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Harford library stands behind decision not to carry 'Fifty Shades' trilogy

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Harford County Public Library has been under fire since it was discovered the system opted not to purchase copies of the popular and steamy trilogy "Fifty Shades of Grey," a decision the library director stands behind.

"It's one of these tricky issues," the library system's director, Mary Hastler, said. "We take it very seriously when we look at [selecting books]."

The National Coalition Against Censorship, however, is hoping the library will change its mind.

The series by British author E. L. James has sparked a bit of controversy around the country, with libraries in Georgia, Florida and Wisconsin banning the book.

Earlier this week, the Brevard County Library System in Florida returned the books to its shelves after initially pulling copies in the beginning of May.

The action came after the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote three letters to Brevard County representatives, asking them to carry the book once again and "open the conversation about the inclusion of erotica in libraries," according to the organization's official blog.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the storm "Fifty Shades" has created, the series has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list since March, when the first book debuted on the list at No. 1 the week of March 18.

Since then, the first two books have been on the list for a total of 12 weeks, and the final installment for 11 weeks — most of that time taking over the top three spots.

Additionally, the trilogy has spent the last 75 days in the top 100 on the Amazon.com Best Sellers list.

"When this book came out," Hastler said, "it was a different book than what's normally on the best sellers list."

What she was referring to are the numerous reviews of the book that not only called it horribly written, but also pornographic.

As Jennifer Ralston, HCPL materials management administrator, noted in an e-mail Tuesday, of few of those reviews came from The New York Times, which described the book as "mommy porn," and USA Today, calling it "NC-17 bondage."

"[I] looked at our [selection] policy and it's clear that we don't buy pornography for the library," Hastler said.

Several factors went into the decision not to buy copies of "50 Shades."

"When we purchase anything," Hastler explained, "we have our board-approved selection policy [to use]."

The library looks at different criteria in that policy — the quality of writing, what is popular, if there are holes in a certain genre collection, how well received an author is, the cost of a book, customer requests and looking at professional reviews.

If a certain title is on the fence, someone will read it to further research, which was the case with "Fifty Shades."

Hastler said she downloaded the first and second books in the trilogy and read them on her iPad one weekend.

"I agreed with the reviews of it being poorly written," she said, adding that it was an "interesting premise."

It was also clear to Hastler that the reviews describing at as pornography were opinions she agreed with.

One argument over the exclusion of the book series is that the library does carry romance novels, or what Hastler referred to as "bodice rippers."

The difference between the reviews on those novels versus "Fifty Shades," she noted, "From what I recall, I never saw them called pornographic or mommy porn."

"It's one thing if it's one reviewer who says it," Hastler said, but it's another when the term "pornography" is being used frequently.

When it comes down to it, she continued, "Going back to the board selection policy, it's clear that's something we don't buy."

As far as customer complaints or requests, Hastler said she has received a total of three.

The library at Harford Community College doesn't carry the book series, either, but for a slightly different reason.

"The library's first priority is to provide materials to students in support of curricular requirements," the HCC library's director, Carol Allen, responded in an e-mail from Nancy Dysard, director for marketing and public relations. "The library will usually not select for purchase ... popular fiction or non-fiction unless longevity in the collection is expected."

One county councilman, Chad Shrodes, said he trusts library officials in their decision to follow a "conservative" book-purchasing policy. Shrodes' wife, Amber Shrodes, is director of the library foundation.

"I think this falls in the category that they don't get any books from," he said, describing the book as erotica. "If they bend the rule here, they are going to have to bend it for other books in the future, so I think it's better to uphold the policy that has worked in the past."

Shrodes said he nevertheless realizes the book is extremely popular.

"It seems like everywhere you turn, you hear about the book. It's such a popular thing," he said, adding family, friends and"Saturday Night Live"are all talking about it.

"You can't get away from it," he said. "I can't remember in recent history where a book has had this type of exposure, as this particular book."

Shrodes said he has not heard from any constituents regarding the library's decision and he doesn't think the council should get involved in the library's decisions.

"I know it's upsetting because everybody is talking about it," he said about the book, but added: "Should taxpayers be paying for a book that's like this?"

The National Coalition Against Censorship's executive director, Joan Bertin, said the organization is considering writing similar letters to the Harford County library system, but hasn't "made a decision about what to do in this particular situation."

Bertin did, however, call the case "an issue of concern" and added, "It would be great if the library decided to do what most libraries have done — to acquire a book many of their patrons want to read."

Two big concerns the coalition has, Bertin noted, is the issue of the library already carrying sexually-explicit content and the obvious popularity of the series, proving there is a demand for it.

"If it's legal and of interest to members of the community, it's something libraries should provide," Bertin said. "Sexually explicit content is present in literature throughout time and classics. If they followed that rule, they'd leave out an awful lot of stuff."

It's not the library's place, Bertin continued, to "be in the position of what's good and what isn't for them [the readers]." The library's job, she added, "is to serve the entire community no matter what their tastes."

Bertin also feels the series "has been mischaracterized as being extreme" in depiction of sexual acts.

"The proof is that there's a lot of readers buying it," she said. "They're obviously not offended. You can't argue with that."

Other counties in the state do carry "Fifty Shades," with the majority being on-hold or checked out already.

According to explorebaltimore.com, the Baltimore County library system has 1,122 requests for the book. Cecil County doesn't have any copies available to check out either.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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