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, Georgia 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 Favorably, in one of these cases (in Brevard County, Florida), the library in question rescinded their ban "in response to public demand."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.