Karen Green isn’t your typical comic book fan. As a Columbia University librarian specializing in medieval and ancient history, there was no reason for her to lead a charge championing the medium of comics and their role in higher education, but that’s exactly what she’s done. In the last five years, Green has launched a column called “Comics Adventures in Academia” at Comixology.com, successfully made the case for the literary legitimacy of comics at one of the most elite schools in the nation, and transformed Columbia’s collection of graphic novels from a paltry few to over 800 books and climbing. Green talked with PW Comics Week about how she made it happen and why comics publishers need to pay more attention to academic libraries — and librarians like her.
PW Comics Week: How did you initially get involved with comics as a librarian?
Karen Green: Everybody says we’re living in this new golden age [of comics], and about five years ago, I got caught up in it. And I wanted to be able to get these [graphic novels] from the library, because they’re expensive, and I get paid like a librarian. So I thought, how can I pitch this to the library and make them understand that this is something we should be collecting, because it’s good?
So I made three arguments. One was increasing exposure in the mainstream critical press, and I brought New York Times and New Yorker reviews [of comics]. I also went into the MLA bibliography and looked up people like Alan Moore and found all the scholarly articles that had been written. I went into the dissertion abstracts database and looked up Art Spiegelman, and saw all the dissertations that were being written on comics. And I held it all up [in the meeting] and said, this is scholarship. People are writing about this at university presses.
Second, Columbia has a film school. And it’s not just that comics are raw material for films, but films have in such a great degree been affected by the techniques that are used in graphic narrative. And my third argument was, we’re a New York institution, and comics are a New York institution. To me, they’re the ultimate thing that New York has produced. This is where they were born, this is where most of them are set, either in actual New York or surrogate New York. So I marshaled these three arguments, and I brought in Watchmen, and the Bill Sienkiewicz Daredevil and Edward Gorey — whom I also consider to be under this umbrella.
PWCW: It’s odd sometimes, how certain artists are not really considered part of the comics canon for some reason.
KG: I consider Edward Gorey part of the canon. He might not have considered himself part of the canon, but compare the average wordless Gorey book with anything that’s coming out of Drawn and Quarterly. He’d fit right in.
PWCW: Was there any resistance to bringing comics into the library after your presentation?
KG: No. Unless you count the fact that nobody wanted to have responsibility for it themselves. I brought in our rare books librarian, our fine arts librarian, our assistant head of development, the Anglo-American literature librarian, and my boss, the director of the history and humanities libraries, because I didn’t know who would want to claim this if we decided to fund it. And happily, no one claimed it. Everyone was fine with it coming to me.
PWCW: Well, that’s one of the issues some bookstores have as well — the problem of how to categorize comics.
KG: Spiegelman said the same thing about Maus, actually, about three years ago when these sections in bookstores were starting to gear up and gain ground. And he said, they want to shelve Maus in the graphic novel section, but it’s not a novel. It’s nonfiction. But now a lot of the stuff in the graphic novel section is nonfiction. And that’s because they are treating it like a genre when it’s a medium.
There’s also no easy way to pull up all the graphic novels in a library catalog, because there’s no unifying subject heading that’s used for all of them. Library of Congress has started adding in “graphic novels” as a descriptor, but that only started four years ago, so anything that was catalogued before then won’t have it. So it can be hard to get an overview of how things are circulating. I can tell you though that when I look up [comics] titles in my spreadsheet of books I’ve bought, I would say that at any given moment, 40%-50% are checked out. And occasionally someone will figure out that I’m the one buying this stuff and I’ll get e-mails from students saying, “Oh my god I just discovered the graphic novels section. This is the greatest thing that ever happened!”
PWCW: Have you found the faculty to be supportive of comics as well?
KG: Faculty support can be very important to making things happen. We actually have a professor of Middle Eastern history here who’s a hardcore fanboy, which I learned inadvertently when I was talking to a colleague in an elevator about the pitch for the collection. The dean of the college was in the elevator, and she said, you should talk to Richard Lewis! He’s been trying to teach a course on comics. So I sent him an email, and he sent me this wonderful email back about why he thought that comics were an important source for study. He said—at least historically, not with today’s comics—you had this self-selected set of adolescent boys who read this and whose worldviews were shaped by it, and then they grow up and they run the world. And the morality that they’ve developed is in great part developed by that, so don’t you think it’s important to think about what these people were influenced by and look at these texts in that context?
PWCW: Do you feel like the comics industry has done enough outreach to librarians like you?
KG: It’s been kind of publisher to publisher. I go to ALA, I go to Comic-Con, and I give them my card. They’re all lovely when I meet them, but some are better than others in following up. Maybe I’m being unrealistic, but I’d like to see that [outreach] on a continuing basis. I get a little frustrated that so much of the attention in the industry toward libraries is towards public libraries. I would love to see more attention paid to [academic] libraries. Our market is smaller, but I feel like we’re a gateway.
One other thing I would like to see is probably impossible. We have a database called Book Review Digest, where you can look up any book that’s been reviewed by both mainstream or academic presses. I would like to see something like that for comics, and that would have to take blogs into accounts. If I’m looking at a book that has come out or is about to come out, I’d like to have one stop shopping—one place to go to see what everybody is saying about it, and get the full spectrum of response.
PWCW: How can publishers encourage course adoptions of their titles on the university level?
KG: I think it’s through the librarians who liaise with the faculty. Because the average professor here who saw a letter from DC Comics would not pay it a whole lot of mind. And it’s a little bit about considering the source. We [librarians] have the jobs that we have because we have advanced degrees. Professors trust us. They trust us, and so when we say “Oh, do you know about this?” they don’t blow it off. We listen to them; they listen to us. And the publishers don’t have that relationship with them.
PWCW: What is the best way to reach academic librarians who perhaps aren’t familiar with the comics medium?
KG: I think through library literature, and through the librarians who have drunk the Kool Aid. [laughs] The librarians who have seen the light. Librarians listen to other librarians, and then professors listen to librarians. Also, we have publications. There’s the American Library Association, and then there are divisions within ALA like ACRL, the Association of College and Research Libraries. That’s what all the academic librarians belong to, and the College and Research Libraries (C&RL) research journal and C&RL News are great ways for librarians to reach their colleagues.