"Fifty Shades of Grey" is a best-selling novel that recently surpassed the Harry Potter series as the fastest-selling paperback book of all time.
It's also causing 50 shades of controversy for some libraries.
"Fifty Shades of Grey," the first novel in a series of three books, has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and shows little sign of slowing down in popularity.
Despite its popularity, some have protested its place on library shelves because they say its content borders on pornographic. While people can't seem to get a copy fast enough, many questions have been raised as to whether it belongs on the shelf of a public library, where anyone can simply check it out and take it home.
The question as to whether popular books should be unconditionally included in a library's collection is not a new one. As early as 1852 when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or "Life Among the Lowly," the question as to whether books should be censored or even banned from public libraries have been the topic of much debate in America.
More recently, J.D. Salinger's novel "The Catcher in the Rye" is still contested today due to its use of profanity and portrayal of sexuality. According to the American Library Association's website, Salinger's masterpiece isn't the only classic book to be challenged as profane. The association notes John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," William Golding's "The Lord of the Flies" and Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" as classic books that were challenged repeatedly, some as late as the 2000s, as inappropriate.
However, regardless of its controversial contents, "Fifty Shades of Grey" is still immensely popular and in demand. According to the Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Library System online catalogue, there are currently 93 holds placed on 20 copies of "Fifty Shades of Grey," one of which is an online audiobook.
"The book first came out as a Vanity Press, so many libraries didn't really pay attention to it at first,' said Linda Mielke, director of the Prendergast Library. "However, then it came out with a big publisher (Vintage Books, a subdivision of Random House) and it was alerted that the publisher is spending big money on advertising this book and it's worth a look. However, the reviews were mixed, and (The Prendergast Library) also buys according to reviews. But needless to say, this book took off. Libraries really felt like, regardless of reviews, this book did fit into the collection development policy because people were asking for it."
In early May, the Brevard County Library System in Florida pulled copies of the book from its shelves, sparking a debate on the ethics and morality of censorship.
According to ABC news, in a March 4 interview with the Palm Beach Post, Cathy Schweinsberg, the library services director, said the book did not meet the system's selection criteria.
"Nobody asked us to take it off the shelves," she said. "But we bought some copies before we realized what it was. We looked at it, because it's been called 'mommy porn' and 'soft porn.' We don't collect porn."
However, due to overwhelming demand, the library decided to return the 19 copies of the book it purchased to its shelves, much to the elation of its patrons.
"When that Florida library took (Fifty Shades of Grey) off its shelves, I'd propose it got every librarian's hair in the country to stand on end," said Mielke. "It used to be the patrons would say, 'this is filth, take it off the shelf.' However, this phenomenon was the librarians taking it off the shelf. The national news got a hold of it, however, and that library in Florida has since reversed its decision."
A REOCCURING THEME
Mielke said that 50 shades isn't the only book in libraries recently that some have considered unfit for shelves. In June 2011, Adam Mansbach wrote "Go the F**k to Sleep," which is described as, "a children's book for adults." Though not available at the Prendergast Library, "Go the F**k to Sleep" is available in ebook format through the Patterson Library in Westfield.
"You expect it with a children's book, such as 'The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn,'" said Mielke, "but not so much with an adult book. However, I think with the intellectual freedom (clause) of the library's collection policy, we would say, 'this is the kind of book our patrons are asking for and we will try to meet all of the needs of our patrons.'"
With regards to whom may take out books from the library, there is no system wide policy for the CCLS regarding such things. Theoretically, anyone can enter a library, take a text off of a shelf and read it in the library, then leave once finished without removing the book from the library. This includes teenagers whose parents may prefer they not read books such as 50 shades.
"We encourage children and parents alike to visit the library together to make the trip as a family," said Tina Scott, assistant director for the Prendergast Library. "We want parents to play an active role in the lives of their children, which includes what their children might be reading for pleasure."
Ultimately, Mielke reinforced that a library should act as a repository for information which is pertinent to the community it serves, not as a policing agency to that community. The Prendergast Library will continue to provide books and other resources to the community regardless of how controversial it is, so long as the patrons of the library demand it.
"I think we will always come down on the side of intellectual freedom and non-censorship," said Mielke. "People want to read a book and there are publishers who obviously agree. Needless to say, the Prendergast Library agrees, as does the other libraries in the Chautauqua Cattaraugus Library System."