Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Erotica in Public Libraries

The decision to purchase erotic novels in public libraries is often quite controversial. Institutions opposed to purchasing such titles use a variety of reasons (such as budgetary concerns) to justify their decision. Libraries in favor of purchasing erotic novels often argue against censorship in libraries to rationalize their choice. Ultimately, the decision to include such titles within a library’s collection is based on a variety of factors: the library’s collection development policy and budget, library views on censorship, and the community in which the library is situated. In addition to these factors comes the most important issue to be addressed: is public access to erotic novels what our patrons need and want?

Research on the addition of more erotic titles into libraries began decades ago. A 1970’s study found that the majority (76%) of Americans polled felt that librarians should keep erotic titles out of the public library setting (White, 1981). However, it is important to note that the term used when questioning individuals in this study was “objectionable material”, which has negative connotations and may have encouraged respondents toward a more conservative viewpoint toward censorship (White, 1981). Not surprisingly, the minority of survey respondents (those in favor of allowing what could be considered “objectionable material” on the shelves) reported themselves as college-educated males that did not regularly attend church and possessed stronger liberal viewpoints than conservative (White, 1981). Clearly this representative sample of the American public did not support the inclusion of more suggestive titles into the collection, but that does not mean that views are still the same, more than 40 years later.

If the sales of erotic novels are any clue as to the public’s support, it is safe to say that they are well received. Even if the public as a whole tends to be against erotica, it must be determined if what the public says and what is actually done by the public reflect one another accurately. Previously, the majority of individuals may have opposed libraries purchasing erotic novels and providing access to them on library shelves, but their current private purchasing habits suggest a stronger interest in literature of this genre. For example, online erotica retailer Ellora’s Cave increased sales by 20% between the years 2005 and 2006 (Patrick, 2006). This dramatic increase in sales suggests that readers are interested in purchasing these titles and hungry for more. Though reports over the past few years admit a bit of a plateau in erotica sales, there is still a strong market for these titles (Bond, 2009).

Any library that considers purchasing erotica (or other rather steamy titles) must prepare for the inevitable issue involving an offended community member. For every patron delighted by the availability of these stories in the collection, there will be (at least) one that may be disturbed by the content. Unfortunately for libraries, individuals offended by one choice out of a catalog filled with 341,109 other materials are likely to yell louder than the individuals who had no issues with any library materials. Even more unfortunately for libraries, offended persons are likely to be upset over materials much milder than erotica. The American Library Association compiles a list of materials that have been challenged across the country and some of the titles appear to be quite trivial compared to the potential issues that could arise from purchasing erotica. The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye and The Grapes of Wrath are some classic materials known to offend (American Library Association, 2012). Librarians choosing to indulge in an erotica collection must be aware of their library’s policies regarding material collection in order to properly address any issues that may arise with disgruntled patrons.

Fortunately for librarians in the midst of encountering an offended patron, there are a variety of materials available that can help explain the library’s policies and hopefully neutralize the situation. First, librarians should be aware of the collection development policies in place at their particular institution. Many libraries provide statements to justify virtually any purchasing decision, similar to this “[A goal of the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library is] to provide materials in the areas of opposing viewpoints and controversy, representing all sides of these areas, that as citizens we may develop logical, critical thinking, and evaluation” (Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, 2012). Essentially, libraries are able to collect whatever items they feel are necessary, even if the items may offend some individuals. Librarians are able to use these collection development policies as established, written proof of the library’s purchasing procedures. Secondly, many public libraries support the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement, which passionately states:

“there is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression” (American Library Association, Freedom to Read Statement, 2012).

Librarians are given many tools to argue against the removal of objectionable material from the library, and should be prepared to use them when necessary.

One argument made by librarians which supports the non-collection of erotic materials in libraries is that the writing in such titles is not very well developed, and that the portion of the budget used to purchase such materials would be best suited for more literary items. Though it is likely that the newest Zane novel will not compare with a classic like Anna Karenina, many libraries will serve a greater number of patrons through the former than the latter. Yes, part of the mission of public libraries is to educate community members, but how can that happen if community members see the library as a stuffy place with snooty books? Sometimes it is necessary for libraries to buy slightly less developed materials to bait hesitant community members, and perhaps use this interaction to provide them with supplemental materials.

However, is this what public libraries are all about? Sure, we want to educate our patrons and encourage them to grow, but we do not want that encouragement to come at the price of alienation. Many librarians were known a century ago for being anti-fiction, feeling that such rubbish was a waste of time and encouraged idleness. It is likely that in a century librarians will feel similarly about current librarians that do not recognize the importance of erotica within the library. It is not our place to judge what the reader chooses, after all, “The Five Laws of Librarian Science” according to Ranganathan states “every reader his (or her) book, and every book its reader” (Wikipedia, 2012). There is a time and a place for erotica and it should not be the librarian’s decision to determine which materials are more suitable in terms of literary value for individuals.

Literary value has a time and a place in libraries, but it should not necessarily be at the expense of use. As many libraries are now realizing, classic literature is not necessarily highly consumed by their communities. Some libraries in Virginia are pulling and removing “classic” titles, such as For Whom the Bell Tolls, from their shelves because they haven’t been checked out in at least two years (Miller, 2007). Libraries absolutely must be aware of their community’s unique needs and adjust their collection development policy to suit what is most beneficial to patrons. What is the point of having a large collection of materials that no one wants to use? Libraries are not simply archives. While it is important to have a diverse collection of materials available to the public, some materials will clearly need to take precedence over others. Many public libraries would serve their patrons and communities better were they to provide access to an entire set of World Books rather than a large collection of erotica novels. However, if the budget is available and community members are actively seeking titles from the erotica genre, it is important that public libraries are able to provide access to a collection of such materials.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that patrons will actively search for and request such titles is a bit questionable. Many community members may be embarrassed to request erotic materials or to be seen reading them, and may therefore hide their interest in accessing them through public libraries. Fortunately, recent technological advancements are likely to help combat this shyness, as erotica e-books are becoming increasingly popular. Between 2006 and 2007 there was a 20% increase in e-book sales from Wild Rose Press, and it is likely that a significant portion of the increase was from erotica titles, as they are 10 times more successful than any other releases (Robbins, 2008). Providing these titles in a variety of formats is likely to appeal to a larger number of library users. However, it is still important that librarians are able to welcome patrons that may show apprehension for requesting more risqué literature, because that interaction has the ability to make or break the patron’s trust.

Public libraries have a duty to provide their communities with access to a variety of materials, and that may include erotica. If erotica sales are any clue as to their popularity, it is clear that the general public is interested in pursuing these titles. Librarians must be tuned in to the needs of their community members and potentially be able to provide these materials in a variety of formats while tactfully discussing them with interested patrons. In the cases of opposition to such materials, librarians should be well versed in their library’s collection development policy and the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement, which demands a variety of viewpoints be made available. Most importantly, librarians need to realize what is truly utilized by their community and attempt to somewhat meet their needs, because an unused library is a wasted library, and dangling the appealing fruit of erotic novels at tentative or doubtful users may open up a whole new literary world to them.


American Library Association. (2012). Freedom to read statement.

American Library Association. (2012). Reasons for challenges to classics.

Bond, G. (2009). Selling sex in a recession. Publishers Weekly, 256(31), 16-20. Retrieved from Library Literature & Information Full Text March 3, 2012

Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library. (2012). Library materials selection policy: Statement of policy.

Miller, J. (2007). Should libraries’ target audience be cheapskates with mass-market tastes? Wall Street Journal

Patrick, B. K. (2006). It’s not just you- it really is hot in here. Publisher’s Weekly, 253(29), 23-26. Retrieved from Library Literature & Information Full Text March 3, 2012

Robbins, S. J. (2008). The new e- in erotica. Publishers weekly, 255(5), 25-32. Retrieved from Library Literature & Information Full Text March 3, 2012

White, H. D. (1981). Library censorship and the permissive minority. The Library Quarterly, 51(2), 192-207. Retrieved from JSTORE March 2, 2012.

Wikipedia. (2012). Five laws of library science.

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