When I was a kid, my family didn't own a lot of books, but I still read widely and voraciously, thanks to my local library. I don't remember seeing comics there then, but these days, if kids aren't doing their manga reading for free in the aisles of Borders, they're doing so at the library. Librarians have been on the forefront of actively supporting graphic novels, especially for young adult readers, and they wield a great deal of influence by choosing which books will be on library shelves and encouraging reading—more and more often with graphic novels.
I first discovered the enthusiasm many librarians have for comics when SLG began publishing Rex Libris by James Turner. Word-of-mouth made Rex something of a minor iconic figure to graphic-novel-reading librarians. And though real-life librarians aren't saving the world from Cthulhu (or maybe they are!), they are doing work that benefits libraries, readers, and comics. I contacted some librarians who prominently support comics to get a better idea of what they do and the successes and challenges they've come across in getting graphic novels in the stacks.
Kat Kan has been advocating comics in the library for nearly 25 years now. She writes a comics column for Voice of Youth Advocates and served as the first librarian Eisner Award judge in 2005. She is now a librarian at a private Catholic school, but her work with comics began in 1984, when she worked for a public library in Hawaii.
"Back then, most of my colleagues were not supportive, although a few of the younger librarians agreed that graphic novels were a cool addition to the library collection and would attract teens," Kan recalled in an email. "As the years went by, more and more YA librarians joined me in getting graphic novels into their branch collections."
A key moment in the effort to raise librarians' consciousness of graphic novels was the 2002 Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) conference. As a part of the American Library Association, YALSA instituted an annual list of recommended graphic novels for teens. Mike Pawuk, teen services librarian at the Cuyahoga County Library in Ohio, contributed to spearheading this effort, chairing a pre-conference called "Get Graphic @ Your Library" (which makes me think of patrons using the study rooms in creative ways, but I guess that's not what they meant). The pre-conference became an event itself, with guest speakers Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, Jeff Smith, and Colleen Doran.
"We have a lot to be proud of," Mike wrote to me reagrding this event. "Plus, we're the only event that featured Art Spiegelman—an admitted chain-smoker—to appear on stage without a cigarette." (I wonder if they'd have the same success with noted cancer-stick aficionado Marjane Satrapi.) Mike relates with some amusement, that "some of us on the committee thought that in a few years graphic novels would be just a passing fad—and look at us now!" The pre-conference resulted in an annual YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and a lot more awareness of the medium. "Graphic novels are definitely here to stay," Mike wrote.
This new heightened awareness of graphic novels got Robin Brenner, teen librarian at Brookline Public Library in Brookline, Massachusetts, started reading comics in the first place, when she worked at the Lexington, MA Public Library. "The Teen Librarian there asked me to find out what these new-fangled graphic novels were all about, so I dove in and fell in love," she wrote.
Robin now runs the website No Flying, No Tights, which serves as a reference for librarians and other readers to the wide world of graphic novels. (Some of the recommended comics do indeed have flying and tights in them, though!) She also served as an Eisner Award judge, in 2007. Both Kat and Robin feel it's part of their jobs to help educate the public about graphic novels, and Robin notes that it can seem to be an effort that's never-ending.
"Every time I think I don't have to explain any more why we need graphic novels and comics in libraries, I run into five more people that need convincing, from patrons to librarians to teens themselves," Robin wrote. "One of my favorite discussions with a teen happened when he insisted we shouldn't have comics in the library but that we should have video games —a great debate! Happily, I'm always armed with my facts and figures concerning why graphic novels are quality and engaging, and I enjoy trying to find the right graphic novel for every person. I won't convert everyone, but I do usually convince folks that they're a valid art form and worth collecting."
Because of Rex Libris, I know that the second of S.R. Ranganathan's Rules of Library Science is "Every book his or her reader," which Robin puts into action in matching graphic novels to library patrons. But occasionally they get into the hands of the wrong readers, with reports of graphic novels meant for adults being challenged at libraries across the country. Could the emphasis on graphic novels as young adult reading be leading to wrong assumptions about the audience for all graphic novels? This is an area, Kat Kan admitted, where both librarians and patrons need education.
"Libraries need to make sure that they have solid collection development policies in place; that's how the library in Marshall, Missouri got into trouble—it didn't have a policy at all, then someone challenged Blankets and Fun Home as pornographic," Kat wrote. "Libraries need to put graphic novels into every age level section of the library, so that graphic novels with more mature themes and content can be put into the adult sections of the library. More and more of them are doing that. Some libraries are indeed conducting programs that help to explain what graphic novels are, and that many comics really aren't for kids. That is still a misconception held by many non-comics-reading adults, and libraries do need to address that issue."
This is a problem I imagine will dissipate somewhat as the teenagers who read comics become the adult patrons of libraries. Much of the graphic novel outreach has been to teens, since teens are the ones who are most interested in comics now. Manga has made news for its popularity with young teenagers, but I've been concerned that this small slice of a demographic is not enough for an industry to grow on. Will the girls I see at small conventions, such as the Manga, Art and Graphic Novel Expo in my home town (redeeming itself for the troubles I had finding graphic novels that I wrote about in my last column), shed their taste for sequential art along with their arm warmers and braces? Will they remain loyal only to Japanese comics, becoming the future's version of today's fanboys, or will they broaden their interests?
Kat bolstered my hope (oh, my fragile hope!). She feels her efforts have paid off not only in attracting young readers to the library, but in keeping them as they mature. "I'm seeing college students who started reading comics and manga when they were young teens continuing to read comics and manga," she wrote. "More libraries are looking for graphic novels that will appeal to adults. I do think the appeal of graphic novels will continue as the readers grow older."
All of the librarians who wrote to me know that there is still work that libraries can and need to do to keep graphic novel collections vibrant. In addition to librarian awareness, there is also the issue of making sure to serve all reading audiences. "I do see that collections in children's departments and adult departments still need to grow," Robin wrote. "Having graphic novels only in the teen collection or only in the adult collection does disservice to the variety of the format."
And as to what Robin calls the "old 741.5 question," referring to the section of the stacks where graphic novels often get shelved? All librarians feel that it is not the best place for them. I learned from Kat Kan (I learned a lot from Kat, Mike, and Robin—they are, true to their profession, fountains of information), that "the Dewey Decimal System people at the Library of Congress have refused to change the call number." Robin points out that the call number for fiction is technically in the 800s, but most libraries have created separate sections for it, and all the librarians I contacted advocate doing the same for graphic novels.
The "art of cataloging," as Robin calls it, might seem to be a specialization of the the profession, but it's a specialization that works on a very practical level. What became clear to me as I read these librarians' comments was that their practicality is just the tempering perspective the comics industry needs. For example, when she served as an Eisner Award judge, Kat concentrated on what was important: "I was fairly ignorant of the politics at the time," she recalled. "I was focused on books, not on who published them or whether something was mainstream or independent."
And Robin focuses on readership, not sales. "I speak with the people I serve on a daily basis," she told me, "and I get a pretty good sense of what they want. We judge things by how they circulate, not by how they sell, so we also get a good sense of the longevity of a series or title or creator."
Just as I contemplated how different my experiences are from that of the average comics buyer in my last column, Kat, Mike and Robin have made me think about how removed I am from "regular" comics readers—people who don't edit, draw, write, or write about comics. People who are comics readers. Librarians help comics, as well as the comics readers they serve. I thank not only the librarians who took time from their very busy schedules (between attending New York Comic-Con and hosting graphic novel workshops and preparing for Free Comic Book Day, I don't know how they managed!), but all those who are serving readers at their libraries.
Oh, and those Five Rules of Library Science?:
1. Books are for use.
2. Every reader his (or her) book.
3. Every book its reader.
4. Save the time of the User.
5. The library is a growing organism.
These three "star" librarians thoroughly embody these principles.