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Fifty Shades of Illogical

This Fifty Shades of Grey controversy just won’t go away. The most amusing part of it is watching presumably sane and occasionally rational people invoke irrelevant arguments to defend a badly written porn novel.

One of the latest “controversial” decisions to not acquire the book for a library comes from Maryland. The reasoning seems pretty straightforward. The library has a policy against buying pornographic books. The librarian thinks Fifty Shades is a pornographic book. Thus, she didn’t buy it. QED. This isn’t rocket science, people.

But some librarians are outraged (!) that a library wouldn’t stock a particular book, so outraged that they write letters to their local news outlet quoting the ALA claims about censorship left and right.

Think about that for a moment. What cause would possibly get you to bother writing a thousand words to your local news site about how important it is, and for free? What would be worth wasting that much time? And if you did waste that much time, wouldn’t it be a good idea to address the actual point of contention?

For some people it might be arguing against something that was truly dangerous to a community, you know, like a deliberately leaky nuclear power plant or a homeless shelter being built in the neighborhood.

But no, for some, it’s that the library won’t purchase porn. The writer got sooo angry about this particular topic that logic just slipped right out the window. For example:

County library director Mary Hastler has denied censoring the book. However, by the American Library Association’s own definition, censorship is “the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. … The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.”

I understand selection policy. But Ms. Hastler also states that “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.”

This is a clear admission that she decided to censor these books because of their sexual content, an act that is both unprofessional and unethical.

My first clue that clear thinking wasn’t a priority was providing the ALA’s heavily flawed definition of censorship, a definition of censorship so bad that it doesn’t even include the one definition of censorship that we can all agree upon.

Then there was that “however,” as if quoting from the flawed definition was some sort of logical trump card. She just said, “she says she wasn’t censoring the book; however, some people who like to pretend there’s censorship everywhere to make themselves seem courageous for fighting against it say she did.” I’m convinced!

Another clue was that she included the refutation of her own (and the ALA’s) flawed argument while making it: “Since our policy is that we don’t buy porn, we made the decision not to purchase the series.”

Thus, saying that’s a “clear admission she decided to censor these books because of their sexual content” is ridiculous. Instead, it was a “clear admission” that the director had a selection policy and followed it, which leads me to believe the writer doesn’t in fact “understand selection policy.”

But it gets worse. Instead of arguing that the book isn’t porn, which is really the only argument in this case that matters, she claims that “There are plenty of other romance and erotica titles in the library’s collection that contain graphic sexual scenarios,” mistakenly thinking this is an argument for buying the book.

The easy reply: two wrongs don’t make a right. If there are other pornographic books in the collection, and the library policy is to not purchase pornography, then the appropriate response isn’t to buy Fifty Shades, but to remove the books that were mistakenly purchased from the collection. Thus, she just provided the motivation for a series of book challenges. Way to go!

She also claims that “It is not the library’s place to determine what it makes available to the public based on subjective opinion.”

Ahh, subjective opinion, as opposed to that objective opinion you’re displaying. Gotcha.

But isn’t that exactly the library’s place? If a library has a selection policy, and a librarian decides what books to buy or not buy based on that policy, how could it be anything other than exercising “subjective opinion”?

Far from understanding selection policy, the writer is implying that libraries can never have a selection policy because no one could possibly follow one except subjectively, and that’s just not right. How is your defending Fifty Shades anything but stating your “subjective opinion” that libraries should buy this book, especially given how bad the argument is?

The hits just keep on coming. “”50 Shades of Grey” may not be enjoyable for everyone, but it certainly may be of interest to local book club readers, romance and erotica fans, and even non-romance readers whose curiosity is piqued by its recent popularity.”

She’s basically saying that there will be people who want to read this book for free.  However, since it’s true of just about every book published, is that really an argument? What porn book wouldn’t possible be of interest to erotica fans? Is there any book that might not be of interest to some group of readers? Yes? Then buy every book published!

Then she runs back to the ALA for intellectual support, which is always a bad idea.

“Unless the decision is based on a disapproval of the ideas expressed and desire to keep those ideas away from public access, a decision not to select materials for a library collection is not censorship.”

Ms. Hastler’s disapproval is censorship under these criteria. She should not cheapen our profession by saying she is not doing something that she clearly is doing.

No one has even bothered to prove that the library director disapproved of the “ideas” expressed in Fifty Shades. The question hasn’t even been addressed. For all we know, she loves “mommy porn.” She also loves following library policy. Thus, her unproven “disapproval” is evidence of absolutely nothing.

Librarians shouldn’t cheapen our profession by making lousy arguments about nonexistent censorship and by claiming people are doing things they clearly aren’t doing.

The rest is more boilerplate nonsense implying that a librarian not purchasing a porn book in accordance with library policy “hurts us all.” Um, sure it does.

So this librarian wrote an entire subjective opinion article in which she doesn’t once address the actual point of disagreement, probably because she can’t.

It’s a lot easier to argue against the red herring of censorship than prove that the library doesn’t have a policy against buying pornography, and that even if it does Fifty Shades isn’t pornography. When I see librarians making that argument instead of avoiding the issue entirely, I’ll take them seriously.



  1. Hazel Edmunds aka @careersinfo says:

    All this fuss reminds me of when, as a young mum, I found work in a late-night cinema club. The audience was mainly male and the usherettes, including me, wore rather shorter than normal uniforms (and this, in the day of the mini-skirt, meant VERY short indeed). But the films, oh dear, with a few exceptions they were quite dreadful – not in an indecent way but how they were made and the stilted dialogue.

  2. Re: “It is not the library’s place to determine what it makes available to the public based on subjective opinion.”

    Seems to me that selecting & making materials available is the primary purpose of a library. If I was a library leader, one of the first things I’d do would be to strongly encourage all libraries to craft a concise collection policy and:
    * Feature it prominently on the library website and post it liberally throughout the library (the way many other service organizations post their list of services/values/guarantees).
    * Require that all acquisitions be evaluated according to the criteria (5 stars for the first criteria, 4 stars for the next two, etc), record the evaluations in a database and make the dB easily accessible for staff and patrons. This requirement would elevate the level of criticial thinking involved in acquisitions and provide an excellent RA resource.
    * Routinely discuss the policy in staff meetings to help ensure all staff were conversant about it, understood its nuances and how it informed new acquisitions. This would help staff become more familiar with the collection and potentially prompt substantive dialogue about content internally and with patrons.

    Doing these things would clarify the role of the library and institutionalize a productive dialogue about the meaning of quality content. If executed with the proper leadership & publiclity it could also re-establish librarians as stewards of content selection and increase their influence with content creators and consumers.

    To objections from staff that “we don’t have the time”, I’d reply “this is a key element of the job; let’s see what else you’re doing that we can eliminate to make time for this”.

    • On Sunday, The Washington Post published an editorial on this topic. Of the book itself, the WP editorial board said: It’s also atrociously written — proof positive that execrable prose is no bar to dominating the bestsellers list. lists the primary meaning of execrable as utterly detestable; abominable; abhorrent. Based on other reviews and reader comments I’ve seen this is a consensus opinion on the quality of this content, independent of its subject matter.

      It’s hard for me to see justification for public libraries acquiring this book. Do libraries spend public funds on cheap furniture that will fall apart after a year? Do they knowingly contract with vendors whose products will not work reliably? Most of the library folk I know take great care to spend their budgets wisely on quality products. What makes “The Collection” different?

      And why aren’t prominent people within the library community helping guide these important conversations (this WP editorial, Reuters coverage of a book challenge in Utah) about the mission/role of the library? Probably because the Institution has become so rudderless …

  3. My question is this: Why are we allowing this book to dominate much of the conversation between and among libraries and between librarians and the rest of the world? The entire, continuing discussion about this book is the real red herring. And I count myself as one of the guilty since I did write a post about it last month. But enough is enough.

    • Bonnie – articles like these frustrate me as well, mostly because the intense fragmentation within our library system mitigates against librarians coming together to formulate cogent policies/statements on key issues such as mission, collection management, stewardship of public space, etc. As a result, library staff come across as weak or hapless in most news accounts covering “censorship” and pornography.

  4. Christopher Elliott says:

    Bonnie – amen. Honestly, this book will be old news and will be for sale for 1 cent at Goodwill inside a year. We have better things to discuss than this book.

    I personally think that most people realize this book isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on and know better than to waste money on it so they are turning to the library for a copy, and when said library decides not to buy it for whatever reason, it hits the fan. I read it since I felt it was necessary for at least one staff member to do so and I still am waiting for E. L. James to give me my weekend back.

    • Christopher – how sad if the image of the library has gone from being a source of high quality content/resources to a place for material that “is not worth the paper it is printed on”.

    • Christopher Elliott says:

      Jean – it’s a sign of the times. So many libraries are worried about being obsolete and budget cuts they are willing to be just about anything to please whoever yells the loudest.

  5. AL, that was fanTAStik!!!! I just added a link to this in large, bold, italic, red, centered, letters to the bottom of my own blog post on the issue:

    “Brave Librarian Ignores False Censorship Charges to Keep Fifty Shades of Grey Out of Harford County Public Library”

    AL, you are outSTANding!!!!

    AL, everyone, has anyone seen the ALA make a specific statement about this matter? Has the ALA defended a librarian’s right to apply its own selection policy? Has anyone heard anything?

    I heard that the ALA made a very short tangential statement giving mild support generally in a single sentence. I would think this matter would be right in the ALA’s bread basket and they would speak to it, as opposed to airport screening, one-payer healthcare, gay marriage, LinkIn security, national surveillance drones, etc. But it’s been basically silence.

    This is especially egregious in the case of Brevard County where the library removed the book then returned it after false legal threats from the ACLU/NCAC, and the ALA said absolutely nothing! Worse, Judith Krug said the exact opposite of what the ACLU/NCAC said, and still the ALA did not speak up.

    Has anyone else noticed this ALA silence? Has anyone seen where the ALA has said anything about this issue?

  6. Pat Riota says:


    So are we saying that every book a library doesn’t select has been censored?



  7. Tired Librarian says:

    Hasn’t Judith Krug been dead for years? what chould she possible have to say about yet another tempest in a teapot about some saucy novel in a library?

  8. Tired Librarian says:

    Whatever the ALA’s faults, if “this matter” is “right in the ALA’s bread basket and they would speak to it” I would suggest that there is probably medication for the ALA, or anyone else, speaking to bread baskets.

    Has anyone else noticing that this kind of mixing of metaphors is usually a sign of total whackiness?

  9. Whats all of the fuss? Personally, when I saw how popular the books were I purchased all three books AND the audio books. Why? Am I some sort of pervy librarian who likes S&M? No, on the contrary, the only thing that gets me going these days are increased circulation stats. Quite frankly, if someone published a book about paint drying and it was popular I would get it for our library. Sex sells and circ stats get budgets passed…

  10. As I predicted, the NCAC has moved on to its next target after successfully threatening Brevard County, FL, this time Harford County Public Library, MD, and its director Mary Hastler:

    Fortunately, AL and many commenters here likely already know that the NCAC’s arguments are substantially false and/or misleading, so I need say no more.

    As Dan Gerstein said, “The … elites have convinced themselves that they are taking a stand against cultural tyranny. …. [T]he reality is that it is those who cry ‘Censorship!’ the loudest who are the ones trying to stifle speech and force their moral world-view on others.”

  11. I think porn (or “erotica” if that’s more to your taste) serves a useful purpose in society. Therefore I think it’s appropriate for libraries to purchase materials which will allow their users to explore aspects of their sexuality– either in real life or merely via fantasy and/or masturbation.

    If libraries have policies that prevent them from purchasing porn, they should abide by it– as far as they are able since the definition of porn seems to vary from person to person. But perhaps librarians who are uncomfortable with a “no porn” policy should petition their boards to revisit the decision which led to establishing such a policy. Assuming the board doesn’t initiate a repeal of such a policy on their own.

    The fact that so many people are willing to borrow materials like the “Shades of Grey” series seems to indicate that not everyone defines porn the same way, and some of these people are no longer ashamed that people in the library know they want to read materials that others find objectionable. I’d argue that such people are actively celebrating their freedom to read. And possibly their freedom to “annoy.”

    I agree with the AL that not choosing to carry these materials isn’t “really censorship.” But I also think that a no-porn policy is arbitrary, selectively applied, and serves no useful social purpose. And so it certainly has the same effect as censorship within the library collection. But that’s just my opinion.

    I believe a “no-porn” policy can reinforce some citizen’s beliefs that sex and sexuality are unworthy of private (let alone public) discourse. I also believe that providing materials which can help initiate a challenge to long-held beliefs is arguably in a community’s best interests.

    “Community standards” won’t necessarily change because some person or group reads a book. But members of a community shouldn’t be forced to conform to standards that serve no useful purpose. A library board should be able to present reasons for establishing and maintaining their policies or suffer the public absurdity of maintaining a policy which lacks merit.

    • Dennis – comments like yours are what keep me reading and commenting here. When you say “I believe a “no-porn” policy can reinforce some citizen’s beliefs that sex and sexuality are unworthy of private (let alone public) discourse. I also believe that providing materials which can help initiate a challenge to long-held beliefs is arguably in a community’s best interests.” – I think about how influencial & empowering libraries can be.

      If you are a librarian, have you had experience developing or managing a collection policy that fleshes out arbitray terms like “no porn”?

    • Hi Jean,

      I am a librarian, but our policies don’t include a “no porn” provision. They’re broadly written to be inclusive and affirming of all kinds of materials. Selection is where “arbitrary standards” can be safely applied. And sometimes it’s just easier to avoid a possibly challenge– especially when you can correctly make the claim that budgets are tight.

      When the news about the “Fifty shades” phenomenon first broke in the press, I noticed that there were lots of holds building up on the one copy held by our consortium and notified our selectors email account. Someone else sent out an email linking to an article noting that e-readers might disguise the fact that some people (women) were reading what was being referred to as “mommy porn.” And the phenomenon didn’t seem to be a cause for alarm among the women in the office who were sharing it.

      I suggested that their reaction might be different if the audience for the stuff was predominantly male. Which seemed to put a damper on the discussion. So it goes.

  12. As the NCAC is now threatening Harford County with substantially the same letter as it used successfully in Brevard County, I just published this in support of Harford County (and it links this excellent AL post):

    “NCAC Pushes Porn on Libraries; Fifty Shades of Grey Propaganda: Brevard Buckles, Harford Holds”

  13. anonymous says:

    As of today, the 50 shades trilogy is 1, 2, and 3 on the Amazon Top 100 eBook download list. Libraries need to figure out what to do about that.

    • This might sound really dense, and I know it’s hard to say no to people … but what’s so bad about saying the library doesn’t carry the material because (and use this as a quick opportunity to clarify what you do offer) and refer people to where they can get the material? Good retailers (usually not the big boxes) do this all the time. A shop owner or associate will say they don’t have a product and provide suggestions for how the customer can meet the need. In fact, Zappos CEO cites referrals like these as one of the ways their staff provides outstanding customer service and instills customer loyalty.

      I ask because I’m struggling to understand why a product that has widely been deemed poor quality (badly written, etc) is driving library conversation and behavior. As Christopher Elliot noted, this trilogy is a flash-in-the-pan and will be in the 1 cent bin in no time. I can see why commercial firms (booksellers, movie houses) and the paparazzi are all over this – fads are their business. But libraries? Aren’t they supposed to be about matters and materials of more importance and enduring value?

    • I agree with @Jean Costello. Then there is the whole issue of whether the books infringe someone else’s copyright. Copyright infringement is a serious issue, yet libraries are stocking the book without first ironing out whether or not infringement has occurred. In my current blog post I linked to four sites suggesting that copyright infringement was present, one site even showing numerous side-by-side comparisons and showing about a 89% similarity to another work. The author who runs the @E_L_James Twitter account has since then blocked my ability to follow her tweets. I find that curiouser and curiouser. But it’s more curiouser that libraries are buying something (and publishers are selling something) that may be illegal, and not because of porn.

    • One could argue libraries should also be making selections based on contemporary significance or popular interest. So those are a couple of reasonable justifications you could use to acquire the Fifty shades titles.

      Reasons not to buy them? Maybe if you’re absolutely certain the books wouldn’t circulate at all.

      I’m not hearing anyone say that these materials wouldn’t circulate. I am hearing people argue we shouldn’t be the ones who circulate them. Even though some members of our communities seem to want read them. For whatever reason.

    • thelibrarina says:

      Dan, the 89% similarity is a comparison to the author’s own Twilight fanfiction, which was (minimally) adapted to bring it to its published form. While the 89% statistic has been bandied about by various websites, the site that features the side-by-side comparison makes the authorship of the fanwork quite clear. You even linked to it at the bottom of your SafeLibraries post–

      There are plenty of reasons one can dislike the 50 Shades series without carelessly misrepresenting its origins.

  14. Jean–I share your frustration over the constant conversation and buzz over this book. However, there are many prolific authors who write books that some might deem as being “of poor quality” and yet libraries collect those books, too. I’m not going to name names, but I can think of many bestselling books by authors that are not necessarily of enduring value that would never be cut from a library’s selection list. I’m not sure where you draw the line. But I do hope that the world moves on past 50 Shades, but with 3 books in the trilogy and the first movie being made, I’m not so sure that’s going to happen anytime soon.

    • Hi Bonnie – my frustration is with the depth of the conversation, not the topic. Given that content evaluation & selection is a key library function, I expect a lot more information and critical thinking coming from the library community than I’ve seen in the public dialogue or my research over the past few years. This isn’t a DISS on you and the other commenters, BTW. It would be crazy to expect every librarian to know or care about these matters. It comes back to the leadership thang.

      This title/episode demonstrates that books still have the power to generate interest and conversation. The public is engaged – why aren’t representatives from the library community?

      It’s possible a library rep has stepped forward in a leading outlet like NPR, Washington Post, Reuters and I’ve missed it. If anyone knows of such a case, please share.

    • @Jean Costello and Everyone Else:
      Jean said, “It’s possible a library rep has stepped forward in a leading outlet like NPR, Washington Post, Reuters and I’ve missed it. If anyone knows of such a case, please share.”

      Barbara Jones, Director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has stepped forward in a leading outlet, NBC Nightly News. She, as the ALA’s representative, heralds a new phase of ALA activity, namely, supporting the admission of porn into public libraries. The “freedom to read” apparently magically trumps all prior bans on pornography in public libraries. No more need for library selection policies (or material reconsideration policies for that matter), local library enabling laws that exclude porn, SCOTUS decisions that find that libraries traditionally ban porn, community standards, and common sense. The ALA, having lost on all these fronts to promote porn, is now going right to the people to convince them to jettison all that and demand libraries carry porn.

      Recall how the AL previously wrote about libraries using selection policies to censor out any material whatsoever about those evil ex-gays. Another example: Well now we are all supposed to demand porn despite the law and common sense.

      Hear directly from the ALA appearance on NBC Nightly News. Here’s the entire segment on the issue; note well how Barbara Jones sets the example, and it’s not a good example as she supports the porn, not the librarians enforcing legitimate, local library selection policy:

      Let me add that porn is not a joke, not funny, not lmao. People are seriously harmed or killed or commit suicide as a result of creating porn. Search Twitter for library porn and see all the harm being done nationwide, every day. Apparently the ALA could care less, especially now that it openly supports porn in public libraries and does not support librarians applying selection policies.

      Here is some truth about porn:

  15. Tired Librarian says:

    Dan – you’re supposed to be a lawyer or something. Copyright infringement is between the the two authors to duke out in court, not a library that purchases something in good faith.

    There’s all sorts of meds out there for paranoia!

  16. I Like Books says:

    A library can’t buy every book– there’s no place to put them all. Therefore every library practices censorship?

    • But if the books are circulating, you don’t have to “put” them anywhere. Let your readers deal with storage once they’ve checked them out. If space constraints truly are your reason, you can always withdraw copies once they stop circulating.

      If your readers are requesting materials that you refuse to supply, simply ask yourself what are the reasons for your refusal. Depending on your answer, you’ll know what type of selection you’re practicing.

      And you might realize why you’re practicing it too. Self- or job-preservation are actually pretty good reasons, IMHO.

    • Dennis – some great points are bubbling up in your two comments (here and at 10:01).

      Acquiring materials based on contemporary significance or popular interest are certainly valid selection criteria. For a library, circulation has to be an element in a quality matrix; spending money on materials no one uses makes no sense. What needs to happen next is to unpack the criteria of “contemporary significance” and “popular interest”, add to them and explore some of the dilemmas bound up in them. This is the depth I’m not seeing from libraries.

      Also – you and Greg had the guts to note the self-preservation aspect of acquisition decisions and it’s great to see library folk be candid about it. Narrative coming from the library community evokes high-end ideals when tacitly most (and perhaps unwittingly) have adopted a low-end strategy for bringing people thru the doors. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are loads of ways to bolster usage of materials, staff and facilities drawn from proven techniques from other industries. I’ve articulated many in various library forums. It doesn’t mean you turn away existing patrons, it means you attenuate your practices to continue meeting their needs and bring in more patrons.
      This would require change and work though.

      In the following post, the AL said of library staff “we’re in it for the relaxation and the goodwill”. This observation has characterized most of the library folk I’ve met at all corners of the library ecosystem. It’s not laziness, per se, though it does accrue to institutionalized stagnation. This – not technology or public indifference – will be the undoing of libraries.

  17. harmonyfb says:

    I work in a small-town library. We have over 1,000 people on the waiting list for this title. I’ve never seen a wait list over 300. It’s a popular title, and a LOT of our patrons have asked for it. Since they’re the ones we’re working for, their demand for the title should trump collection policy, imo.

    Yep, it’s badly written. Yep, most of the 65-85 year old women who’ve requested this title are going to have attacks of the vapors when they read it. Yep, most of them are going to come ask the library staff to define the terms they don’t understand (no, really, ma’am, you don’t want to know what that term means. No, really.) But at the end of the day, it’s their library and their tax dollars.

  18. Dude Librarian says:

    “Two wrongs does not make a right” but being selective is also not okay. Selective policy = excuse to discriminate/censor. It’s a book. Get over it. Public libraries are there for the public and patrons. They get tax dollars…

    That crude series has an extremely large hold list at my library system too. Buying a few copies (or just one) won’t kill you.

    The library system I work at doesn’t have this selective policy. As Jean said, a concise policy should be practiced. Our policy states we try to have books that appeals to the public and tries to represent all spectrum of the public. We do have a policy against explicit pornography, which is further describes as being visually graphic, or compromising of explicit details with more than half of the said mediums. We also carry music, movies, and various other media materials. As such, erotica and romance novels stays in our systems, as do shows such as The Tudors, Game of Thrones, and Sex and the City which include many sexual scenes. The way our policy is worded does so that real porn can and will be omitted from our collection. We would not carry videos one would find in an adult (+18) video store because they fall outside of our policy.

    I’m not advocating libraries carry explicit porn, or allow porngraphy. I’m advocating for libraries to have a more defined policy. I would like to see how this Maryland library’s actual policy is. If it’s thinly worded and at the discretion of that librarian (whoever heads collections), then it’s it is subjective.

    As it stands now, it is censorship. And you’re using the excuse of porn to make your stand. I don’t consider Fifty porn. You do. Well, see what we have here. It’s all subjective opinions.

    Dan as a gay man, those repairative therapy are all crock. If you were to really sit down and talk with all those folks claiming to be “healed,” they aren’t. Homosexuality is not a disease, but low and behold we have ex-gay books in our library system and when I entered this system, I did nothing to process the removal of those misguided books. I would assume if you can you would ban all books about homosexuality.

    As I stated, a broad selective policy is just an excuse to discriminate. The policy must be concise and clear.

  19. Cynthia R says:

    I think censorship is wrong in anyway. Especially when it comes to books. Lolita was also a banned book. If you don’t like a particular book, don’t request it and then read it. It is a bestseller and libraries must be cconsumer oriented these days. As to whether it is well-written, I would say that many bestsellers are not. But they are in high demand.

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