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Libraries indulge desire for hit novel

By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / June 7, 2012
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They may not have read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic novel that has been breaking publishing records and creating controversy around the country. But area librarians are stock­ing the book — though not nearly as fast as patrons are requesting it.

The novel is the most-requested book in the Minuteman Library Network, where more than 1,800 people are on waiting lists at member institutions, and that doesn’t include those who are seeking audio or e-book versions. And it doesn’t include the two other books in the trilogy by British author E. L. James, “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed.”

The books are not getting much shelf time. Every one of the copies held by the Minuteman network’s 37 public libraries is checked out.

“What we do is we buy heavily in response to demand,” said Marcia Rich, director of Acton Memorial Library. “If you come to me as an adult and say, ‘I really want to read this book, I’m curious, my friends and neighbors are talking about it,’ we’re going to say, ‘No, we don’t think you should’? Come on.”

But in some parts of the country, libraries have decided “Fifty Shades of Grey” wasn’t appropriate for their community, and declined to order any copies. Some later reversed their decision.

Kate Tranquada, director of the Waltham Public Library, polled her colleagues about “Fifty Shades of Grey” as the Minuteman network’s directors talked about the policy for selecting digital material. While the Minuteman’s member libraries purchase their collections independently, the network also buys digital versions of books to share.

“It really was helpful because it was a great example why you can’t strictly go by quality of writing or popularity with reviewers,” Tranquada said.

She, like other librarians, has been bemused by the sudden, publicity-driven attention to the book’s racy content.

“We have all kinds of romance books and other fine literature that has steamy stuff in it,” Tranquada said.

“It’s not necessarily a brand-new thing. It’s just got attention. If you want to read steamy scenes, they’ve been in the library a long time.”

She said Minuteman has received some complaints about its other choices for e-books. The online catalog shows each book’s cover, and some sex guides have provocative covers (and titles).

Rich remembers one complaint about the third novel in the E. L. James series, “Fifty Shades of Freed,” whose cover features a photograph of handcuffs. But Rich was undeterred. “I said police procedurals probably have handcuffs,” she said.

Librarians say they are obliged to provide patrons with open access, no matter what they think about individual titles.

“Once you make an exception to that rule, the bar keeps going down, not up,” said Cheryl Abdullah, director of the Dover Town Library. “I really am concerned about somebody setting a bar and saying no, ‘You can’t read that,’ or ‘You can’t have access to that.’ ”

None of the region’s librarians said they had read the entire book, although Abdullah said she started it. “I stopped,” she said. “The writing was bad. It was so boring. I didn’t care anything about the characters.”

Still, she said, “I tried. I gave it a good, honest shot.”

Dover has two print copies of the book and one e-book version for Kindle readers.

“It’s amazing the old ladies that come in and ask for it,” Abdullah said.

In Massachusetts, there is no controversy about where the books are displayed — if for no other reason than requests from patrons are so backed up, the books don’t spend much time in the library.

Rich remembers trying to take out “The Group,” Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel about eight Vassar graduates, from her local library when she was a high school student.

“I don’t think you’d enjoy it,” the librarian said, and put it under the desk.

The incident made her even more determined to read the book, she said. Within a few weeks, she had found another copy.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at

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