That book series!  John Presnall writes about it below.  I have something to add to the discussion.

I am on the board of our county public library.  There was a bit of controversy at a board meeting over this book and the genre called Gray Romance.   Yes, it’s selling like mad and the library has fielded many requests for the Fifty Shades books, especially in e-book format, which ensures greater privacy while reading.  Me, I cannot imagine the appeal of descriptions of sex among the sagging, but I guess in a book, you can imagine anything.  The movie version, if made, will have to have younger body-doubles, don’t you think?

I live in a fairly conservative area.  Of course, all kinds of people live in our county, but relative to the general population, people who live here are conservative.  As an example in relation to the public library, when a salacious book by or about Madonna came out a number of years ago, the librarians kept it in a brown paper bag under the counter so children couldn’t see it.  When no one, NO ONE, asked for it over the course of several months, the director had it sold to the neighboring Cuyahoga county library system where it was circulating like mad.  That’s just the kind of county I live in.  People find the idea of censorship distasteful, but they can’t see wasting money on what they consider filth, even soft-porn type filth.  So, at this meeting the board discussed our operating policy,  especially the section that reads, “materials produced primarily to trade on sensationalism or obscenity are not purchased.”   If we bought <em>Fifty Shades</em>, we could keep it under wraps, but what would we do if the genre proliferates?  That was the big question.

I wondered aloud, if we don’t keep erotica on the shelves, will anyone care?  Probably, the director though, because there could be negative repercussions for her as the director of the libraries whatever she does.  One way or another she could offend someone; if she supplies the genre then she  outrages the community or if she doesn’t then she might have to a field a lawsuit from somebody, perhaps the ACLU, over censorship.  The latter is the dreadful expense.

We are protected by our operating policy, but how do we define obscenity was the big question.  Prurience is the term, but what are our boundaries?  One board member, male, spoke of erotica as art form.  Another man spoke about how public online information is, so that whatever is on the Internet, even who reads what e-book, is public information anyway.  What the heck?  There is no privacy anymore.  Then the director said that’s why the library could aid and abet the secret readers, because once a book is brought back or in the case of e-books, expires, the library wipes the record about it.  That’s another operating policy, that no public records are kept of personal library use.

The board president asked, “We don’t have books with pictures of naked people on the shelves, do we?”   I said, “We do.  There are plenty of nudes in books of photography, but we don’t have books by Robert Mapplethorpe on the shelves, for example.”  The director made noises about the inappropriateness of Mapplethorpe at this point.   I tried this tack, “The library makes book choices all the time; it cannot buy everything.  What if we make this choice based on how the book is marketed?  If it is labeled by author and publisher as erotica, we don’t have to touch it, based on the current guidelines.”  The market can label the book or whole genre prurient for us and we can ignore it.  We settled on that.  The final observation by the librarian was that since Ohio has a state-wide consortium that shares books, including e-books, then anyone can order Fifty Shades of Grey , using his library card.  Our local censorship by marketing really means nothing to our public.  Anyone can order the book through us and might not be aware that we have “censored” it by not buying it.  Exactly, we don’t spend the public funds on prurient material, but the public has access if it so desires.

This is a dilemma of public libraries,  how to be responsive to the requests of a diverse public.  Sometimes the deaf ear is best, since we are not the guardians of free expression.  Another way to put it is that we choose to turn a blind eye to Fifty Shades of Grey .  I hear that it is badly written, anyway.  Perhaps good writing is in the eye of the beholder.
John Presnall, this is a long way arond to my noting that if you saw people with e-readers, chances are good they were reading <em>Fifty Shades.</em>  That’s the preferred publishing mode, apparently.  Does that make the Nook the modern equivalent of the brown paper wrapper?

Articles by Kate Pitrone

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