This post has been edited to remove Orange County, FL, from the list of those that have declined to collect the book.
Brevard County Public Libraries garnered widespread national media attention when library services director Catherine Schweinsberg pulled the system’s copies of the bestselling novel Fifty Shades of Grey from circulation.
“It didn’t meet our selection criteria. That’s the bottom line,” Schweinsberg told LJ in explaining her decision. She called the book pornography, a category which the collection development policy does not include. (It does, however, include considerations of popular demand and the legitimacy of entertainment.) She also pointed to reviews that pan the book’s writing.
Schweinsberg compared her choice to that of libraries that declined to purchase the title in the first place, which include Leon County, Charlotte County, and Collier County, FL; Gwinnett County, GA; and Brown County, WI.
Schweinsberg pointed out that the Brevard County system’s collection development budget has decreased by 60 percent. However since some 19 copies had already been purchased by the system’s 17 libraries when the decision was made, those resources had already been expended. Schweinsberg is pulling the copies as they are returned, and says she doesn’t know yet what the library will do with them.
The individual branch directors of Brevard County order books independently. “There’s no collection development team or section like bigger libraries have,” Schweinsberg told LJ. “Some did buy it; some didn’t.” It’s even possible the book was purchased by a computer rather than a human, in response to patron requests. “There are automated acquisition plans here in this system; I can’t say for sure this was one of them,” said Schweinsberg. (LJ attempted to speak with some of the directors who made the purchasing decisions; some did not answer and one refused to comment.)
Some patrons had already been loaned the books, which are being pulled as they are returned; the 200-odd patrons who had placed holds on the title have been notified that they will not receive it.
“Who knew this was going to be a cultural thing for this little piece of work?” asked Schweinsberg, saying that the book had been purchased before reviews made it clear how much BDSM and sexual content the book contained, as well as before Fifty Shades became the bestselling mainstream cultural phenomenon that it is today.
“We certainly didn’t go into it thinking we were censoring. We just felt it was part of the selection process, but it got on the shelf,” said Schweinsberg.
However, that’s not how it looked to local resident Linda Tyndall, who started a petition to ask the library to reverse its determination. (At press time, the petition had 377 signatures.)
“As a reader myself, and mother of an avid reader, it’s horrifying because you wonder, ‘What’s next?’”, a local news station quoted Tyndall as saying. Another quoted her as saying, “We’re adults. We can make these decisions ourselves.”
However neither popular demand nor public outcry has caused the county to reconsider its decision. “It’s not going to go back on the shelf … the decision was made to take it off and that’s the decision we stand by,” said Don Walker, county spokesman, according to Florida Today. Walker told My Fox Orlando that the county’s reconsideration policy provided a mechanism for members of the public to request that a book be taken off the shelves, but not that it be put back on.
The library staff is planning to review its book selection policy going forward, as it does periodically, but not to revisit this particular title.
“There’s sex in a lot of other ones. Obviously. And we have them. But this one is every page until it becomes the whole point of the book,” said Schweinsberg.
Brevard does, indeed, “have them”: though Schweinsberg distinguished between classics with erotic content, such as the works of Anais Nin, and Fifty Shades, on the grounds of literary merit and importance to the canon, it is a harder case to make for such Brevard holdings as The sisters of APF: the indoctrination of soror ride dick, Thong on Fire, and Getting’ Buck Wild: Sex Chronicles II, which are among the 158 titles classified as “erotic fiction” in Brevard’s holdings. (That doesn’t count the 19 books under erotica, or well-known BDSM titles such as Exit to Eden and The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, which are among the Brevard holdings classified simply as fiction.)
In Schweinsberg’s 32 years with the county, only one other title has been pulled – Madonna’s 1992 Sex. And though it had already been ordered, she said, it had not yet been placed on shelves or circulated. “Brevard County Libraries has defended and stood up for many, many books over the years,” she told LJ.
Library Groups Respond
Faye C. Roberts, Executive Director of the Florida Library Association (FLA) told LJ that FLA takes “no position on a specific library’s policy of materials selection,” and referred to its Intellectual Freedom Manual, which includes the Library Bill of Rights and links to various interpretations of it issued by the American Library Association (ALA).
In one such piece, ALA wrote: “Librarians have a professional responsibility to be inclusive, not exclusive, in collection development and in the provision of interlibrary loan. Access to all materials and resources legally obtainable should be assured to the user, and policies should not unjustly exclude materials and resources even if they are offensive to the librarian or the user. This includes materials and resources that reflect a diversity of political, economic, religious, social, minority, and sexual issues.”
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told LJ, “If the only reason you don’t select a book is that you disapprove of its content, but there is demand for it, there’s a question of whether you’re being fair. In a public library there is usually very little that would prevent a book from being on the shelf if there is a demand for the information.” While she said selecting a book in the first place is a complicated art she is unwilling to second-guess, “pulling a book because of disapproval of its content presumes that some kind of censorship is going on.”
Caldwell-Stone says buying the book in the first place presupposes that “whoever has the authority to purchase books knows the collection policy and has applied it,” and says therefore before pulling it the library should go through its official reconsideration process by committee, just as it would if an external person objected to the title.
She was even blunter with My Fox Orlando, saying “Once the book is acquired… removing it on the basis of content raises censorship issues that we would be concerned about.” The Office of Intellectual Freedom’s official statement, however, is much more inconclusive.
According to My Fox Orlando, The National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter to Schweinsberg calling on Brevard to return Fifty Shades to the shelves.
The Case for Collection
Robin Bradford, collection development librarian at Indianapolis Marion County Public Library, told LJ why she bought the book: “I’d gotten a few patron requests before they were easily available for libraries, but even if I hadn’t gotten any requests, I would have bought them. Despite all the media attention about the sex, the book is, at its heart, a relationship story. … boy meets girl and hijinks ensue, they live happily ever after. The sex in the books isn’t gratuitous. It certainly isn’t pornography of ANY kind, soft, hard, mommy, or otherwise.”
Besides, adds Bradford, “It’s at the top of the bestseller lists. It’s on the Today show and Good Morning America, and Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz. It’s on the radio. Heck, even Saturday Night Live did a skit about it. How much more mainstream can you get than that? It’s on the shelves at Kmart and Target and Kroger, as well as bookstores. If you can find it all those places, patrons should be able to find it in their local libraries.”
The Indianapolis library currently has 265 copies of Fifty Shades and more than 500 holds; the ebook has 70 copies and 200 holds.