It’s been a long year for libraries as they’ve dealt with pandemic lockdowns, budget cuts, and operational uncertainty. But one thing became clear since Covid-19 transformed everyone’s lives: people still love reading, especially when they are stuck at home. And people definitely still love reading graphic novels. Data on reading, book sales, and library checkouts stayed stable or grew over the past year, and graphic novels—especially children’s favorites such as Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series or the works of Raina Telgemeier—helped people survive and get through these weird and challenging times.
This was also the second year of activity for the ALA’s Graphic Novel and Comics Roundtable, a formal ALA membership organization aimed at promoting the growth of graphic novels in libraries. The GNCRT moved forward on several long-planned projects, including establishing the first Best Graphic Novels for Adults reading list, as well as more unexpected activities, such as a team up with the Black Caucus ALA (BCALA) to create Black Lives Matter reading lists.
But 2020 was also a tough time for libraries, as well as for the GNCRT, which suffered from organizational growing pains as several board officers stepped down and needed to be replaced. It was also a time that tested digital lending practices. Digital lending soared among library patrons, but the budget issues surrounding it continued to be a problem.
One thing that didn’t slow down was the number of graphic novels being published, especially for kids, and the burgeoning demand for them at libraries. “I have purchased so many graphic novels for kids at my library that we have overflowing stacks on all the carts!” says Eva Volin, supervising children’s librarian at the Alameda (Calif.) Free Library and a GNCRT board officer. Like many libraries, the Alameda Free Library was closed during the worst of the pandemic, and they are now beginning to open up on a limited basis. “When the first kids came back, we actually had tears in our eyes,” she says. “It’s wonderful. But I had no idea how much product I had purchased until it was all sitting in front of me.”
Adult graphic novels rise
In February, the GNCRT accomplished one of its key goals with the release of the first Best Graphic Novels for Adults list. Nominations were taken throughout 2020, and the final list includes more than 50 titles. It’s a big achievement because adult librarians have traditionally been reluctant to start graphic novel collections and have had the burden of starting to build them from scratch with fewer resources than children’s librarians.
“The adult list was needed, because adult librarians are among the last holdouts of librarians who don’t want to buy graphic novels,” Volin says. “This list has been incredibly helpful for librarians who don’t know anything about the format and who rely on selection lists, or for librarians limited by their collection policy to only purchase things that have been reviewed positively. A book showing up on a selection list like this almost guarantees that they’re going to be able to purchase it.”
Matthew Noe, lead collection and knowledge management librarian at Countway Library at Harvard Medical School and incoming president of the GNCRT, helped launch the adult graphic novel list. He has already seen displays at his local libraries with books from the 2020 list. He confirms that this is a big step for recognizing the category within libraries. “We harp on the legitimacy thing all the time, but this lends some weight to the medium,” he adds.
“The adult list was a big moment to say that we prioritized adult readers and that they matter just as much as the kid readers,” says Monica Barrette, who is currently v-p of GNCRT and will take over as its president in 2022. She is also the director of collection development and publisher relations at the library distribution vendor LibraryPass and was formerly a librarian at the Chula Vista (Calif.) Public Library. She knows the difficulties of putting together adult graphic novels collections firsthand. “First it was, should we be doing this?” she says. “But now it’s about how we should be doing it. This list helps with that, and then, going forward a little more, with how we push the category with more programs and more support.”
Nominations for the 2021 Best Graphic Novels for Adults list are currently open, but the GNCRT is not stopping there. The organization plans to launch a children’s graphic novel list in 2022—another task that has been on its agenda for quite some time.
The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of ALA that predates GNCRT, is responsible for the popular long-running Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, which is already widely circulated. But Noe emphasizes that there can never be too many recommendation lists, and getting another viewpoint can help spotlight even more good books. The GNCRT list, he says, will have input from all kinds of librarians, not just the youth services ones who make the YALSA list. “We feel like we at the GNCRT have a platform, and we can use it to raise voices, especially since there’s zero chance that our list and YALSA’s will be identical.”
The GNCRT also eventually plans to launch a third list covering webcomics. However, collecting webcomics within the guidelines of library collection development and deciding what belongs in the category means navigating a number of complicated issues, so that effort has been tabled for the time being. “This year we’ve decided to stay stable and do the things that we are able to do,” Noe says.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the national reckoning with racial justice that followed, the GNCRT also collaborated with the BCALA to create several new reading lists, including a list titled Black Lives Matter, Black Literature Matters, which features 50 titles. The roundtable also created a supplemental reading lists titled Superheroes, Afrofuturism, and Good Trouble (a reference to the famous words of the late John Lewis). A horror and fantasy list is also in the works. GNCRT president Alea Perez, kids library department head at the Elmhurst (Ill.) Public Library, says roundtable members put together a list but then approached the BCALA “to let them know we were wanting to do this work, but we did not want to speak only on behalf of ourselves—we really wanted input from their membership, from the community.” The GNCRT also commissioned artist and librarian Crystal Chen to create a logo for the list, which opens up the possibility of merchandising and using the proceeds to fund scholarships.
Digital dilemmas grow
Reading soared during the lockdowns, and so too did digital lending by libraries—a trend brimming with controversy over pricing and availability. Currently, libraries use a variety of lending services, including OverDrive, the dominant vendor in library distribution that licenses individual digital editions to libraries, and Hoopla, a digital subscription service. There are also newcomers such as LibraryPass, which offers a digital subscription service more targeted to schools and academic libraries.
The rising demand for digital lending is plain to see. According to statistics released by OverDrive, total digital checkouts were up 33% in 2020. Perez says digital lending for children’s graphic novels was up between 400% and 500% in her library.
Volin adds that digital purchases skyrocketed when the first lockdowns hit, “which is tough, because the pricing of digital books is so completely outrageous.”
Though the Netflix-style offerings of Hoopla and LibraryPass are attractive to librarians, many titles are still available only via OverDrive, and its pricing system—which is set by publishers—can be prohibitive for many libraries. Publishers continue to put restrictions on what can be sold digitally, and they often set prices that are much higher than those of physical books. In addition, after a set number of checkouts, a library’s digital edition is considered “worn out”—the license expires—and the library must repurchase a new digital copy at the same price.
Though librarians PW spoke with say they understand that OverDrive must charge for digital copies, many complain that these editions are way too expensive, and that the lifespan of each digital book license is simply too short. It’s a problem that OverDrive CEO Steve Potash says he’s well aware of.
Potash says OverDrive is constantly working with publishers on different pricing models. It has also partnered with the Book Industry Study Group and other industry professionals to create the Panorama Project, a cross-industry study group and multi-
year research project designed to understand the impact that public libraries have on the retail bookselling industry.
“There’s been this question, if somebody can borrow my book for free, doesn’t that hurt me?” Potash says. But, he argues, the effect is the exact opposite: “The discovery of a book in a public library catalog promotes brand awareness.”
During the pandemic digital surge, Potash notes, OverDrive worked with publishers to lower prices for libraries on some books, or to offer simultaneous access to digital editions (which allows more than one reader to check out the same book at a time). It also worked to provide simultaneous digital access for a Black Lives Matter list, Spanish-language editions, and #OwnVoices titles, and it was able to donate some titles to libraries.
Potash says he hopes that efforts such as the Panorama Project will eventually get publishers to see that having more books circulating is better for everyone. “When they see it in a library,” he adds, “more people talk about it, more people post it on their Instagram feed.”
Perez says that during the pandemic, Hoopla was a big game changer at her library. “We decreased a lot of the checkout limitations on Hoopla and on other models that charge per title checkout,” she explains, “so that folks could borrow more than they would have been able to prior to the pandemic.”
However, the limited number of titles available in digital editions is an even more acute problem for academic libraries like Noe’s. Many specialized texts and graphic novels assigned in classrooms are still not available in digital formats—and when they are, they’re expensive. “Even at Harvard, this fiscal year has been a crunch,” he says. Adding a digital comics platform like OverDrive or Hoopla wasn’t in the budget for 2020 or even 2021. But for academic libraries, he adds, OverDrive may not be the best solution, as its primary audience is the public library sector.
“The e-book thing is still a struggle, but it did improve over the past year,” Noe says, noting that publishers eased up the pricing for some titles. His library has also adopted an institutional lending hack called “controlled digital lending,” which is used by libraries to digitize rare materials for circulation in educational settings. CDL, a controversial policy designed to allow select digital borrowing within the limits of copyright, involves scanning a book owned by a library and then loaning out the digital copy while taking the physical edition of the book out of circulation at the same time.
For example, Noe cited a class at Harvard that assigned the graphic novel Mis(h)adra by Iasmin Omar Ata, about a young Arab American’s issues with epilepsy. “We couldn’t get an e-book of it, so we did a full scan, took the copies we have out of physical circulation, and then let people borrow them electronically for a few hours at a time,” Noe explains. This system is only in place for books that are part of online courses; once the course is over, the digital copies are no longer accessible and the print copies go back in circulation.
This workaround is as cumbersome as it sounds, Noe says. “It’s a manual process. Over the last year we’ve learned ways to make it more streamlined, but it’s always pretty labor intensive.”
Noe notes that he is considering adding LibraryPass when there is the budget for it, since it’s already part of an academic vendor system that offers many of the nonfiction titles he’s looking for, and LibraryPass offerings are conveniently organized. All three digital services have books that aren’t found on the others. “You wind up subscribing to everybody, just like with Netflix and Hulu,” he explains. “There’s not a single e-book platform that has all of the comics that we want, whether it’s to buy outright or to lease.”
Barrette says LibraryPass is aware of the concerns of academic librarians like Noe. She works with publishers to get their books on the platform under its ComicsPlus unit, which was formerly part of a different vendor. LibraryPass is an entirely different team and has pivoted “toward K–12 schools and libraries and then onward to public libraries and a little bit of the academic market, as well,” she notes. Like Hoopla, it offers a buffet digital model and the potential for “simultaneous unlimited use access” rather than limiting access to a digital copy as though it were a print book. It’s a model that’s very useful and economically feasible for schools that, say, want to teach one specific comic or graphic novel to an entire class.
Though the pandemic didn’t directly lead to solutions for these digital dilemmas, librarians are sympathetic to the issues of access, affordability, and fairness that have been raised. “Obviously there’s got to be a way to meet in the middle, and it’s just a matter of fair pricing,” Noe says. “We understand publishers have to make money, but there need to be terms that will work for both sides.”
Demand for digital lending “is starting to drop, but it hasn’t dropped as quickly as we anticipated it might,” Perez says. “It’s not going to drop back to previous levels, but I’m not sure where it will level out when it does.”
On the road and in-house
Before the pandemic, libraries had become a center for comics-based events, offering their own in-house comic conventions and fan gatherings. After the pandemic hit, all of that came to a screeching halt, along with most other public gatherings. Now that the world is slowly opening up to in-person events again, librarians are beginning to consider how to attend cons and return to hosting their own events. This year’s summer ALA annual meeting will be virtual once more, but some libraries are starting to organize outdoor readings, as well as smaller indoor events.
In the meantime, the GNCRT has been very active with #LibComixOnline, an ongoing programming series, and the organization plans to offer a steady flow of online events, even as librarians and patrons begin to attend in-person events. “We want to make sure everyone’s being heard and getting membership involvement,” Barrette says. “We’ve tried having town halls this year on different platforms, including Twitter and Zoom. Hopefully as things return to some kind of new normal we’ll be getting more participation opportunities in front of membership.”
Every librarian PW spoke with was curious about the return to live events—particularly what they will look like and who will want, or be able, to attend. Perez worries that budgets cuts will prevent librarians from attending comics conventions and library pop culture shows, negatively impacting their professional development in the category.
“Even though we’ve been communicating online via social media for so long, I think in-person opportunities are really valuable,” Perez says. “I’m very curious to see who’s going to be able to return, and how that will shape how we hear about new titles, how we interact with the creators.”
Noting the departure of some GNCRT board officers, Perez is frank about the difficulties the pandemic presented during her presidency. She stepped back as well over the past few months, and will step away from GNCRT completely when her term ends. She says she’s leaving partly because her commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion was difficult to fulfill. In addition, the time commitment required to run a volunteer organization can enable systems of privilege that lock out the very people the organizations should be serving.
“Volunteer positions can work against DEI, because they favor people who are privileged enough to be able do the work, and not the folks who have to work multiple jobs or have monetary needs,” Perez explains.
Barrette also notes the importance of DEI in the library world. “ALA could use a little bit of freshness and a lot more diversity,” she says. “And I’m hoping to help be part of that change.”
Both Noe and Barrette want to forge even more relationships with other organizations in and out of ALA proper, along with continuing their partnership with the BCALA.
“My mission for this year was to broaden the outreach and the connections with other comics organizations,” Noe says. “Maybe we can collaborate with Common Studies Society or the Graphic Medicine International Collective. Maybe we can work more closely with some of the comics archives, like the Billy Ireland library at Ohio State University, or with the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.”
Despite her concerns over diversity and inclusion, Perez recognizes that a lot of positive results were achieved over the past year. “It’s phenomenal that the group came together and did their work in the midst of a pandemic.”
Even better, Volin says, the world is beginning to open up and libraries are welcoming their patrons back. “I don’t think we’ve had a single person come in to our library who wasn’t smiling as they opened the door,” she says.