The popularity of comics in libraries has been one of the biggest stories in both sectors in recent years—but neither has been spared the effects of Covid-19. Library lockdowns have led to furloughs, layoffs, and uncertainty over future funding due to expected declines in state revenues. In the comics industry, stores have been closed temporarily (and in some cases permanently), and Diamond Comic Distributors, the dominant distributor to the direct sales market, halted shipments of new comics for seven weeks, leading to dramatically altered release schedules and cash flow issues for publishers.

However, it isn’t all bad news: in 2019, the newly organized Graphic Novel and Comics Round Table finished its first full year as an official ALA organization. The new unit accomplished many of its goals, and has many more on the table for its incoming board in 2020.

Indeed, in response to the pandemic, libraries are shifting their acquisitions to digital content. The GNCRT has acted swiftly to respond to this collection shift by establishing a resource page for finding comics online and a webinar program under the hashtag #LibComixOnline. Work on compiling a groundbreaking Best Graphic Novels for Adults Reading List continues, with a planned rollout of the list slated for the Midwinter ALA meeting in 2021, in whatever form that meeting takes.

PW spoke with a number of GNCRT board members past and present to get their take on the current climate for digital lending, the roundtable’s goals, and more.

Libraries reopen; digital expansion

As with most institutions in the time of Covid-19, libraries across North America are slowly reopening and instituting entirely new workflows so as to be able to operate while making efforts to curb the potential spread of the virus. This means the amount of work that goes into lending a single book has dramatically increased.

Alea Perez, kids library department head at Elmhurst (Ill.) Public Library, is the incoming president of the GNCRT (she served as v-p on the previous board). She says planning for the future is “a lot like trying to build on quicksand.” Libraries become a more needed resource in a time of heightened unemployment, but librarians are already bracing for budget cuts. “It’s very nerve-wracking right now,” she says.

Tina Coleman, membership specialist at the American Library Association, who has also been instrumental in setting up the GNCRT within ALA, also sees a strong niche market like comics as something of a bellwether. “The coming changes are not unique to comics,” she says, “but I feel like it’s the canary in the coal mine, and will show some early signs about what’s going to happen to publishing across a wider scope.”

Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, comics were experiencing strong demand in libraries—Perez’s graphic novel collection was her third most circulated collection, quite a feat because it was much smaller (3,000 items) than the top two collections, picture books and chapter books for children (more than 20,000 items each). “For it to even be contending with those speaks a lot to how comics are resonating with our readers,” Perez says.

Digital lending has soared as libraries have been forced to close during the lockdown. Perez’s library uses Hoopla, a streaming service that delivers digital content to library patrons, and she’s seen a 200% increase in kids using digital platforms. “Children do not traditionally use digital if they don’t have to,” she says. “That’s not their preference. So, to see that kind of growth for just a few weeks was pretty impressive.” Though she doesn’t track adult digital usage, other collections have shown similar surges, according to librarians.

Some librarians are asking if digital lending will become more popular in the long run because of this. “It really depends on the users,” Perez says of the channel’s growth. While kids don’t necessarily prefer digital, she says, “adults are learning that this has been available for a while.” She expects that most patrons, kids or adults, will go back to print when they can, but she notes that, with the possibility of more lockdowns coming as the virus ebbs and flows, “we are going to see more adopting of digital.”

Most librarians in the GNCRT were already aware of the potential for digital comics, Coleman says, but building collections was put off for later. “Suddenly, ‘later’ is ‘now,’ ” she says. “One of the things that’s really impressed me is how librarians are inventing what virtual and online librarianship is, totally on the fly.” That includes everything from handling reference to doing engaging programming that “isn’t just somebody reading storytime in front of a camera.”

Matthew Noe, lead collection and knowledge management librarian at Harvard Medical School, says the forced move to online is making librarians give attention to an area that wasn’t a priority before. “It’s giving us a chance to really look at what our web presence is like and what our priorities should be right now.” Noe is remaining as a member-at-large on the GNCRT steering board for 2020–2021, after serving as resources and toolkits committee chair for 2019–2020.

But there are still problems with library digital comics collections: some genres are still not available. “I’ve been frustrated for years with the lack of manga available to libraries digitally,” says Matthew Murray, formerly research and scholarship librarian at the University of Guelph in Ontario and an outgoing board member. “There’s a massive market for manga, and a lot of libraries would love to be able to have access to that stuff digitally, but it just isn’t there.”

Digital borrowing has a problem: it can be expensive. Different lending services have different ways of charging—Hoopla is essentially a streaming service, but Overdrive, the dominant distributor of digital content to the library market, charges by the number of checkouts. Just leasing a digital book can be five times the cost of a physical book. “When something great happens and a book is really popular, it ends up costing more than the library can afford,” Noe says.

It’s a contentious issue that wasn’t helped last year when Macmillan, claiming that e-book lending undermines consumer book sales, announced an embargo and price changes on new digital releases to libraries. Though the embargo was dropped in the early days of the pandemic, the issues around borrowing e-books from libraries won’t go away. “How do we balance this need for digital content with what we can afford?” Perez asks. “It’s been really challenging to consider how to bolster this collection without essentially bankrupting our whole budget on this.”

Library patrons aren’t aware of the contentious behind-the-scenes conflicts between libraries and publishers. Patrons are just confused about why they can’t easily download a digital version of the book they want, Coleman says. “I feel like there’s a big disconnect with patrons who don’t understand that it’s not like when they buy a Kindle book,” she says. “The library has a completely different financial relationship with all of those publishers.”

Still, the ramifications of Covid-19 may provide motivation to solve some of the problems with digital lending, Murray says. “I think there’s going to be an increase in interest in digital comics, and libraries right now are doing so much more to promote their digital collections.”

“We’ve been building digital collections for 25 years, and doing all this work to get digital ready and here we are,” Noe says. “It’s paying off.”

Online events: #LibComixOnline

The first full year of the GNCRT in 2019 was a big success; the group organized a large presence at the ALA annual convention and also increased programming at comics conventions throughout North America. The group sponsored successful digital and virtual events as well, such as “Creators get Carded,” an online library card promotion that was spearheaded by outgoing GNCRT president Amie Wright and Chris Arrant, editor-in-chief at Newsarama, a comic book news site. In this promotion, comics creators were shown online posing with their library cards and talking about how it affected their lives.

This success led to a lot of ideas that have been put on hold for now, but “some have just been put on pause, and are things that we’re still really excited to do,” Perez says. One approach that was already in the works has been to create online components to complement extensive live event comics programming. While this year’s ALA annual meeting has been canceled due to the pandemic, the organization has launched an online ALA Virtual event, and many of the comics programs have been ported over to the digital platform. There may also be a virtual artists alley that will allow individual artists to show off their works.

GNCRT has organized webinars and online interviews under the #LibComixOnline hashtag, which includes panels that bring together publishers and creators, as well as reader advisory events with comics shops.

The shift to online platforms has also led to some unexpected and useful team-ups. The first wave of #LibComixOnline programming was a collaboration with the Australian Library Association, an international conversation between global library professionals that might not have been possible in other times, Coleman says. “The time difference was radical, but it was a really fun discussion that highlighted the similar challenges libraries face in both countries,” she says.

Along with helping the library community, the GNCRT also wanted to support comics shop retailers. “We came up with the reader’s advisory arm, and interviewing comic shops as well as creators,” Coleman says. The GNCRT hopes to introduce a second phase for #LibComixOnline in July, “which will probably include more professional development based on member feedback,” she adds.

Noe helped put together Graphic Medicine Responds: Comics in the Time of Covid, an online version of an event originally planned for the canceled May 2020 Toronto Comic Art Festival, and now available on YouTube. The timing allowed Noe to team up with other events that had gone virtual. “It became a worldwide thing with around 300 unique participants,” he says. The already growing graphic medicine movement—comics and graphic novels that explore illness and recovery—is growing even more popular during this international health crisis, Noe says.

Several Covid-19 comics anthologies are being planned—including new titles from Penn State University Press’s new graphic novel imprint—and Noe said he sees more people discovering the graphic medicine category via Covid-19 comics. He expects these comics to become a staple of library graphic medicine collections. “These will be primary source material about the pandemic that everyone’s going to be writing about for the next decade,” he says.

Best adult comics list

One thing hasn’t been changed by the pandemic: the GNCRT is moving ahead to establish a Best Graphic Novels for Adults Reading List, a groundbreaking new resource for adult graphic novels that will help libraries find deserving titles for their patrons. The GNCRT is currently accepting submissions for the adults list, and plans to expand its efforts into establishing a kids/young readers graphic novel list, which will debut in 2022. “It’s been a great experience,” says Murray, who was part of the committee to set up the list. “I think it’s going to be a really great resource.”

Nevertheless, creating the list faced growing pains: organizers want to be sure the GNCRT adult list doesn’t overlap with other lists. The Young Adult Library Services Association has a well-established and highly influential reading list, titled Great Graphic Novels for Teens, which includes some books that were originally categorized as “all ages” (a nebulous category formerly used almost exclusively by comics publishers), as well as books aimed at older readers. “When you’re looking at these things,” Murray says, “you’re like, ‘Well, what’s the difference between a book that appeals to a 20-year-old and something that appeals to an 18-year-old?’ ”

Though most publishers support the idea of having a great adult graphic novels list, Murray says it’s been tricky getting some of them to participate and submit titles. “Some of them already have really great connections with the library world and are happy to send out digital or physical review copies of books,” he says. “Others have been less communicative. But we kind of expected that and knew that it was going to take some time to get some of these books.”

Another perennial problem: self-published and crowdfunded books, as well as any other unconventionally produced titles, are not eligible for the list. Libraries are often forced to acquire books through established vendors and channels. “There are books that we would like to see on the list that we cannot put on it for one reason or another,” Murray says. “A couple of books were nominated that were self-published or published by micropublishers. If they’re not available through library distributors or large online retailers, then libraries are not going to be able to purchase them.”

The GNCRT is also eager to establish a recommended graphic novel list for young readers, a list that was originally planned to debut alongside the adult list. But GNCRT board members now believe that launching the lists simultaneously is too much to do at once.

While the GNCRT’s young readers list has not been formally announced, it’s expected to debut at the Midwinter ALA in 2021 with a call for nominations and volunteers for the selection committee. The plan is for the initial listing to be released the following year.

Murray has also considered the idea of compiling a recommended reading list of webcomics, though he acknowledges the GNCRT will face challenges to include such an unconventional category. By the very nature of being online, webcomics are very hard to catalogue and collect in libraries. “I’m hoping that if we do develop this webcomic list,” Murray says, “libraries will be able to promote them in blog posts and on their websites.”

Incoming GNCRT president Perez also hopes that the roundtable can investigate grant and scholarship opportunities for librarians. “One of the biggest reasons why I wanted to get involved in the roundtable was to help increase accessibility and representation,” she says, noting, “our profession is overwhelmingly white, straight, cis, and nondisabled.” She adds: “Once you bring or maintain those marginalized voices by removing the financial barrier, they are able to advocate for marginalized comics creators being on panels, they can push for works by those same creators to be considered for awards and honors lists, and they can identify which of our patrons aren’t seeing themselves in the comics in our collections and can advocate to change that.”

All in all, as with other industries, the pandemic will leave libraries looking different in ways that no one can entirely foresee, but Perez hopes that some of the changes can be positive. “I hope we get to help define what the new normal is,” she says. “I would really be disappointed if we go back to what we left behind. This pandemic is shining a light on things that were not so great before and are just getting worse.”

Perez is passionate about making comics and the events that celebrate them more accessible to patrons. “I hope we rethink some of the ways that we do things,” she says, “such as how much closed captioning we’re doing for folks, and whether we’re making stages as accessible as possible for people with certain disabilities. I’m hoping that in this pause we can think about how we can include more people when we go back to the physical space.”