At this time last year, a group of comics-focused librarians were huddling in strategy sessions at the 2018 American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans. They were making the case to create a graphic novel roundtable—a formal unit within the ALA. The case was easy: graphic novels are among the most circulated titles in libraries, and graphic novel collections are among the fastest growing in America.
The Graphic Novel and Comics Roundtable (GNCRT) was approved and became the first new roundtable created by the ALA in five years. The organizers have spent the past year laying the groundwork for an ambitious slate of activities that include events, awards, reading lists, and more. At this year’s ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., the first board (elected this spring) will take office and things will really get cooking.
It’s just the latest leap for comics, which were once seen as a lowly, pulp art form and are now a critically lauded medium that is winning literary awards; comics are even influencing approaches to health care with the rising popularity of graphic medicine collections—comics focused on illness and therapy. And the ranks of librarians who support graphic novels is still growing: new ALA president Loida Garcia-Febo is a believer—she’ll host a webinar on superheroes and diversity this month.
Not only is GNCRT the only new ALA roundtable in five years but it’s also one of the first roundtables to emerge from a “grassroots, member-led initiative,” explains Amie Wright, formerly a manager at the New York Public Library and currently a grad student at Concordia University. Wright was elected as GNCRT’s first president, although as a Canadian, Wright quips that she prefers to be called “the prime minister.”
The ALA had a graphic novel and comics member interest group for more than a decade, but the establishment of the roundtable, Wright says, has made this focus even more mainstream. It’s a big step for the many librarians who have been promoting graphic novels in their collections—and for the readerships they serve. “It’s huge that we finally have the legitimacy,” she notes. “Not only by creating the roundtable as a new organization but also ensuring that we reflect our communities and continue to signal boost the category.”
Wright says she’s seen people rejoining the ALA because of more community driven activities, including the GNCRT. “It’s not just because of comics,” she adds, “but because of people saying, ‘This is something I want to be a part of, something very community minded.’ ”
To understand the importance of the roundtable, it helps to know that the ALA membership loves to codify different kinds of organizations within their ranks as much as they like acronyms. A roundtable is a formal group that is able to raise funds via memberships and carry out a variety of tasks within the ALA structure. Roundtables can also fund projects directly. Other ALA roundtables cover such things as intellectual freedom, social responsibilities, games and gaming, and queer issues. Some roundtables have lasted for 75 years, and the most important ones split off into more roundtables.
“The roundtable level is centered around ideas that librarians are interested in that can impact the whole spectrum of different types of libraries,” says Tina Coleman, an ALA membership specialist. Coleman has been instrumental in building the comics presence at the ALA Annual Conference, and in helping the roundtable get off the ground as its staff liaison and adviser.
“One of the great things about roundtables is that they’re completely member driven,” Coleman says. “So these are librarians doing the work that they want to do and building the tools that they want to build. A lot of the first year has been spent building internal structure, which, looking in from outside of the library world, is the boring part—but it’s super important to lay the groundwork, not just for the things that the current board wants to do but for building a structure that future generations can use.”
The GNCRT hopes to be inclusive of the entire spectrum of librarians—from those at public libraries to academic institutions—but it’s open to others interested in joining the cause and already has members from inside the comics industry, including comics shop owners. “One of the best things about comics is that they can bring us all together,” Wright says. “It’s a very collaborative art form, and we really want to make sure that the roundtable reflects that. Now that the roundtable exists, I’ve had more and more [comics publishers] reaching out asking ‘What can we do?” and “How do we support this?’ ”
Professional Development at the Cons
Although the GNCRT’s first year has been spent building infrastructure, it is already up and running with a program expanding a relationship with several comics conventions to organize professional development programming, including at many ReedPop shows. In 2017, Wright helped put together a slate of 23 panels for a library and education track during New York Comic Con. The second year was even more successful, with more than 30 panels and 2,500 attendees.
“If not the largest, it’s definitely one of the largest single days of professional development,” Wright says. “We had 500 people lined up outside the New York Public Library before doors opened to see Marjorie Liu [writer of the Eisner Award–winning Monstress graphic novel series] deliver the keynote.”
GNCRT-sponsored events were also held at Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle and C2E2 in Chicago earlier this year, and they included keynote speakers Chelsea Cain at ECCC and Lucy Knisley at C2E2. At both shows, the GNCRT partnered with local libraries for pop-up venues and events. C2E2 included a pop-up library on the show floor with special guests, activities, and a reading area. “It was a really dynamic space that worked well,” Coleman says.
The professional development tracks at comic cons are very important for local librarians who may not have a chance to go to library conferences. “It’s giving them the opportunity to still have professional development around comics and hear new ideas and hear creators and publishers,” says Coleman, who adds that this isn’t an idea many saw coming. “A few years ago if you said, ‘Oh, comic cons are going to become a great place for librarians to have professional development,’ people would have laughed.”
Comics publishers have come around to seeing librarians as experts in the field, Coleman says. “Even five or 10 years ago, if you were at a comic con and you went to a publisher’s booth and said ‘I’m a librarian,’ you would get a blank look,” Coleman recalls. “It was two separate communities, but now there’s some awareness. And so many more comic companies are coming to ALA conferences”—even Marvel, which had significantly lagged in this area, is now involved in the library market.
Besides professional development, the GNCRT has a committee working to develop educational tools that offer information on building collections, collaborating with other organizations to run webinars, and acting as a hub for finding resources. And a metadata committee is working on issues related to cataloguing comics, which are often hard to find in libraries.
Awards and Reading Lists
The GNCRT’s plans will help some areas that are still struggling, such as collections of graphic novels for adults. Though kids’ comics are booming, with massive sales and huge circulation, libraries are still uncertain about how to go about starting and promoting adult comics collections.
Matthew Murray, a GNCRT board member, is looking at two areas that could have a huge impact on adult collections. He is currently the research and scholarship librarian at the University of Guelph in Ontario, but he’s also the cochair on the awards and reading committees of GNCRT, whose tasks include developing a reading list and investigating establishing a comics award, along the lines of the Newbery Medal or Printz Award.
Earlier this year, the GNCRT ran a survey on possible awards and got hundreds of responses. Among the concerns is that creating a dedicated award would prevent graphic novels from being considered for other awards, which have helped the medium become more accepted. The Printz Award was given to Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese in 2007, an event seen by many as a watershed. Though the survey offered some ideas on what kind of awards and attached grants could be given, the committee is still just in the talking stages, Murray stresses.
Establishing a reading list—along the lines of YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list—is definitely on the front burner, however. “There are a lot of comics out there that we want to bring attention to,” Murray says. “The Great Graphic Novels for Teens list brings attention to a lot of books, and we’re hoping to do the same for other areas as well.”
An annual reading list would be a huge boost to developing adult comics collections. “It’s big, because there are so many libraries right now that are excited about comics, but the people working there do not necessarily have a lot of historical knowledge,” Murray says. “They may not have grown up reading comics, or they may have but not read them for a long time. And they’re not sure what’s out there, and they’re not sure how to actually identify what is good.”
Coleman agrees that awards and reading lists are important for the development of collections. When a book wins a major award, it is automatically put on the buy list for thousands of libraries. “It would be a big deal to have an award,” she says, “but a juried list is also huge.”
Wright says that adult collections are beginning to grow. “I would say adult numbers are showing impressive growth, especially with a lot of trends in media”—such as the prominence of the Walking Dead and Marvel’s MCU.
“It’s clear that kids’ comics are on fire, but in terms of serious adult focus, we’re still beginning the conversation,” Coleman adds. “But we’re seeing more librarians doing more adult-focused programming around comics. And we’re seeing academia get involved beyond the usual topics.”
Growth in adult collections has also come from an unexpected source: the rise of interest in graphic medicine. “I think one of the most exciting things has been the growth of the graphic medicine community,” Wright says.
Penn State University’s line of graphic novels specializes in this topic and has really helped grow the category. Books now categorized as graphic medicine include Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer, Ellen Forney’s Marbles, and A.K. Summers’s Pregnant Butch—works that examine a variety of physical and mental conditions and also show doctors and patients the human side of illness.
The term is also expanding to cover more topical issues, such as the plights of refugees and those with PTSD. “For some people who still have reticence to see graphic storytelling as a serious format, having a graphic medicine collection gives it a lot of gravitas,” Wright says.
Matthew Noe runs one such collection as collection outreach librarian at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library, and he’s become an authority on the genre. “I constantly have conversations with people about what the boundaries of graphic medicine are,” he says. “Does it have to be biomedical? Can it be science? Can it be all these other things? Now there are collections popping up all over in academic medical libraries. A lot of public libraries have started creating explicit call outs to a graphic medicine collection. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a library that doesn’t have one copy of Mom’s Cancer.”
In addition to Fies’s moving tale about his mother’s illness, books often found in graphic medicine collections include MK Czerwiek’s Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 and Ian Williams’s The Bad Doctor and The Lady Doctor. It’s a very wide field, and some groundbreaking titles in the category, such as Harvey Pekar’s Our Cancer Year, are long out of print. (Noe also cites Justin Green’s searing underground confessional Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary as an early entry in the genre.) To help libraries get started with collections, Noe is working with his colleague Alice Jaggers, outreach coordinator at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Library, to create an annotated bibliography of the core titles in the field.
Books in this category are becoming the foundation of adult collections. “The graphic medicine tag has caught on surprisingly quickly, and a lot of publishers are realizing that there’s a major demand for this, even in medical schools,” Murray says. “The medical community is embracing it more, because it’s about making connections and not just reading a textbook.”
“It’s a great unification of art therapy and bibliotherapy,” Wright says. “We know that reading books builds empathy. We’ve had several works that include veterans telling their stories. Even something like The Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting references PTSD.”
Although publishers are beginning to understand the kinds of graphic novels that can circulate in libraries, there are still areas that need development. In both the U.S. and Canada, there’s a growing call for more narratives that speak to the experiences of indigenous peoples. It’s especially on the rise in Canada, where about 5% of the population is indigenous (in the U.S., it’s about 1%). There is a small but growing list of titles by indigenous creators, but both librarians and educators say they hope to see more.
At the recent Toronto Comic Arts Festival, there were several panels that spotlighted indigenous creators, including Gord Hill and Cole Pauls, but these cartoonists also appeared on other panels on wider topics, such as activism and crowdfunding. “It’s important to get indigenous creators involved in other conversations,” says Murray, who helped put together several of the programs. “It’s one of those things where once you have one person getting some recognition, it inspires other people to do it.”
Pauls spoke about making his comic, Dakwäkãda Warriors, for his community. “He wanted it to be a way to revitalize learning about his language and culture,” Murray says. “But I think what surprised him is that it’s been successful outside of that world.”
At TCAF, the late Inuk cartoonist Alootook Ipellie was also inducted into the Giants of the North Hall of Fame for Canadian cartoonists. Taken as a whole, it was a start toward getting more attention for an often overlooked group.
Coleman, Murray, Noe, and Wright are just some of the librarians who are incredibly passionate advocates for the graphic novel format. All the progress they’ve made will be on display at this year’s ALA Annual Conference. Wright will be the moderator for a “State of the Industry” panel featuring cartoonists Jaime Hernandez, Jason Lutes, and Raina Telgemeier, which caps off a full day of programming sponsored by the GNCRT. The annual Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grants for libraries, which the ALA administers, will be announced, and this area is growing as well. The grant had a 50% increase in applications and has added a third grant while extending eligibility to libraries throughout North America.
The establishment of the GNCRT is in some ways a new frontier for all librarians, Wright says. The GNCRT, she explains, explores ways to look at material that is “nontraditional” but very popular and updates the way that libraries approach it. “Comics are such a big and growing market, but they also challenge a lot of our traditional means of collection development,” she adds, noting that she hopes the efforts can help other libraries develop nontraditional collections, such as local oral history.
“We hope that some of the best practices that emerge from our roundtable can impact other areas, including librarianship and education in general,” Wright says. “It’s not just about comics. We’re incorporating a lot of popular culture and community information. As one of the first roundtables to be based purely on member interest, we’re very much a member-driven grassroots initiative. I think the biggest thing in our first year is just ensuring that people know that we’re here. We’re uniting a lot of efforts and putting it all together.”
Coleman says, “I’m amazed at the amount of work that the roundtable has gotten done and the progress they’ve made.” And she sees something different about this roundtable: “I’m impressed by how collaborative we’ve been. Even within ALA, I feel like we have a different relationship with the publishers that we work with than almost any other space because it is so collaborative. Part of it is because all of us love comics so much. All of us have a vested interest in seeing them succeed and seeing the format work. It’s really been an “Avengers, assemble!” moment.”