Harford County librarian comfortable with her decision not to carry "Fifty Shades of Grey"

Mary Hastler, director of the Harford County Public Library, stands by her decision to not purchase "Fifty Shades of Grey" for the library because of its policy against buying "pornographic" material.
Mary Hastler, director of the Harford County Public Library, stands by her decision to not purchase "Fifty Shades of Grey" for the library because of its policy against buying "pornographic" material. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Mary Hastler knew she was about to create a fuss, knew that, unfair as she might find it, people were going to label her the last thing a librarian wants to be called — censor.

You don't refuse to carry the most talked-about series of books in the country without anyone noticing.

But as she read E.L. James' erotic novel, "Fifty Shades of Grey," on her iPad, Hastler couldn't reconcile its words with the Harford County Public Library's policy not to buy pornography. Hastler, the county's library director, says she has no problem with your run-of-the-mill bodice-ripper. But she felt she was reading a step-by-step guide to bondage, and a poorly written one at that.

"I knew," she says of the controversy that would follow her decision. "I've been doing this a long time, and I knew it was going to make some people happy and others unhappy. That's just a given. But if I had gone against our policy, it would have been a lot more difficult for me."

She seems as comfortable with her choice as a person could be, portraying it as an administrative call rather than a moral one.

You might expect Hastler to come off as a fuddy-duddy, with a tight bun of white hair atop her head. But she's quite the opposite, a former health administrator who casually refers to articles about Silicon Valley and talks of libraries in terms of bridging the digital divide between economic classes.

"Mary is very smart, very thoughtful," says her former boss, Jim Fish, Baltimore County's chief librarian for the past 16 years. "She's clearly one of the best people I've worked with."

As an assistant director in Baltimore County, Hastler supervised the launch of Storyville, an interactive wonderland that introduces preschoolers to everything from the grocery store to the garden to the post office. The county raised $700,000 to build the 2,240-square-foot wing at its Rosedale branch, and Storyville has attracted 75,000 visitors a year since it opened in 2008. A second version opened at the Woodlawn branch in 2010.

"It's a unique offering, and Mary is really responsible for the creation of it," Fish says.

Carla D. Hayden, the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, also became a fan after teaching Hastler as a graduate student in library science at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she earned a degree in 2002.

"She was an active participant and brought a lot to our discussions," Hayden says. "She brings engagement and enthusiasm at a time when the profession needs people who are committed to community service."

These words of praise flow despite the fact Fish and Hayden preside over systems that purchased "Fifty Shades of Grey" without pause.

Hastler, 54, is a Baltimore native who "played library" as a young girl and loved nagging her father to take her to the neighborhood branch on Harford Road, where she inhaled Nancy Drew mysteries. She still has the small paperbacks she received as a child from the Scholastic Book Club.

"They're my friends," she says.

"I was always a curious person," Hastler says. "And my father always told me, 'Get your information from a lot of sources. Don't rely on just one.'"

She graduated from Northern High and Towson University and began her first career as an administrator for the Johns Hopkins Health System and the Baltimore County Department of Health. She rekindled her love of libraries through volunteer work when her two children were young and then took a nine-hour-a-week job in the children's section at the Bel Air branch.

"I liked it so much that I made a career change," she says.

She spent 10 years in Harford County, then worked as an associate director in Baltimore County, then jumped back to Harford, where she became director in December 2010.

Until recently, her work had drawn little criticism. (She remembers withdrawing one other item, the Greek film "Dogtooth," from the library's collection because of sexually explicit material.)

"Fifty Shades of Grey" took an unusual path to mega-notoriety, first appearing as a print-on-demand offering from a small Australian publishing house. Random House Inc. picked up the book in April as national demand for the erotic trilogy raced ahead of libraries' ability to stock it. Waiting lists for both the print and electronic versions of the books run into the hundreds at library systems around the Baltimore area.

Hastler's collection staff asked her to take a look at the racy novels, which depict a relationship between a college student and a desirous billionaire, after receiving requests from patrons. She opted not to purchase print copies, though patrons can access e-book versions of the trilogy, courtesy of a statewide system that Harford County doesn't control but in which it participates.

Harford County isn't alone in resisting the phenomenon; libraries in Georgia, Florida and Wisconsin have also refused to carry the trilogy. Random House has called the decisions "an act of censorship."

County officials have generally supported Hastler without commenting specifically on her decision. "The county executive [David R. Craig] has the highest regard for Mrs. Hastler and feels she has done an outstanding job as director of the Harford County Public Library," says county spokesman Robert Thomas.

Thomas says the "Fifty Shades of Grey" issue "rests with her and the library board, and we'll respect that."

Hastler reached a different conclusion on the book than her mentors, Hayden and Fish.

Hayden believes strongly that a library must make controversial materials available. "As long as it's not legally obscene, people have a right to read it and decide for themselves," she says. "We're not in the censorship business."

She nonetheless refuses to criticize her former pupil. "I wouldn't characterize it in any feeling," she says when asked if she was bothered by Hastler's decision. "I just find it interesting, the diversity of views on all issues among librarians."

"We just drew a line in a different place," Fish says. "It's easy to second-guess people, but I really don't want to pass judgment. We call it library science, but there's nothing scientific about it. It's a matter of judgment."

The list of most "challenged" books maintained by the American Library Association is an interesting mix. Some libraries have refused the popular "Hunger Games" trilogy because of offensive language and violence. Others have deemed "My Mom's Having a Baby," a pregnancy guide for young children, too graphic. Classics such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Brave New World" continue to prick sensibilities many decades after publication.

Hastler says she would normally be on the other side of such debates "defending what's in the collection." The life-long book lover does not enjoy being called a censor, noting that she'd encourage people to read whatever they want at home.

But she does not seem troubled by the decision she made on "Fifty Shades of Grey" or by the fact that she stands alone in the area.

"Our policies are different," she says. "I really do respect the fact that people care, and these are tough decisions. But that's the job."