Harford librarian drew the correct 'Grey' line

June 06, 2012

All the fuss about the Harford County Public Library's director, Mary Hastler, choosing to keep "Fifty Shades of Grey," an erotic novel with generous gobs of sadomasochism, by British author E.L James, from off the shelves has met with condemnations of censorship. But library heads have broad decision making powers about what books they will or will not stock. The novel has become a sensation and other libraries have long waiting lists of eager readers who want the book. But some reading materials are simply not suitable for adolescents, and once a book is on the shelves it cannot be kept out of the hands of kids who shouldn't be reading it without parental guidance or consent.

"Fifty Shades" is no more than pornography masquerading as literature. It has no redeeming value for kids between the ages of 14 to 18 years. This is a country where sexual trafficking, child pornography and sexual exploitation of young girls and boys are of grave concern. Campus rapes, date rape drugs, sexual abuse and unequal relationships are pervasive and problematic here. Novels about kinky sex may be perfectly fine for adults, but when middle school and early high school age children line up to borrow such books, then libraries are placed in the unsavory position of becoming purveyors of smut to the young and the impressionable. Those who defend sadomasochism as acceptable among mutually consenting adults and those who comment that the popularity of the book among moms exemplifies that women are now less inhibited or guilty about their own sexuality and hence are prepared to read, discuss and incorporate taboo sexual content in their own lives, miss the point.

At what age is this kind of subject matter appropriate for reading and discussion? Will the moms who are so taken with this novel be happy if their tweens borrowed this book secretly and read it or practiced what was written there? Where do we draw the line? Do libraries have the right to defend their own right to keep materials off the shelf that are unfit for young readers, or should libraries stock them anyway and keep them out of the hands of certain age groups? Dominance, submission, physical pain and pleasure in relationships, are issues that trouble grown-ups and can be unresolved even for sexually experienced adults. A head librarian has every right to call a spade a spade. If she chooses not to order a book because its content would be considered universally unsuitable for certain age groups that frequent the library, then she has made an ethical and appropriate decision. Adults who want to read such a book can always get it through other venues.

How do you block pornography once it is on the shelf in a library? And who decides what is pornography and should be kept out of the hands of children? Doesn't that job fall on the shoulders of the head librarian and her staff? To say that kids could and will read this book anyway or to contend that a library that works at the behest of taxpayers should submit to popular demand and opinion, is to take away all responsibility from librarians about deciding what is suitable exposure for their young and vulnerable patrons who have no voice in the matter. If such a decision should rest with the parents, a library still has the right not to participate in the questionable ethics of misguided parents who don't care what their children read. A library is not allowed to be a purveyor of child pornography.

Why should it be goaded into becoming a purveyor of soft porn to kids via the back door of adult demand for such material? The cry of censorship from those who pretend to be the upholders of the First Amendment is unfair in this case.

Usha Nellore, Bel Air

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