At libraries across the U.S., comics and graphic novel collections have shown strong, well-documented growth among children and teens over the last decade. But adult comics and graphic novels have yet to take off in libraries, despite widespread acclaim (Roz Chasts’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, for example, was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award) and popularity (the Walking Dead series by Robert Kirkman). Why?
Part of the reason, librarians say, is budgetary. “To take a risk with your budget on a niche section like graphic novels can be difficult for libraries struggling to make ends meet,” says Ivy Noelle Weir, assistant manager and program coordinator at Kennett (Penn.) Public Library, one of the few librarians in the field tasked with developing an adult graphic novel collection. “Kids will definitely read comics. It’s more a question of whether adults will, though I think that is changing.”
Andrew Woodrow-Butcher, director of library services for the Beguiling comics shop in Toronto, agrees: “There are some collections in the big library systems, but in smaller libraries they often don’t have a budget for adult graphic novels at all.” And part of the problem, he adds, is that most of the librarians who collect comics and graphic novels still do so for teen and YA collections. Woodrow-Butcher sees firsthand that many acclaimed graphic novels are being ordered for teen collections, even though they are adult books. When a teen librarian tried to order Eleanor Davis’s How to Be Happy (which was on PW’s best books of 2014 list), Woodrow-Butcher had to explain that it belonged in the adult section. “But that can be an opportunity to point out that [librarians] should be allocating adult funds for these books,” he says. “And this kind of conversation can lead to the start of an adult collection.”
The misconception that graphic novels are not real books also lingers among some adult librarians, impeding collection building, although award-winning graphic novels such as Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, which won this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Prize for graphic novels. And, interestingly, one area where adult collections are growing quickly is in academic libraries.
Karen Green, librarian for ancient and medieval history and graphic novels at Columbia University, says university comics studies are “catching fire,” as an increasing number of institutions are adding them, including fellow Ivy leaguers such as the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell. Once again, mainstream awards for comics are opening doors. “Universities that may once have felt more cautious may now have another look,” Green notes.
In fact, librarians say that academic comics libraries, though still rare, are getting bigger and better, with Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum leading the way. With more than three million items in the collection, including 45,000 books and 30,000 linear feet of manuscripts and documents, it’s easily the world’s largest academic research facility for printed comics art. The library began in 1977 as a few rooms in the basement of a university building, but the new facility, which opened in 2013 under the leadership of founding curator Lucy Caswell, is state of the art. “Usage is up dramatically,” says Caitlin McGurk, engagement coordinator for the library. “This year, the number of visitors is already more than four times greater than any other single year. We strive to be a real community space, and we welcome any comics fans who want to come.”
With a groundswell of positive reviews, media attention, and awards for comics, a cultural shift is underway, and most librarians agree that more libraries will soon begin developing adult graphic novels and comics collections. “As comics culture becomes more mainstream,” Weir says, “even the most comics-blind librarian will see the value of developing their adult comics collection.”
Comics and graphic novels are a major track at the ALA Annual Conference. Consult your program for a full slate of events on the Graphic Novel/Gaming Stage. And check out the Graphic Novel Petting Zoo on Monday, June 29 (10:30–11:30 a.m., MC Esplanade 301), for ideas on how to bump up your collection, with longtime collection developers Jack Baur (Berkeley [Calif.] Public Library), Casey Gilly (Comic Book Resources), and Eva Volin (Alameda [Calif.] Free Library).