Page 2 of 2 Previous
It didn't escape the notice of Tim Cole, the collections manager for the Greensboro Public Library in North Carolina, that "Fifty Shades of Grey" was "of mixed literary merit," as he put it with a heavy helping of Southern politeness.
He ordered 21 copies anyway.
His customers had spoken, Cole said, and like other library officials across the country, he had gotten the message: Readers wanted the "Fifty Shades of Grey" trilogy. In recent weeks, they have besieged libraries with requests for the books, signaling a new wave of popularity for the erotic novels, which have become the bestselling titles in the nation this spring.
In some cases, demand has been so great that it has forced exasperated library officials to dust off their policies -- if they have them -- on erotica.
In April, the trilogy, which includes the titles "Fifty Shades Darker" and "Fifty Shades Freed," was issued in paperback by Vintage Books, part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, sending sales through the roof when the publisher printed and distributed the books widely for the first time.
That enthusiasm has carried over to libraries. At many, "Fifty Shades of Grey," by the previously unknown British author E.L. James, is the most popular book in circulation, with more holds than anyone can remember on a single title. It was 2,121 and counting at the Hennepin County Public Library last Friday, up from 942 on April 9.
But despite misgivings about the subject matter -- the books tell the tale of a dominant-submissive affair between a manipulative millionaire and a naive younger woman -- library officials feel that they need to make it available.
"This is the 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' of 2012," Cole said. "Demand is a big issue with us, because we want to be able to provide popular best-selling material to our patrons."
But some libraries have been caught on the other side of the issue. The Brevard County Public Library in east central Florida pulled copies of the books from its shelves after library officials decided they were not appropriate for the public.
"We have criteria that we use, and in this case we view this as pornographic material," said Don Walker, a spokesman for the Brevard County government.
In Fond du Lac, Wis., the library didn't order any copies, saying the books did not meet the standards of the community. In Georgia, the Gwinnett County Public Library, near Atlanta, declined to make the books available in its 15 branches, saying that the trilogy's graphic writing violated its no-erotica policy.
Last week, a group of organizations that included the National Coalition Against Censorship formally responded, sending a letter to the library board in Brevard County scolding them for refusing to stock the book alongside standards like "Tropic of Cancer" or "Fear of Flying."
"There is no rational basis to provide access to erotic novels like these, and at the same time exclude contemporary fiction with similar content," the letter said. "The very act of rejecting erotica as a category suitable for public libraries sends an unmistakable message of condemnation that is moralistic in tone, and totally inappropriate in a public institution dedicated to serving the needs and interests of all members of the community."
Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said it was unusual for a library to remove a book from its section for adults.
"The vast majority of cases that we deal with have to do with removing books to keep kids from seeing them," she said. "That's what makes this so egregious. There are some possible arguments for trying to keep kids away from certain kinds of content, but in the case of adults, other than the restrictions on obscenity and child pornography, there's simply no excuse. This is really very much against the norms in the profession."
Vintage, which is part of Random House, said, "Random House fervently opposes literary censorship and supports the First Amendment rights of readers to make their own reading choices. We believe the Brevard County Public Library System is indulging in an act of censorship, and essentially is saying to library patrons: We will judge what you can read."
Decisions about which books to stock tend to rest in the hands of local library officials, calculations based on what patrons are asking for and how much money a library system has to spend.
The number of patrons waiting in line for "Fifty Shades of Grey" is extraordinary, higher than the usual demand for the latest John Grisham or Danielle Steel novel, library officials say.
And the line is getting longer every week. At the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio, a system that includes Cleveland, 454 holds were placed on the book in early April; last week there were 1,399.
Robert J. Rua, an official with the Cuyahoga library, said they had bought 539 copies of the trilogy's first book. There is no section for erotic fiction in the library, he said, so "Fifty Shades" has been placed among the other trade books for adults.
Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Vintage Books, declined to provide a current sales figure for the trilogy, but said millions had sold so far.
Marcee Challener, the manager of materials and circulation services for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Libraries in Florida, said that library officials there carefully considered the book before ordering it, but ultimately decided that it was no different from one of the paranormal romances featuring vampires that have been popular for years.
"There's sex and eroticism in many well-written literary novels," she said. "It's part of the human experience."
But Ken Hall, the library director in Fond du Lac, said he would rather spend precious library funds on books that had literary or artistic value.
Since the library publicly announced that it would not stock the book, he has been hounded by insults, with some people calling him a useless bureaucrat. But he said he had also received numerous compliments from residents urging him not to back down.
"With this type of book, we will get somebody questioning our decision no matter what decision we make," Hall said. "We live in an age where people don't like to talk about gray areas. No pun intended."