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OPINION: End Library Censorship of 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

Local public libraries should uphold the principle of freedom of speech, even when a particular book might be generating controversy.

There has been a flurry of news stories regarding the availability—or in some cases the lack thereof—of the recently released book "Fifty Shades of Grey" and its two sequels, written by author E. L. James. Notably, some public libraries have chosen not to make these titles available for patrons, for fear of complaints regarding content.

Here in Maryland, one local system, the Harford County Public Library, has chosen not to purchase "Fifty Shades" because, according to Jennifer Ralston, the library system's head of materials management, "the library does not purchase pornography, and we therefore did not purchase the book." There have been some isolated cases of this form of censorship occurring nationally, most notably in individual library systems in Florida, and Wisconsin.  Favorably, in one of these cases (in Brevard County, Florida), the library in question rescinded their ban "in response to public demand."

I have read portions of "Fifty Shades of Grey," and can see why some might jokingly refer to the books as "mommy porn." The content does dwell heavily on the S&M sexual relationship between the two main characters, and doesn't pull any punches, so to speak, on the intimate details of their affair. However, I do not accept the premise that these books have no redeeming social value, and are the same as hard-core pornography. I bet the content in many other romance titles already available in the library isn't much different than that found in "Fifty Shades."

Looking at current trends, it would seem that area readers agree with my assessment of this popular title. Here in Baltimore County, well over 1,100 library patrons are presently on the waiting list to check out one of the 396 copies of the book that were purchased. The story is the same in Anne Arundel County, where nearly 600 people are waiting for the book, while nearly 1,000 Howard County readers patiently wait for their chance to flip through the pages of "Fifty Shades."

In order to remain relevant, public libraries must focus on giving readers what they want, rather than getting caught up in a dubious quest to maintain moral purity within their collections.

As someone who has been involved with library issues for some time, I am deeply troubled to see any public library choose not to purchase books for lending to patrons on the basis of a value judgment regarding content. In my role as a member of the Baltimore County Board of Library Trustees, I would never want to be in the position of imposing my understanding of either the value or appropriateness of a book onto readers in our county. Rather, I subscribe to the following concept, best expressed by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: "If the 1st Amendment means anything, it means that a state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house, what books he may read or what films he may watch."

What do you think is the role of public libraries in deciding what content is or is not appropriate for patrons? Do you think "Fifty Shades of Grey" counts as hard-core porn? Tell us in the comments.

Honeygo Hal June 04, 2012 at 12:05 PM
As for the censorship issue, I do not think the library systems should keep a popular title from the shelves. As for this book, I will ask: Would you want to handle THIS book after 50 people had it before you? LOL
Andrea H June 04, 2012 at 01:23 PM
Spot on judgement HH! A similar thought came to mind when I read how many people were on the wait lists! As to whether this book is hardcore porn, having read them, they are no worse than a Harlequin romance novel, and the hardcore BDSM aspect fades after the first book, as the couple's relationship takes a more "vanilla" path. Granted, some sex scenes are still not so PG13 rated, but they are being read mainly by ADULT women who are able to use their own judgment on what content they deem acceptable. After all the hype revolving around this series, I doubt any readers picked up the book and were shocked by its content. Readers know what they are getting in to, and have the right to read what they want, be it "mommy porn" or a self help book (maybe they are one in the same?!) :-)
Tim June 04, 2012 at 01:34 PM
I don't agree. This is a public library. It's held to much different standards then a bookstore. What are you going to suggest? That we have an adult section built into libraries? 18+ only with someone guarding it? Who's going to do the cleanups in that section?
Honeygo Hal June 04, 2012 at 01:41 PM
In-library usage may be an issue, but the technology certainly exists to detect and control check-outs by underage users.
Paul June 04, 2012 at 01:50 PM
I completely agree with Tim. No one is stopping people from buying the book and reading it. Do you want your 10 year old to pull the book off the shelf and read it in the library? It's not educational. In the words of Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn, "It's a smutty book!"
Tim June 04, 2012 at 01:52 PM
Honeygo Hal: Online checkouts are also an issue. I agree that it wouldn't be particularly difficult to manage physical checkouts though. No different then anything else like alcohol or tobacco.
Neil B June 04, 2012 at 01:55 PM
More regulation by the people that work at the library? I am sure they don't want to do that. I don't think them not carrying the book is that big a deal.
Jeffrey Smith June 04, 2012 at 02:07 PM
Tim, the real issue is - assuming we accept your approach for a moment - whose standards of "morality" for content control would be used??? Censoring books is a completely subjective act. In years past, such important works like "Tom Sawyer," "Huck Finn," "The Catcher in the Rye," and "Tropic of Cancer" were banned by various libraries. That's the problem with censorship ... ANY one person's standards of morality can never serve as an accurate proxy for the desires and interests of an entire community. Where does one draw the line??? The following link highlights some of the books that have been banned by various libraries in the past: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/banned/frequentlychallenged/challengedclassics/reasonsbanned Going down the slippery slope of banning books and other forms of speech is not what America is about.
Neil B June 04, 2012 at 02:13 PM
In today's electronic environment is a library not carrying a book really censorship? They have plenty of other places to get the book. It is not like the 1930's when all we had was the library or a book store. I think you are over reacting to this. Plus Harford county is a more conservative area. The idea that you should force your beliefs on them is sort of annoying.
Andrea H June 04, 2012 at 02:23 PM
I recall the Perry Hall library having quite an extensive collection of romance novels, so if my 4 year old was 10, I would ALREADY have to worry about her pulling "smutty" books from the shelves of our local library, or any library for that matter. The PH library also stocks a few copies of the Joy of Sex, Kama Sutra related books and other 'self help' sex books, so actually Paul, I am more concerned with my daughter pulling out a book and looking at pictures of couples in various explocit sexual positions. Really just playing devils advocate here, it's a book, there are numerous racy or "smutty" books or books that anyone could find inappropriate already stocked in our public libraries, so who is to decide which books make the shelf and which don't? Why is everyone so worked up about it? Oh that's right, I read it, I already know why ;)
Andrea H June 04, 2012 at 02:24 PM
*explicit, sorry.
LalainMaryland June 04, 2012 at 02:25 PM
I would just like to say that any form of reading is amazing, and the fact that a NOVEL can get this much attention warms my heart. If a 10 year old picks it up and a parent/caregiver doesn't monitor what he/she reads, shame on the adult! I think that whenever a child sees an adult reading, the child learns a valuable lesson. It is up to the adults in the child's life to monitor what the child reads; it is NOT up to the government to monitor what the adult reads.
Andrea H June 04, 2012 at 02:46 PM
I completely agree Lala. And apparently the book can't even reach the shelves because of the ridiculously long wait lists, so kids won't stumble upon it for a while anyway. By the time it is on the actual shelf, the hype surrounding the books will have passed and people will be focusing on something else completely, leaving 50 Shades forgotten.
Jeffrey Smith June 04, 2012 at 02:55 PM
For the record, I was born and raised in Harford County, thus I feel that I have every right to comment on what goes on there. I relied upon that library system for books until I grew up and moved into my own home. You also have to remember that not everyone has access to e-books or chooses to buy every book that might interest them. Public libraries, as the name implies, are for the public at-large, and there have been many residents of Harford County who have asked for the book at their local library but were not able to get it.
Tim June 04, 2012 at 03:12 PM
Jeff: Simply put, the standards of our society. They aren't difficult to classify. The slippery slope is an easy argument that can magically apply to effectively anything. See, the thing is, I'm not even suggesting that I completely agree with this country's views on what is classified as "pornography". Although to be fair, that's always going to be judged individually. However, that's not really the point. I'm fashioning a view based on the reality we live in. Public libraries should reflect the general public's views on the issue of "pornogrpahy". Right or wrong. Again, public libraries, last i checked, aren't the lone source of books in this country. Until the day they are, the "slippery slope" argument doesn't apply, in my view.
Paul June 04, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Andrea, I'm sure there are more books in the library that you would not want your daughter to see, does that mean we should buy another one? Does that mean we should buy all of the books out there, smutty, X rated, or whatever, and put them in the library so there is absolutely no censorship? Really, perhaps all the libraries should have an "over 18 only" room like many old VHS rental stores used to have. Of course you would also need a committee that decided what belonged in the room. And then you would need library card electronic access to the room for control. All of those access records would be public domain so we could see that Congressman Sleeze visited the "dirty" room 300 times in the last year, etc, etc. There are currently 1000's of books in the library that would take people a lifetime to read them all, but suddenly it's a censorship issue if this book doesn't make the shelves. In the "old days" there would have been no discussion and the book (along with many others) would not be there - right or wrong. I say if you see books in the library that you think are innapropriate for your daughter, tell the library staff the basis of your concern. Maybe the library board can vote if they stay on the shelves or go. Someone has to make the call!
Andrea H June 04, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Sorry Paul, I didn't see your earlier response until just now. My response is simple, since there is already a large number of books that one person or another would call questionable or smutty for whatever reason, why make a stink about adding this book to the catalog? It's called "Adult Fiction" for a reason, and the 50 Shades trilogy is definitely NOT the first of its kind, and would join other adult novels on the shelves on any given library. I already own my copies, but based on the huge waiting lists at libraries that carry the title, a lot of people still depend on the public library for reading material. Thanks for the discussion, always great to debate an issue and see both sides of the divide.
Evets June 04, 2012 at 11:47 PM
Public standards? Interesting concept. At one time the public standard in this country was that blacks were inferior to whites and therefore need not be accorded equal rights. That US citizens of Japanese ancestry, especially on the west coast, were dangerous and potential enemies. That women should not have the right of suffrage. That beverages containing alcohol were evil and should be banned. Fortunately, we saw the shame in such standards and changes were made so that we would be in accord with our laws and our Founding Fathers' view of freedom and democracy. It is not the government's job to set or enforce 'public standards.' The government is tasked with applying the tenets of the constitution to afford all of its citizens equal protection, regardless of what the current public standard is. And make no mistake, public libraries are government entities.
Evets June 04, 2012 at 11:47 PM
On the issue of children's access to adult content, if you have a 10 year old with you at the library and you are unable or unwilling to monitor what he/she is doing, shame on you. That is your job,not the government's. Would you allow this same child unrestricted access to the internet in your home? Would you drop him/her off at a friend's house w/o some information about the supervision he/she will be getting there? If you knew the adults at that house had a copy of this banned book, would you deny your child the opportunity to visit this house? Nonsense. Just as passing laws regarding the volume of sweetened soda I may buy is nonsense. Just as public libraries banning books is nonsense. Regulate yourself and your kids.
Paul June 05, 2012 at 02:37 PM
Evets, It would be great if parents could / would walk behind their child and monitor them everywhere they went. Unfortunately, that is not realistic. Ten seconds in the wrong place is all they need. If you control your kids that tightly, then congratulations, you are the only parent in America that never lets their kids out of sight for even that amount of time. We can better control what goes on in our own house, but you have no idea what might go on in another house, no matter what those parents tell you. If you believe the public library should not ban any book, then I assume it is OK with you if they put the vilest filth you can think of on the shelves for general viewing, correct? You will make sure your kid never gets to it?
Tim June 05, 2012 at 03:18 PM
I love it when people post completely unrealistic statements about watching your children 24/7.
Evets June 05, 2012 at 03:29 PM
I am not sure where I implied that I never let my kids out of my sight. Quite the opposite as a matter of fact. However, when they were 10 years old, they did not get free reign in the public library, nor in most other public places. And if my 10 year child is off to visit a friend's home and I do not know the parents, I do inquire as to their policy on internet access, types of video games/movies available, if any weapons in the home are secured, etc. This is called parenting. Do all parents tell me the truth? Maybe not. Not much I can do about that. And do you really believe a brief exposure to a book like the one banned in Harford County is going to do damage to a 10 year old child?. Also, just where did I say that every book should be on a library shelf for general viewing. I have no problem with a library monitoring who has access to certain material - this is done quite regulalrly in library systems across the country. It is done everyday with internet access in most library systems. Monitoring and/or restricting access to a publication is not the same as an outright ban.
Paul June 05, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Evets, So having a controlled XXX room at the library is OK by your standards? I would prefer my tax dollars get spent better ways. Also, I'm sure you are / were a fine parent, but it only takes seconds for kids to find trouble so even brief exposure to some of the henious crap out there could have quite a nasty long term impact on your kids. The world is much more dangerous now than when I was a kid. I don't think we need to add to that problem at the library.
Tim June 05, 2012 at 06:32 PM
Evets: Ok, I must've mis-interpreted your previous comments. Again, I agree with Paul re: where my tax dollars are going though. There's no lack of 'material' at home you could access or buy in other stores. Public libraries should be places of learning, not ummm yeah you know. Not violating the ToS here.
Jackie McTear June 07, 2012 at 03:45 PM
There is more hype about these books than necessary. First and foremost the book is a love story and is just as much about moving towards a healthy relationship as it is about the other content, and is not any worse than what is in the Sookie Stackhouse (True Blood) series of books and no one is concerned with them. Haven't we been through this before? Did you know "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain was excluded from the children’s room in the Brooklyn, N.Y. Public Library (1876) and the Denver, Colo. Public Library (1876). Confiscated at the USSR border (1930)? This will eventually blow over.....
Jackie McTear June 07, 2012 at 03:48 PM
List of censored books: http://www.listal.com/list/banned-burned-censored
ARG June 20, 2012 at 07:47 PM
The description of the intimate scenes are no more detailed then that of Nora Roberts or Tami Hoag. Why are we picking this book particularly. What about the Jennifer Weiner books, or the Janet Evanovich. Are the Sookie Stackhouse books there? this is starting to sound like discrimination or redlinig.
ARG June 20, 2012 at 07:56 PM
Parents should know what their children are doing. This is what is wrong with some of the children of today. Also, we are not talking NC17 we are talking about descriptive writing. I have an idea, how about the people who do not want to read the book, dont read it. The people that are interested, that understand this is a work of fiction and entertainment, read it. I wont tell you what to do if you dont tell me what to do!
Steve Redmer July 07, 2012 at 12:46 PM
I really see this as a non-issue...I also don't see this as censorship, it's not like they banned the book from Harford County, they just don't carry it in the library....I would be more concerned about the "Political Censorship" that I have noticed in Baltimore County Libraries...I have noticed a lack of some very popular books from certain conservative authors, that to me feels more like censorship ( Full disclosure, I have no idea if there are any liberal authors that are "censored", so this may go both ways)
ARG July 26, 2012 at 08:46 PM
I think these things go hand in hand. It starts with one book and snow balls from there. Do libraries have rated r movies for rent? I am a fan of Tami Hoag and i know her books can be quite discriptive when it comes to mature relationships. I am sure the carry the Candace Bushnell books. I agree with steve on the banning or not carrying the political writers. There has to be an equal amount of information available for people to be able to form their own opinions. I do see mor liberals condeming opinions that arent similar to their own. It is ok for them to vice an opinion in favor or oposition to something but if the conservatives start to do the same there is an up rising. Where does the censorship and control stop?

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