“I owe my career to Librarians,” said cartoonist David Roman, author of the kids graphic novels, Astronaut Academy, and the forthcoming Teen Boat, a comment that set the tone for the PW panel at Comic-Con 2013, “What’s next for graphic novels in libraries.” Organized by PW graphic novel reviews editor Heidi MacDonald, the panel served as a followup report on her May feature, “How Graphic Novels became the hottest section in the library,” and surveyed both the upbeat current markeplace as well as possible obstacles to growth.
The panel brought together a mix of librarians, including Eva Volin from the Alameda Free Library, academic librarian Karen Green from Columbia University and Scott Robins from the Toronto Public Library. In addition to Roman, the artist, the panel also included Josh Elder, account director at iVerse Media, and developer of iVerse’s Comics Plus: Library Edition, an online pay-per-checkout digital comics lending service. Launched at the ALA in June and on display here during Comic-con, CPLE offers a low-cost way to bypass many of the frustrating issues interfering with the ability of libraries to offer e-book lending to their patrons.
Volin said her first job was at a library under siege from a challenge over Phoebe Gleockner’s A Child’s Life, an explicit semi-autobio graphic novel, that threatened the removal of the graphic novel collection. She weathered that threat and now she has eight bays of book format comics in her library. Green, a medieval history librarian by trade as well as lover of comics, put together a proposal to start a graphic novel collection at Columbia—comics, after all were born in New York— and to her surprise, the library leadership accepted.
Green started with an annual budget of $4,000 for graphic novels; its now $19,000 “and keeps going up” she said. The collection has 4,200 volumes and Green has also been xactive, organizing a academic research resource around the graphic novel collection. X-Men writer Chris Claremont and Elfquest creators Wendy and Richard Pini have both donated their Archives to Columbia,’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library—and most recently, AL Jafee, the longtime Mad magazine cartoonist (creator of the fold-in cartoon) donated his archives, full of work from his years at Esquire, Playboy as well as Mad magazine. “CU is becoming a center for academic discipline and the study of comics,” she said,
Robins’ position at the Toronto Public Library seems like comics nirvana. TPL has 98 branches and the library has a long term relationship with The Beguiling, Toronto’s superlative comics shop, and its Little Island Kids comics shop. Over the last 15 years, the Beguiling created the Toronto Public Library’s graphic novel collection. Through a partnership withTPL, it gives the Beguiling a budget and they make the selections. “We circulate a lot graphic novels,” Robins said, “Our collections are wide and deep and we buy everything for kids and adults.”
But while the librarians hailed recent progress building their own comics collections, they also acknowledged problems. While teens and kids comics are booming, adult collections, or the lack of them remain a problem. “Adult collections are the final frontier,” Volin said, “teen librarians get it but adult librarians still think graphic novels are for teens and kids.”
Elder offered his service, Comics Plus: Library Edition, as a possible answer for many of the problems around digital lending. Elder, whose mother is a school librarian, developed the service and took it to iVerse. CPLE is cloud-based, offers 7,000 titles from about 80 publishers and the books are borrowed temporarily disappear when the loan period ends. “Librarians set a budget ceiling,” Elder said, and its monitored by the software which halts lending when the limit is reached (the system also comes with a large supply of free comics that patrons can read if the service is suspended). “You won’t overreach your budget,” Elder said. The service costs the library about 50 cents per checkout, offers unlimited simultaneous checkout (library e-book licenses are generally treated like physical books, a limited number of titles can be on loan at one time), and he claims the system is easy to use. “It’s access not ownership,” Elder said, “physical graphic novels circulate really well but they can expensive, they deteriorate and there’s theft. Digital can solve a lot of these problems.”
There are are still problems when it comes to certain kinds of libraries using digital: Green’s academic library is not driven by circulation—“some of the books in my medieval collection will not be read in my lifetime”—they need a professional mediator to curate their book acquisition. “Patron driven acquisitions are fraught,” Green said, “we’d love a subscription model. We subscribe to Oxford and EBSCO digital subscription services, and anyone with a University ID can get access. But comics publishers seem uninterested.”
In addition, the array of digital hardware and software can still be a problem for some patrons to navigate. Most of the librarians had tried OverDrive, the digital library vendor, which offers a limited selection of comics titles, but said the service is “glitchy” and difficult to use. And the issue of metadata is really critical, Elder said, because comics publishers have never heard of it. “They don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what a MARC record is, there’s no ONIX feed, no metadata. It’s a huge problem. Even if you have the books in your system, the library system won’t see them if they don’t have metadata.”
But digital allows you “multi-tag,” a work when it needs to be “cross shelved” Roman pointed. He also responded to a question about what creators can do individually to get graphic novels into libraries, suggesting readings (by projecting the comics so the audience can follow) or live drawing at libraries.. “You can’t rely on your publisher,” he said, “you have to be a performer to some extent.”