British libraries to rate books like films

To encourage reading, librarians will assess 1,000 books for sex,violence, 'optimism.' Rating to be put on Internet.

Britain already sets tough limits on how much sex and violence can be shown on television and at the movies. Now it is about to produce a grading system for books in public libraries.

Thirty-three librarians will spend the next 12 months assembling a national register of 1,000 books ranging from contemporary fiction to great works of literature such as William Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" and Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities."

The librarians will assess each title for sexual, violent, and emotional content, as well as optimism and other factors. The tabulated results will be available on the Internet to potential library-book borrowers.

The plan is dividing authors. Some welcome the idea, while others attack it as unnecessary or likely to mislead readers.

Will Self, author of contemporary novels that he says "rate zero for optimism," thinks book borrowers "have a right to know what they are about to read." But fellow novelist Fay Weldon dismissed the plan as "laughable." It would result in "nobody reading anything that might take them by surprise," she told the London Times.

The effort was hailed by Lisa Jardine, professor of literature at London's Queen Mary College, as "sensible and welcome."

Rachel Van Riel, director of Britain's Society of Chief Librarians, which is coordinating the project, says the aim is to "make it possible for readers to decide how much sex and violence, or happiness or sadness, they want in anything they take from the shelves."

She notes that librarians often give verbal advice to book borrowers and sees the Internet register as "a natural extension" of the same process.

Sherry Jespersen, director of Britain's Library Association, says the register "will be a great service to readers, and the hope is that it will extend the range of people's reading."

Ms. Jespersen says the idea for the project arose with a group of librarians who saw the advantages of using the Internet for this purpose. It is being paid for by a 300,000 ($487,000) grant from the National Lottery Fund. The register will eventually be expanded to include reviews of 5,000 books.

BRITONS are no strangers to official or semiofficial entertainment guidelines for television, videos, and movies.

TV channels observe a 9 p.m. "watershed," waiting until that hour to air programs considered unsuitable for children.

The system is overseen by a trio of watchdogs: the Independent Television Commission, which polices commercial TV; the Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC); and the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association.

The BSC has a reputation for responding carefully to viewers' complaints - and for condemning transgressions by TV companies. It can require them to publish BSC findings.

The BSC also carries out its own research into the on-screen portrayal of sex and violence.

In January, chairwoman Lady Howe, the wife of a former foreign secretary, said a BSC survey had shown many viewers believed they were "being exploited by broadcasters." Offending programs included American imports such as "The Jerry Springer Show" and "Ricki Lake."

Lady Howe said: "Broadcasters have to understand that while audiences have become more relaxed about the portrayal of sexual activity, there is not a universal climate of tolerance.... There is a touch of cynicism creeping in. People feel they're being exploited for ratings."

In Britain, all movies and videos are viewed ahead of release by the Board of Film Classification, which has the power to rate films in terms of sex and violence, as well as to order cuts or total bans.

By deciding to offer guidelines to readers, the United Kingdom's more than 5,000 public libraries will be breaking new ground. But they will not be engaged in censorship, Ms. Van Riel says, adding, "We want to help people make choices and to make reading itself more attractive."

There is likely to be some argument among librarians before firm decisions can be made about individual books.

The London Times this week asked literary experts to "rate" Emily Bront's "Wuthering Heights," a Victorian-era classic.

Novelist Jilly Cooper gave it one point out of 10 for violence, but Professor Jardine said it deserved seven points.

Both, however, agreed that "Wuthering Heights," portraying the tempestuous relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff, hit the top of the scale for "bleakness."

As for the novel's sexual content, Ms. Cooper gave it nine out of 10, while Jardine said she could find "no sex, only obsession."

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