According to old stereotypes, it shouldn’t work—serious librarians should want nothing to do with the raucous, pulp world of comics—and for a long time it didn’t. But over the past decade, the graphic novel category has become one of the fastest-growing at libraries of all kinds, as a new generation of librarians adopts the category as a means to energize collections and boost circulation and patronage.

The audience of children and teens is growing, critical and academic recognition has confirmed comics’ literary and artistic value, and a new shelf of modern classics has arrived. The use of comics is on the rise in educational circles as well: a recent survey by test-prep publisher Kaplan showed a third of ESL teachers use comics to help teach English, and the call for unorthodox learning materials in the new Common Core standards could result in even more attention for the growing field of nonfiction comics.

In addition, graphic novels are a key to several new initiatives for e-book lending. Comics Plus: Library Edition, a team-up between library distributor Brodart and the digital vendor iVerse Media, is a new service aimed at making digital borrowing more convenient and cost-efficient; it goes live this summer.

Pockets of resistance remain, but generational objections to comics have dissipated among librarians. “People who don’t read them or grew up at a time when they were considered poor literature still have that stigma from the 1950s,” says Robin Brenner, teen librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts and a leading crusader for comics in libraries. But it’s hard to stay dissatisfied with comics’ high circulation numbers. According to librarians surveyed for this article, graphic novels are among the most circulated categories, right up there with teen paranormal romance and DVDs.

Mike Pawuk, of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio, reports that graphic novel circulation numbers match those of popular prose teen books. In 2011, graphic novels made up about 10% of his collection but 35% of his circulation—and the number grew in 2012.

The pattern holds up in school libraries, as well. “In our library it’s 3% of the collection and 30% of our circulation,” says Esther Keller, school media specialist at JHS 278 in Marine Park, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Even at academic libraries, graphic novels are in demand. “Graphic novels are the most frequently requested material in our Ivy League request system,” says Karen Green, librarian for ancient and medieval history and graphic novel selector at Columbia University.

Despite the circulation statistics, school libraries and adult collections are slowest in building graphic novel collections. Getting accurate information on comics content has become a grail quest for many of the librarians who support GNs, and Brenner has emerged as one of the leaders in this very vocal movement. Her blog No Flying, No Tights ( has become a nexus for sharing resources among librarians hoping to build more impressive collections.

Brenner ran an informal study at the end of 2011 that examined the growth of GN collections in libraries. Of the libraries who responded, 86.9% had children’s GN collections. For YA, the percentage was 83.3%; the number of respondents with adult collections was lower, at 64.2%. Significantly, among those without GN collections, only 14.3% said that the reason was a lack of interest or support from staff, showing how widespread acceptance is in the library world (most said that space or budget cuts were the cause of the absence).

“The first rush to get graphic novels in libraries is done,” says Christian Zabriskie, assistant coordinator of young adult services at the Queens Library in New York. Future challenges include building and developing collections, and of course the overall worries of declining budgets. But here again, comics could become a secret weapon for cash-strapped libraries. Zabriskie cites a 2011 survey in which he compared a random selection of comics against a random sample of books and a list of the most popular titles, including the Harry Potter and Twilight series, and GED guides. The result was stunning: not only did the graphic novels circulate more than the mega hits; they were much more cost-efficient, at 43¢ per circ to 53¢ for the megahits.

“Building a graphic novel collection can pull up the circulation of an entire section,” he concludes.

How It All Began

So how did comics and libraries first team up to save the world, superhero-style? Although there has long been academic opposition to comics—and in earlier years the tacky material sometimes warranted some suspicions—sheer excellence eventually broke the ice. Acclaimed books like Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991) and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (1987) have spurred academic interest in comics, which opened many doors for the medium. The 2000s brought a slew of new classics as traditional publishers put out much-lauded, award-winning titles like Marjane Satropis’s Persepolis (2000), Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), Raina Telgemier’s Smile (2010), and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (2000).

Although many librarians had long been comics fans, interest seemed to take off in the early 2000s, when manga (Japanese comics) was banging down the doors of teen readers, and graphic novels began to gain serious traction in the bookstore market. A generational shift powered this acceptance, as librarians who came of age reading heady material by Moore and Neil Gaiman got purchasing power and started building collections. The circulation figures did the rest.

A huge breakthrough for both librarians and publishers came in 2002 during a particularly memorable American Library Association panel at which Gaiman, Spiegelman, Jeff Smith, and Colleen Doran introduced the medium to a rapt audience of librarians. The support in the library community was a huge revelation, recalls Pawuk, who helped organize the panel. “It was just a unique day. Neil told me that he was surprised to find librarians who were willing to learn and take it from there and run it with it.”

Doran, whose self-published A Distant Soil series is wrapping up this year, was also amazed. She had been an exhibitor at a previous ALA years before and found it wasn’t a happy environment for comics. “It was horrible, and they treated us like trash,” she recalls. “They had no interest in graphic novels.” Steeled with that memory, she went into the 2002 conference prepared for a chilly reception, but it was just the opposite. “They practically threw rose petals at our feet,” she laughs now. “It was such a positive, watershed moment.”

As librarians started sharing information on circulation and popular books, another vital tool was implemented in 2007: the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list from Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), which Pawuk was also deeply involved in. Released in conjunction with the Midwinter ALA every year, the list features graphic novels and illustrated nonfiction for ages 12–18. It not only aids libraries in finding books that audiences like but helps graphic novels receive other ALA awards. For instance Toon Books, whose titles have been included in the list, won several Geisel Awards honors, and Telgemeier’s Drama, which was on the YALSA list this year, was recognized as an honor book for the Stonewall Book Award.

As with prose books, graphic novels that win awards are more likely to be added to collections. Every librarian PW spoke to mentioned using award nominations and wins to help determine which books they should be checking out and collecting; new awards such as Penn State’s Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize and the L.A. Times Book Festival graphic novel prizes definitely have an impact on adult selections.

A stark example of this is Duncan the Wonder Dog by Adam Hines, a thick and abstruse but rewarding meditation on human and animal consciousness. According to Duncan publisher Chris Pitzer of AdHouse Books, after the title won the L.A. Times prize in 2011, book market sales soared from 39 copies in the three months leading up to the award to 2,189 the month after.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (published by First Second) is another award-winning sales success. Since becoming a National Book Award finalist in 2006, the book has been through a dozen printings and has more than 250,000 copies in print. Picking Yang to write its adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender was a major part of making the graphic novel a hit, says Dark Horse v-p of trade sales Michael Martens. “When they see his name, people pay attention.”

Connecting with Publishers

Although librarians are on board with comics, some publishers still don’t offer the information librarians want, and questions about adult and school library collections remain.

Adult collections haven’t grown as robustly as other areas, partly because of the lack of detailed information on content and themes—and because more adult books have limited audiences it’s harder to build a collection. “Some libraries just don’t know what to do with adult collections,” says Pawuk, and poor purchases won’t circulate very well.

Not knowing where to get bibliographic and content info from a publisher can be hugely frustrating, Brenner says, especially if the publisher is new and little known. “I have seen librarians get turned off when they don’t know who to talk to.” Even some companies that once had robust library programs have pulled back on them due to personnel changes. Surprisingly, the Big Two of Marvel and DC (which has a library marketing specialist) are frequently cited as companies whose books are vastly popular but don’t have clearly defined library programs.

For publishers that have jumped in, the library market can be very supportive, especially for publishers of children’s comics—including Scholastic, PaperCutz, Toon Books, and First Second. The library market contributes about one-third of First Second’s sales, says publisher Mark Siegel; the comics specialty market and bookstores are also about a third each.

Fantagraphics Books has also had success targeting the library market, thanks to its distributor, W.W. Norton, which already had a robust library program in place. “[Our library rep] said our books are always the biggest hits” at ALA, says associate publisher Eric Reynolds.

Martens recalls Dark Horse being one of only two companies that consistently targeted the library market, going back more than a decade—the other was DC Comics. Dark Horse continues to exhibit at library shows and has been working closely with distributors Baker & Taylor and Ingram to get its books into libraries. “We hand sold graphic novels at library shows for years,” he says.

Tina Coleman, member specialist at the ALA and organizer of the comics Artists Alley held at ALA each year, says publishers need to have their own relationship with the library market rather than just relying on their distributors. “It’s important to hear firsthand what the concerns are.”

School librarian Keller confirms the need for communication. “I get review copies but often times I have to buy books sight unseen. Things can take me by surprise. I finally opened the first Naruto and was shocked—there’s nudity. Whoops! I kept it on my shelf, but the point is, I might get in trouble for it and a parent might object.”

Some publishers think that libraries are still prejudiced against comics; or that comics are subject to removal because of frequent books challenges. Although challenges are a fact of life—in recent years books by figures as revered as Moore and Bechdel have been challenged—librarians have been specifically trained to deal with them, says Coleman. In fact ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has been teaming up with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to educate the public on dealing with censorship issues in libraries.

Former school librarian Carol Tilley, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, confirms that old prejudices die hardest at school libraries. Even here, however, both Tilley and Keller think things are changing. Tilley feels the adoption of Common Core will provide a huge opportunity for publishers who can provide supplementary materials—including graphic novels—and that school libraries will respond to that.

What Are They Lending?

What kind of material is being checked out? As Brenner’s statistics suggest, the emphasis is on kids and YA. Manga still has a following, especially among classic series like Naruto and Bleach. Keller recently discovered a fan base for Kindachi. Superheroes remain popular over all, and Scholastic hits such as Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet and books by Telgemeier (Smile, Drama) are heavily circulated.

Brenner says novelist and comics writer Warren Ellis is a big draw for adults at her library, along with Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (to the surprise of no one), Bill Willingham’s Fables, anything by Brian K. Vaughan and Marvel’s current hit, Hawkeye.

Strip collections and topical books like Noah Van Sciver’s recent nonfiction title about young Abraham Lincoln, The Hypo, do well, says Fantagraphics’ Reynolds. “[Medieval fantasy] Castle Waiting by Linda Medley has undeniably kicked ass in libraries but it’s also kicked ass in general,” he adds. And the acclaimed indie comics series Love and Rockets by the Herenandez Brothers also does well, “which I find amazing,” Reynolds notes.

The growth of graphic novel collections has been impressive in all kinds of libraries, but historically the academic field led the way, and that field is still growing. Both Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon collection and the Library of Congress are now collecting minicomics—quirky Xeroxed works distributed in limited quantities like fanzines.

One of the trailblazers was Michigan State University English Professor Russel B. Nye, who started a popular culture collection in the 1970s; that collection is now curated by assistant head of special collections (including the comic art collection with 250,000 items) Randy Scott. Nye was a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer so his request to start a collection couldn’t really be turned down, but it wasn’t a popular one at the time, Scott says. “Several librarians objected to the comics collection in the early 1970s” when Scott joined the staff. “I settled on a strategy of being extremely formal about the way the comics were handled and catalogued, with the hope of disarming the detractors who thought it was just frittering. It worked.”

New York’s Columbia University has also become a player in the academic field, mostly due to Green’s tireless apostolic efforts. Although she started out as the Medieval Studies librarian, Green had always been interested in comics. In 2005, she petitioned for an increase in her budget to purchase graphic novels, arguing that academic and critical acceptance of the medium made it relevant. Green got her budget increase—it’s now grown from $4,000 a year to $17,000—and nothing but support from higher-ups. Columbia has recently started acquiring historical collections, such as the papers of comics writer Chris Claremont, the man behind much of the X-Men mythos. These prestigious acquisitions are now a feather in Green’s cap for the collection. “It’s stunning how supportive the administration has been, up to the very top,” she says.

Digital Lending

Graphic novels could also be making their presence felt in the already-chaotic world of library e-book lending. While comics have been available on OverDrive, the biggest vendor for digital lending, most librarians PW spoke with are still figuring out how to handle digital collections. OverDrive’s limited catalogue of comics and costly copies haven’t taken off in budget-starved libraries. Pawuk uses the service—which basically sells digital copies to libraries at a premium price—but he echoes the limited selection and wishes monthly comics were also available.

Digital is “a huge, huge issue” Green says. “We’re in the process of hiring an e-book policy librarian.” OverDrive has not been implemented in academic libraries, and Green notes that its licensing model has problems. “If a publisher wants to start offering packages to subscribe to, that would be spectacular.”

Brenner says she rarely gets requests for digital comics, which to her is a sign that they are being pirated. However she sees a larger market if more titles were available. “My ultimate wish or desire is for my library to get a sub to Comixology,” the biggest digital comics distributor, she says. “That would be a beautiful thing.”

Comics Plus: Library Edition, a new player on the scene, hopes to make something like Brenner’s dream come true. The program is powered by digital comics vendor iVerse Media and traditional library supply distributor Brodart. It’s the brainchild of Josh Elder, another busy comics apostle and founder of Reading with Pictures, a venture that is working to develop a textbook in comics form for school use.

According to Elder, Comics Plus, which launches in beta this summer, will offer a broad-based subscription model—libraries spend a certain amount of money and are charged for each check out, a digital file that self-deletes in two weeks. Advantages over print are discoverability and range of material. “The number of titles in your catalogue increases by an order of magnitude, and the efficiency goes way up. If a book is circulating a lot, you buy the print edition, too,” Elder says. Elder’s research included number-crunching to show that the digital lending system is profitable for all. The cost is about 50¢ per checkout, comparable to the cost of print comics; and it’s actually more profitable for publishers. “On a typical checkout a publisher makes 9¢ to 15¢. With our system, [the publisher] gets 30¢—literally everybody wins.”

Still, digital lending remains an area of confusion for publishers and libraries. Some publishers are waiting to see how it shakes out, and not all of iVerse’s regular comics publishers have signed up yet—perhaps for the usual reasons of fearing piracy. But the digital model does solve problems, like keeping all 80 volumes of Naruto in stock—which may be one reason that Viz had been among the biggest publishers to sign up.

One publisher that’s embracing digital lending is Archaia, which specializes in handsome hardcover editions of fantasy and sci-fi graphic novels, such as A Tale of Sand and Mouse Guard. Archaia president and COO Jack Cummins says that digital lending is a way for Archaia’s titles to be more discoverable, “and we have more options.” Although Archaia has been building its presence in the library market, it’s pursuing digital lending aggressively, and in addition to Comics Plus, it’s signed with Follett’s digital lending system.

As attractive as the Comics Plus system may be for some, several big publishers—including IDW, Top Shelf, Image, and Marvel—have yet to sign up, and Elder is working to broaden Comics Plus’s catalogue.

The library/graphic novel team-up has presented so many advantages that some, like librarian Brenner and publisher Siegel, have practically taken it up as a mission. Siegel campaigns with a slideshow explaining the history and vocabulary of comics—he recently presented it at the Library of Congress, which resulted in a DVD version of the presentation. But he’s been amazed by the network of support. “The champions who have figured it out tell other librarians who haven’t, and they figure it out,” Siegel says. He describes one of Brenner’s own methods for improving collections where there’s a struggle for funding: put a cart out at the front of the library loaded with the best graphic novel selection that can be mustered. “When people try this, the circulation has such a huge leap, it goes through the roof and [the library] gets its funding.”

The cart strategy is a symbol of how the supporters of graphic novels will fight for the category’s acceptance in libraries. For comics—which have evolved from a renegade facet of pop culture to a revolutionary art form—being accepted isn’t always expected, Siegel says, but cartoonists who have feared rejection have instead been welcomed. “It’s pretty amazing to have libraries on our side,” he says.