Even in the age of e-books and tablets, banning a book from a public library still carries weight because libraries still play such a vital role in providing people access to books.
"When a book is removed from the shelf, folks who can't afford a Nook or a Kindle, the book is no longer available to them," said Deborah Caldwell Stone, the deputy director of the American Library Association's office for intellectual freedom.
"Fifty Shades of Grey," a novel about bondage, wild sex and yes, love, has been called "mommy porn" because of its popularity among middle-aged women. It has become so well-known that "Saturday Night Live" performed a skit about it, joking that a Kindle with "Fifty Shades" uploaded on it was the perfect Mother's Day gift.
This week, the steamy books hold the top three spots on the New York Times best-seller list.
Libraries in Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida have all either declined to order the book or pulled it from shelves. Other states may soon follow.
"It's semi-pornographic," said Don Walker, a spokesman for Brevard County, Fla., where the library put 19 copies of the book on the shelves then pulled the novel after reading reviews about it. Some 200 notices had to go out to people on a waiting list to read it.
Librarians in at least four Florida counties have declined to buy the book – even though hundreds of people have requested it. Reasons range from not having the money to poor reviews.
"It doesn't suit our community standards," said Cay Hohmeister, director of libraries for Leon County – where Florida's capital, Tallahassee, is located. In Gwinnett County, Ga., a suburb northeast of Atlanta, all 15 library branches will not carry the book.
"We do not collect erotica at Gwinnett County Public Library. That's part of our materials management collection policy. So, E L James' three books in the trilogy fit that description," said Deborah George, the county library's director of materials management.
A copy of "Fifty Shades" sits on George's cluttered desk. Wedged in it are nearly a dozen yellow sticky notes at various pages of sultriness.
In a nutshell, here's the plot: Anastasia Steele, a virgin who has just graduated college, meets Christian Grey, a rich and impeccably handsome young entrepreneur. Grey shows Steele his "playroom," full of whips, ropes and sex toys, and asks her to sign a contract to be his "submissive" sex partner. Before Steele signs, the pair romp mostly around Seattle – where the novel is set – performing a stunning array of erotic activities. As the sex gets more daring and Steele's emotions more tangled, drama ensues.
Here's one of the milder excerpts from the book:
"But last night, in the playroom, you..." he trails off.
"I do it for you, Christian, because you need it. I don't. You didn't hurt me last night. That was in a different context, and I can rationalize that internally, and I trust you. But when you want to punish me, I worry that you'll hurt me.
His gray eyes blaze like a turbulent storm. Time moves, and expands and slips away before he answers softly.
"I want to hurt you. But not beyond anything that you couldn't take."
Books with sexual content, and just as controversial as "Fifty Shades," have long been – at least for a time – banned during their debuts. Gwinnett County, Ga., carries about a million books in its system, including the steamy passages from Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" and Vladimir Nabokov's provocative "Lolita." These and other novels have gone on to reach best-seller lists quickly, and some are taught in public classrooms.
Library collections should be diverse, the American Library Association said, but should also reflect what people want to read. And decisions on what to buy shouldn't be based on content alone – budgetary constraints, shelf space and bad reviews all come into play.
A book's provenance also can make a difference. Some libraries have policies against acquiring self-published books or books published by non-traditional means.
The "Fifty Shades" trilogy took a non-traditional route to its paperback form: the author self-published in e-reader form, and many people felt comfortable reading it on tablets because those devices kept the novel mostly private, unlike a hardcover book. It was also published by a small press in print-on-demand trade paperback editions.
Because of the books e-popularity, Vintage Books, a division of Random House Inc., acquired the rights and published them April 3. So far, the books have sold 3 million copies in all formats, the publisher said, though it wasn't clear how many were in paperback.
Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for Random House, said Brevard County is engaging in censorship by taking the book off the shelves.