Academic libraries are beginning to embrace graphic novels for their circulating collections, as materials appropriate for teaching and research. Unfortunately, because of inconsistencies in the Library of Congress classification model, locating graphic novels in an academic library collection can be challenging. And if you’re a creator who has self-published a book without an ISBN, then your book may never surface at a library.

While public libraries organize their collections thematically—fiction, non-fiction, etc.—academic libraries rely on the Library of Congress Classification Outline, which assigns call-numbers according to discipline. The Library of Congress (LC) system assigns letters to large disciplines (for example, P for Language and literature), a subset of letters for sub-disciplines (PN for Literature, general) and finally a number for subjects within the sub-discipline (PN1600-3307 for Drama). Subsequent letters and digits in an LC call-number reflect other aspects, such as the first letter of an author’s last name or of the title.

These call-numbers point readers to a location on a shelf, where the books that surround that location will relate to the same discipline. Another discovery tool is the Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH): a string of terms that describe the content of a book, and can direct readers to other works on the same subject. So, for example, the title The Theatre in the Middle Ages has the LC call-number PN1751.T43 and its LCSH include Theater—History—Medieval, 500-1500 and Drama, Medieval—History and criticism.

This LC outlines works reasonably well for traditional works of scholarship and literature. Graphic novels, however, seem to confound it.

The Library of Congress has three separate approaches for classifying graphic novels and comics. The largest percentage—probably over eighty-five percent—fall in the PN6700s:

P=Literature (General)

PN=Collections of general literature

PN6700-6790=Comic books, strips, etc.

In a nod, perhaps, to the combined verbal and visual nature of comics, the LC catalogers have also classed a much smaller percentage of our collection under a very different heading:

N=Fine Arts

NC=Drawing. Design. Illustration

NC1300-1766=Pictorial humor, caricature, etc.

There is no inherent logic to this. Many early anthologies of selected newspaper strips are found in the NCs, despite “comic strips” being a term explicitly included in the PN6700 classification. Comprehensive strip collections are split between these two areas: IDW Publications’ The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Dailies and Sundays is classed in the PN6700s, but the same publisher’s The Complete Little Orphan Annie is in the NC1400s.

The third approach to classifying graphic novels and comics is by subject matter. Keep in mind that “Comic books,” “Graphic novels,” and “Illustration” are terms that refer to medium, not to subject. As comics industry professionals never tire of pointing out, graphic novels are a medium, not a genre; within the medium one may find the same range of genres that are found within the medium of prose—biography, fantasy, journalism, memoir, science fiction, etc.

As a result, there is a certain logic to classifying Jim Ottaviani’s Niels Bohr graphic novel, Suspended in language, in QC16 (Science > Physics > General) and Josh Neufeld’s Katrina memoir, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, in F379 (History of the Americas > United States local history > Gulf States > Louisiana.) It is comforting to a librarian to think that patrons browsing in African-American biography will find Ho Che Anderson’s graphic biography of Martin Luther King, King: A Comic Book Biography (E185.97.K5 A547). In fact, the vast array of comic book biographies may be found in their subject classifications. But Seven Miles a Second, the posthumous graphic autobiography of David Wojnarowicz, is in the PN6700s.

Even within a given classification area there is little consistency. Josh Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli have created two volumes of the graphic novel Unknown Soldier, but volume one is classed at PN6728.U5 D97 and volume two is PN6727.D97 U553. Not only do they differ in their primary classification (PN6727 vs. PN6728), but one privileges the title over the author, and the other, the reverse. They are about twelve feet apart on our library shelves.

The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are no more helpful, for those who prefer to browse in the online catalog. No one term will bring up the entire collection. The heading “Comic books, strips, etc.” may appear at the beginning of the LCSH (Comic books, strips, etc.—United States), as part of the beginning of the LCSH (Fantasy comic books, strips, etc.), or as a subheading within the LCSH (Baseball players—United States—Comic books, strips, etc.). Recently, the Library of Congress introduced a format heading, “Graphic novels,” but it has not been applied retroactively to every cataloging record that preceded the introduction. “Graphic novels” is a problematic term in itself, and even more so when applied to the anthologies, non-fiction, or collected newspaper strips that constitute a rich comics collection.

As a result of these problems of classification and subject analysis, patrons cannot browse our collection either online or in the stacks. A fan of the comics medium, curious about our holdings, will generally peruse the largest category of holdings, the PNs, but never venture to the NCs nor even consider the individual volumes classed elsewhere.

These are problems that occur at the time of LC cataloging, but some titles don’t even make it that far. Self-publishing cartoonists create marvelous work that can be found in local comic shops or online, but they tend not to apply for ISBNs or have cataloging copy from national bibliographic utilities such as OCLC. Many libraries are forbidden from buying books without ISBNs. At Columbia University, these titles languish in a pre-cataloging purgatory with only a skeletal record. No one will find that these titles in the stacks. No one will find them except by a title or author search of our catalog. Cartoonists: we want to circulate your work; help us make that possible!

With luck, the increase in the number of libraries including graphic novels in their holdings will increase pressure on the Library of Congress to normalize their methodology for classifying such titles. In the meantime, I keep a spreadsheet on my office computer in order to know what we have in our collection. My library patrons are not so fortunate.

Karen Green is Columbia University's Ancient/Medieval Studies Librarian and Graphic Novel selector.