Graphic novel collections have become a staple of libraries across North America. But with greater popularity comes greater scrutiny and new issues. As demand for graphic novels and comics grows—especially among younger patrons—attempts to censor and remove certain titles from library shelves are also increasing.
In addition, self-published graphic novels (which are often crowdfunded) and digitally published comics are becoming more popular. But libraries, bound by acquisitions guidelines that require validation of books’ quality (generally a review in a reputable trade or consumer publication) that is not often available for self-published works, are struggling to include them. And comics in digital formats—such as e-books, streamed comics, and webcomics—are also difficult for librarians to justify purchasing: despite the growing demand for these works, there are only a few library vendors—OverDrive and Hoopla Digital among them—that offer them to libraries.
Attempts to Ban Graphic Novels
Book challenges—the term for a formal effort to remove a title—filed by parents who find certain works objectionable are a constant in libraries. The visual nature of graphic novels and their prevalence in library collections makes them a big target. “You might be willing to read something, but adding the pictures is still really scary for a lot of folks,” says Carol Tilley, associate professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Thus it should come as no surprise that two graphic novels topped the American Library Association’s annual list of the most challenged books: This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki and Drama by Raina Telgemeier. Both are acclaimed works by respected authors; however, that acclaim may have helped cause the problems. This One Summer, published by First Second, is marketed as a YA book for older teens. It deals with two girls on the cusp of adolescence who are learning about life and sexuality in an honest and nonexplicit manner. However, when it was named a Caldecott Honor book in 2015, some librarians and parents may have assumed it was for younger readers, despite the fact that it also won a Printz Honor, a prize for YA novels.
“Most librarians buy all the Caldecott winners and they may not have been aware of the content,” says Robin Brenner, teen librarian at the Public Library of Brookline (Mass.). The confusion reflects the belief, still widely held in the U.S., that all comics are for children. “Everyone needs to be reminded that the Caldecott doesn’t always go to picture books for younger children,” she says.
James Larue, director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, confirms the rise in challenges to graphic novels. He notes that both This One Summer and Drama—which includes a subplot about two gay middle schoolers—deal with LGBTQ themes, and “that continues to be a concern for many who challenge books.”
Even acquiring and shelving conventionally published graphic novels for adults can pose problems. Big Hard Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky collects a popular crime comedy series about a couple who can stop time when they have sex and use their powers to rob banks. The book is rated mature for explicit content. According to Larue, in the library where it was challenged, it was appropriately shelved in the adult section and clearly labeled as such. Larue suspects that, once again, parents assumed that “a book in the comics format is aimed at kids, even when it clearly isn’t.”
Librarians PW spoke with all agreed that book challenges are on the rise and the reported ones are just the tip of the iceberg. Tilley is worried that the current political and social climate may give rise to more challenges, and that, in areas where library funding is more tenuous, “it may be easier in some instances to say no to comics because they seem more frivolous.” She adds: “It’s going to be important for librarians to figure out how comics are working in their communities. We may have to start doing more justifying.”
Digital Comics Lending for Libraries
Making it easier for libraries to offer digital comics is Hoopla, a digital streaming service providing a wide variety of content to public libraries. Hoopla Digital is the digital lending service of Midwest Tape; the service offered e-books, music, and movies when it launched in 2014 and added comics in 2015. Hoopla is currently available in 1,400 library systems and 5,600 branches across the U.S. and Canada.
When its comics service began, Hoopla offered only a small selection of DC comics and titles from independent comics publishers. Since then, “it’s grown by leaps and bounds,” according to Michael Manon, public relations and communications manager at Hoopla Digital. The service works with more than 70 publishers (including every major comics publishers except Marvel) and offers nearly 10,000 titles, including single-issue periodical comics, which are often a problem for libraries to carry because they are essentially magazines and not durable enough for circulation. Patrons of library systems using Hoopla can access the comics for free using their library cards.
Hoopla solved problems librarians faced using other digital-lending programs by offering a subscription model, which allows the library systems to pay in advance for a set number of checkouts. Although, with a popular genre like comics, making that estimate can initially be challenging, Brenner says. “It took libraries a while to figure out how to pay for it since we have set budgets. We had to set a limit of 10 checkouts a month per person, but that works for most people.” She notes that the system really caught on when Image Comics—in particular, Brian K. Vaughan’s wildly popular Saga series—became available. “Everyone got very excited, and kids were excited that they didn’t have to wait for trade book collections.”
Publishers are also enthusiastic about Hoopla. Filip Sablik, president of publishing and marketing at the independent comics publisher Boom Studios, says that he had been pitched many different models for digital lending over the years. “We’ve dipped our toes in the water, but historically we hadn’t seen a ton of immediate great returns until we started working with Hoopla,” Sablik notes. “It’s been surprisingly robust over the past year.”
Titles popular on Hoopla reflect what’s popular in print, according to Manon, including bestsellers such as the Walking Dead and Lumberjanes, and comics for younger readers from Disney, Andrews McMeel, and the inevitable Wimpy Kid series of graphic novels.
While Hoopla may have solved one problem with digital comics for libraries, a more vexing one remains: webcomics. There are thousands of webcomic series, some with millions of readers. The webcomics world is attractive to artists because it’s so wide open that a teenage cartoonist can start by posting comics on Tumblr and end up a National Book Award nominee. That was the route taken by Noelle Stevenson with her much-lauded webcomic turned graphic novel, Nimona, which was nominated for the NBA for Young People’s Literature in 2015.
“All of my teens read webcomics and ask if they can get them in book form,” Brenner says. But it isn’t always that simple, even when a book collection exists. Many webcartoonists, if they have print collections, self-publish them, and most libraries aren’t set up to use these platforms for acquisitions.
“I see a lot of libraries and librarians struggling with small press, self-published, and Kickstarter comics,” Tilley says. “A lot of libraries don’t have the mechanisms to easily integrate that stuff as part of their regular acquisitions. You have some great comics that could really be relevant for a collection, but because of the system, they can only be added after they move to a bigger distributor.”
A frequently cited example is Ngozi Ukazu’s Check, Please!, a smash-hit comic first published on Tumblr, about a gay college hockey player who finds romance with a teammate. After raising $72,000 on Kickstarter in 2015 to publish the first print volume of the series, Ukazu launched another Kickstarter this year to publish a second, easily raising nearly $400,000. But getting the book into libraries is no easy task. Though Ukazu also sells the first book as a digital download, librarians say it is not feasible for a library system to buy a book from an author’s website. Public library systems are almost always required to purchase titles through vendors such as Baker & Taylor and Ingram. Some library systems won’t even buy from Amazon.
“That is something that libraries need to work on,” Brenner says. For her library, Brenner simply bought a copy of Check, Please! Year One with her own money and donated it, a route that many librarians take when they encounter a quality self-published title that deserves to be in their collections.
More webcartoonists are looking to make their comics more available to libraries. George Rohac, who manages various webcartoonists, including Ukazu, through his consulting company Organized Havoc, is frustrated by the situation as well. “Years ago I tried to slap together essentially a creator co-op to tackle library expansion,” he says. But the logistics of setting up a physical warehouse and a subdistribution system proved too large a task.
Isabelle Melançon, a Canadian webcartoonist and the director of operations at Hiveworks, a web publisher that hosts nearly 200 webcomics, is aware of the problem, both for her own comics, Namesake and Valor, and the creators she works to support. She’s been able to come up with some innovative solutions: for her own Kickstarter for Valor, an anthology of comics about heroines, Melançon added a stretch goal: if the project made a certain amount of money, a number of copies of the book would be donated to libraries, “and we asked supporters to suggest donation locations.”
Although Melançon is passionate about getting webcomics into libraries, she stresses that, like many of the solutions discussed, it’s just an idea so far. “We have a lot of other goals right now,” she says.
Tilley agrees that helping comics creators become more aware of how library acquisition works has to be part of the eventual solution. “Going through [library wholesale vendors such as] Baker and Taylor or Follett isn’t ideal for everyone, but that could be a step for some,” she says.
Though there is definitely a demand among patrons, collecting and cataloging webcomics will continue to present a host of challenges with no ready solution. Karen Green, Columbia University’s curator of comics and cartoons who founded the university library’s graphic novel collection, points to another problem with webcomics: the web isn’t forever, and acclaimed webcomics can disappear with the click of a mouse. “I added some comics by Andrea Tsurumi to our catalogue, and then she put them behind a paywall,” Green says. “Now we’ve got dead links.”
However, Green points out a program at Columbia that may offer a possible solution to the webcomics archiving problem: an online archive that stores copies of human rights sites around the world against the strong possibility they will be taken down by authoritarian local governments. But she acknowledges that implementing this for webcomics is still far in the future. “We’ve got an infrastructure, but we haven’t taken it much farther than that,” she says. “It’s a possibility.”
Tilley says she encourages her library and information science students to be more mindful of integrating webcomics into their catalogues, whether via blog posts or catalogue records, maybe even with something as simple as an index card with a webcomic URL on it. The readers are there, she says, and librarians should be able to help their patrons find this material.
Although webcomics may present acquisition problems, most other categories of graphic novels are growing in library collections at a rapid rate. Brenner is particularly happy to see the rise of comics for tween readers.
“For a while it was hard to find transitional comics for a kid to read after Bone, but now there are teen books like Lumberjanes, Gotham Academy, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Ms. Marvel—those are the kinds of books I can give to an 11-year-old and not worry about.”
In-house library “comic cons” are also proliferating as comic convention culture has gone mainstream. Every librarian PW spoke with says comics events are among the most popular at their libraries. “They are everywhere,” Tilley says. “A lot of my former students are starting comic con events at their libraries.”
Comics are viewed as a “surefire thing” to get kids excited, says Tilley, “but sometimes the adult collection might be overlooked.” And while prejudice against comics among librarians is mostly a thing of the past, it still lingers among adult librarians.
Despite this, adult graphic novel collections are growing, though some librarians are still confused about where to shelve the titles. Brenner advocates dividing adult comics away from the teen section if a library has the space. There’s also some confusion about which books to add to a collection: awards, usually an indicator of quality, aren’t always the best guides for adult comics, where they tend to go to more esoteric titles. “A series like Walking Dead isn’t winning awards, but everyone should be buying it,” Brenner says.
Despite the book challenges, acquisition headaches, and outdated presumptions about comics readership, the category continues to grow in popularity. It’s all part of the general notion among patrons and librarians that graphic novel collections in libraries are here to stay.
“Very rarely do I see a parent critical of a kid reading a comic,” Brenner says. “Mostly it’s, ‘Oh, great!’ There’s not a whiff of disapproval.”
Tilley’s comics reader advisory class fills up every year with library and information science students who are planning careers in all kinds of librarianships. “They all walk away excited about the possibilities of working with comics,” she says.
This article has been corrected; a previous version incorrectly referred to the Public Library of Brookline as the Brookline Public Library.