - is the North County (N.Y.) Library System.

According to an article in the Watertown Daily Times, Barbara J. Wheeler, director of Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library, Watertown, estimated that there have been more than 80 holds on the book systemwide.

She is quoted as saying, “This particular book we decided not to buy it initially only because we read reviews of it that said the writing was not good. We have a fixed amount of money to buy fiction, and there’s so much fiction to buy, that we had initially not bought the first two nor were we going to buy the last one.”

But the library changed its opinion based on the demand from local readers, the article said.

“It has received so much media attention and we began to get so many requests for it that we did purchase a copy to meet demands,” she said.

Barbara Jones was recently featured on NBC News talking about the book.

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