Three of the most popular books in America are being kept off the shelves of the Harford County Public Library system because administrators consider them to be pornographic.
British author E.L. James' erotic trilogy about a steamy affair between an innocent literature student and an entrepreneur with dangerous desires has topped the list of Amazon.com's best-selling books. Ditto for the New York Times' best-selling fiction list.
Every other library system in Central Maryland owns copies of "Fifty Shades of Grey" and its two sequels, and maintains waiting lists of hundreds of eager readers who want to check them out. Harford County's reluctance to purchase the novels in the face of overwhelming public demand and accusations of censorship places it in among an embattled minority of libraries nationwide.
Mary Hastler, director of the Harford County Public Library, read James' first two novels before determining that the series doesn't meet her library's selection criteria. She hasn't read the third novel.
"These books are a very different take on traditional romances," she said.
"In my personal opinion, it's almost like a how-to manual in terms of describing bondage and submissive relationships. A lot of the reviews that came out very publicly and quickly identified these books as 'mommy porn.' Since our policy is that we don't buy porn, we made the decision not to purchase the series."
The synopsis on Amazon.com's website of the first novel, about the relationship between billionaire Christian Grey and college student Anastasia Steele, seems meant to speed readers' pulses.
"For all the trappings of success," the blurb reads, "Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey's secrets and explores her own dark desires."
Millions of people have snapped it up, and libraries around Maryland followed suit.
As of Wednesday, 241 people were on the Enoch Pratt Free Library's waiting list for the print version of "Shades of Grey" and 1,828 readers were awaiting a digital copy. The Baltimore County Public Library System has a waiting list of 1,122 names, Anne Arundel County's library has 596 holds, the Carroll County Public Library has 363 waiting patrons, and the Howard County library has 968 active requests.
"Quite frankly, I think it would be hard to find an available copy in any library in the state of Maryland," said Concetta Pisano, head of materials selection for the Carroll County Public Library System.
And that's just for the first book.
Patrons also are lining up to obtain copies of James' second novel, "Fifty Shades Darker" and the third installment, "Fifty Shades Freed."
So Hastler's decision not to stock the series irks some library patrons, including retired schoolteacher Charlene Haupt. The 68-year-old Bel Air resident knows that she could easily obtain James' novels from a bookstore. But she said she objects on principle to "a public library funded by my tax dollars that doesn't want to purchase a book that's sexually oriented."
Steamy passages can easily be found in books already owned by the Harford library, Haupt said, including novels by romance authors Danielle Steele and Nora Roberts. As she put it: "You don't get to tell me what I should and shouldn't read by not carrying a book."
This month, library systems in Florida, Wisconsin and Georgia also declined to stock James' series. But as of Wednesday, Georgia's Gwinnett County Public Library remained one of the few holdouts.
Though libraries in Brevard County, Fla., and Fond du Lac, Wis., initially banned the series, they recently reversed their decisions in response to public protests.
Random House Inc. picked up "Shades of Grey" in April when it was still a self-published e-book and arranged for wider distribution through its Vintage Books imprint. The publishing giant considers the decision by libraries not to purchase the series "an act of censorship," according to a statement released by Russell Perreault, Vintage's director of publicity.
"We believe some libraries … essentially are saying to library patrons: We will judge what you can read,'" the statement continues.
"These events resonate as unfortunately considered decisions, especially as the actions withdraw from circulation a book with one of the highest demand curves in recent history."
Though "Fifty Shades of Grey" can't be found on library shelves in Bel Air or Aberdeen, patrons of the library system with electronic readers have access to e-book versions of the trilogy, courtesy of a statewide system that Harford County doesn't control but in which it participates.
And that troubles the American Civil Liberties Union, which warned that the policy not to stock the paper books could result in an inadvertent form of discrimination.
"The fact that the book is available as a e-book to Harford library patrons means that only those who most need a library, because they lack a computer or e-reader, are denied access," said spokeswoman Meredith Curtis, who added that decisions by libraries to block certain novels should be "carefully scrutinized."
Barbara Jones, director of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, worries that the libraries that refuse to stock James' trilogy are either responding to community pressure or are self-censoring in anticipation of criticism.
"It seems to me that even if the library has a policy on what to buy and what not to buy, if the public wants a particular book, we should provide it," Jones said.
"Beach reading, coffee shop reading, the kind of stuff I read on the bus every day is an important part of what we do. If we don't provide what people want, we'll become irrelevant in the 21st century — and that's not the position that libraries want to be in."
Hastler, for her part, is dismayed that some of her customers think her library is trying to prevent them from reading James' series. She says that was never her intention.
"No, we're not censoring," she said.
"I can recommend things, but I would never tell people not to read certain books. It is totally up to everyone's own judgment. We just followed our materials selection policy and handled this like we handled any other acquisition that we make."
Patuxent Publishing reporters Marissa Gallo, Keith Meisel and Sara Toth contributed to this article.