Graphic novels will take center stage, literally, at this year's American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington DC on June 24-29. While graphic novels have become a mainstay at ALA and other library events, this year’s annual conference will feature three days of panels, author events, previews and other scheduled programming all focused on comics and graphic novels and the continued growth and development of the category in libraries.
A special Gaming/Graphic Novel Pavilion on the exhibit floor will feature publishers' booths, a gaming area, and a series of panels about graphic novels. Scheduled programs include book talks by authors Tracy White (How I Made It to Eighteen), Geoffrey Hayes (Benny and Penny), NBA nominated David Small (Stitches) and Raina Telgemeier (Smile); previews of new graphic novels from publishers Dark Horse, IDW, Toon Books, W.W. Norton, Hermes Press, and Abrams; and panels on everything from running graphic novel events to the sociology of superheroes. In addition, this reporter will be participating in two comics panels at ALA: The Best Manga You're Not Reading, and Good Comics for Kids.
"The three-days-all-day approach this year is an amazing step forward, and I hope it signals a change to more panels and events at future meetings," said Martha Cornog, co-editor of Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Insights and Issues for Libraries. "Now we don’t have just one panel on teen comics, but many panels about comics for everyone: children, teens, and adults. Also, the variety in approaches seems new this year, with quite a few panels on topics other than collection development."
The programming was organized by John Shableski, sales manager at Diamond Book Distributors. He estimates that sales to libraries account for about 7 to 10 percent of the U.S. graphic novel market, but those sales are influential beyond their numbers. "Libraries are like radio stations: You hear the song on the radio and you buy the record," he said. "They have a much greater impact on the market than most people appreciate."
"Libraries are an extremely important market for graphic novels," said Rich Johnson, a consultant and writer who was a former v-p of book trade sales for DC Comics and former co-publisher of Yen Press. "Not only are they able to get books into a lot of hands, they actively promote the medium in their libraries and encourage kids to read."
Graphic novels are a boon to librarians because they are so popular; circulation numbers are one measure of a library's vitality, and graphic novels can give them a boost. "Over the years, when I was at DC Comics and Yen Press, librarians would tell me the circulation numbers are extremely high for graphic novels," said Johnson. "That a graphic novel has a shorter shelf life than most books because they are read so often that they fall apart quicker. This leads me to believe that graphic novels are bringing people into libraries."
The word "comics" first appeared in library magazines in 1943, said Cornog, but they were initially viewed in a negative light, and it was decades before the medium achieved full acceptance—helped along by a 1974 article by creator Will Eisner in Library Journal. "The year 2002 has been considered the breakthrough year, the year when the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) chose 'Get Graphic @ Your Library!' as its theme for Teen Read Week, and held a preconference on the same theme at the ALA annual meeting that year," said Cornog.
Johnson first came to the ALA meeting in 1998, when he worked for DC Comics. "I believe I was the only representative from a comic book publisher there," he said. "I had a table in the Small Press section. Diamond had a small booth not too far away. My experience there was mixed—I had more than one library come by look at my sign and say—with more than a little disdain in their voice—'DC Comics! What are you doing at a library show!?'"
That spurred Johnson to prove that comics and graphic novels do have a place in libraries. "I worked with ALA Graphics to develop a line of posters using the DC Comics iconic characters," he said. "We held discussions with the OCLC to try to create a Dewey Decimal number for graphic novels. Soon other publishers were getting booths at the conference. Right behind me was Dark Horse—who quickly saw the potential for libraries to get behind the medium and grow the category." He also credited librarians such as Michelle Gorman, Kat Kan, Robin Brenner, and Mike Pawuk, who not only promoted graphic novels but shared their expertise with their peers. "But what ultimately drives the category are the books," he said. "Once they were on the shelves, they proved their value and became an important part of the library."
Still, this year's event is exceptional. "There have been two or three programs for each annual [meeting], but this amount of programming and this intensity I totally new for this show," said Shableski. He credited the Great Graphic Novels for Teens task force for putting graphic novels on the radar for librarians. "They created a standard," he said. "They created a list that is now in great demand because it has become a resource for librarians who are just now being allowed to collect graphic novels."
Some librarians at ALA will be looking for basic information, Shableski said, while others will already be familiar with the form. "The conversation for this show is mostly going to be at the intermediate level, but for those who are novices, the information won't be going over their heads," he said.
"The kinds of programs we have scheduled talk to some key issues that the librarians are all facing: The art of collection development, how to create effective and popular programs by collaborating with schools and comic shops, the amazing value of graphic novel circulation, the science and sociology behind the superhero genre, and the impact librarians have had on the publishing industry as a whole," he said. "There are also some bonus events like the Art of Graphic Novel Editing and numerous author events."
Shableski is particularly excited about Superbooks, a presentation by Christian Zabriskie, assistant coordinator for youth services at the Queens Library. "That is a huge deal," he said. "You are talking about something that has a serious impact on the circulation numbers. When you can show actual proof of what these books are capable of generating for your library, it makes you look at your entire collection.