Published on April 15th, 2015 | by Matt Upson
Comics on Campus: Starting a Successful Graphic Novel Collection at Your Academic Library
Robust, distinct, successful graphic novel collections are frequently seen in school and public libraries and are most often aimed at children and teens. But when you consider that the average age of comic book readers tends to skew older and that young women are becoming more and more engaged as readers of comics, academic libraries are in the position of playing catch-up. Of course, the regular arguments against developing this type of collection in an academic library will always pop up (they’re for kids, they’re not academic, there’s no connection to the curriculum, etc.), but “it is the place of academic librarians to champion their cultural, literary, and intellectual value in order to invite more people into that growing audience that respects rather than stereotypes [graphic novels]” (Toren, 2011, p. 56). I’ve had the privilege of working in three academic libraries and have been fortunate enough to start focused graphic novel collection efforts at two of them and I am attempting to get the ball rolling at a third. Listed below are just a few (hopefully useful) bits of advice that I’ve gleaned from past experience. Please feel free to amend, argue, supplement, and discuss. The bottom line is that every library and every community is different and should be served accordingly. These strategies helped me serve the populations I worked with more effectively, and I hope they can help you (even if some seem obvious). I should note that the collections I’ve worked with have been intentionally set up as distinct collections shelved in locations specifically devoted to displaying graphic novels, rather than being integrated into the general collection. I’ll touch on that more below, but I’ve found that to be a very important aspect of a successful effort.
Partnerships/Connections – Since one of the primary reasons for not collecting graphic novels is the lack of connection to the curriculum or to the mission of the university, find ways to develop that connection. Work to find partners in and out of the library that can help provide a way to ground the collection in student learning and success. You may find it useful to propose a smaller collection, with a specific (and, as always, measurable) intent and impact, that can expand and transform once your initial efforts show success. You never know who will jump on board, so ask everyone, but I think there are excellent partnerships to be made with English and History departments, as well as with Student Life and Diversity units on campus. Once you get your collection started, I think you’ll be surprised by the variety and number of faculty and staff who show and interest, especially if you can articulate why the collection exists in the first place. Be able to explain why it’s there in the first place, how you envision success, and how people can partner with you.
Visibility – Too often, when academic libraries actually have graphic novels, they’re hidden away in the stacks with little or no signage to communicate their location (just like all the other books! Crazy, huh?). Ideally, you can create an entirely new permanent location for the collection, bringing it out into an area with high visibility and high-traffic. This can be a huge obstacle to overcome and the politics of creating a new location for materials or a new discrete collection can be a touchy subject. I guarantee that someone in your library will say something along the lines of “Students don’t read comics and we don’t need to do any of this. Go away.” And to be fair, it’s a ton of work for multiple people, so I completely understand why they wouldn’t want to put in the work for something they think will fail. My advice would be, if you don’t already have a top-down mandate to initiate a collection like this (and you probably don’t), start off with a simple, temporary display just to let your community know that you actually have graphic novels in your collection. Just having the material out in front of people will increase the circulation and awareness. That’s why we create displays in the first place, right? If possible, situate yourself or other library staff near the display, so you can keep track of the traffic and gauge interest. Start building a case for a larger, more visible, and even separate collection. Create some lively, provocative signage to pull people in. If you can’t create some centrally located display, create some signage that informs and routes students up to the graphic novels in the stacks. When we were starting up our collection at Emporia State University, we hauled a lot of our titles over to new student orientation browse sessions and allowed students to check out items on location. We promoted the collection by attracting students to our table with a graphic novel giveaway raffle and collected ideas for potential future titles. Find ways to connect the students with the material. I would love to see a library build some type of “pop culture corner” (please, come up with a better name) that features not only graphic novels, but games (board, card, video, etc.), and film offerings, perhaps adjacent to library café space. This space could serve as lounge space, but also provide programming space for the community to discuss pop culture topics and feature relevant library programming.
Talk to students and pay attention to engagement – When I developed a collection at Emporia State, I made the initial mistake of buying items I thought students would enjoy or what I deemed justifiable from an academic standpoint. The small start-up collection of 40 or 50 items had modest circulation, but I quickly made it clear to students through signage and conversation that they could be the driving force behind the collection. I was the primary point of contact for students who were interested in the collection and received frequent requests for books that I would have almost certainly not purchased on my own initiative. I continued to purchase a wide variety of award winners, popular titles, superhero books, and worked on developing a diverse collection that ended up being very successful due to the buy-in and participation from students. For some additional context, we ended up reaching a collection size of a few hundred items that resulted in approximately 1,000 circulations over the 2013-2014 academic year.
Having students drive your collection development may seem like an in-your-face-obvious (and potentially provocative) strategy, but I honestly think that students were much more likely to use the collection and try out new and unfamiliar titles when they knew that they had a great deal of power in determining what that collection looked like.
In the months after we initiated our collection at Emporia, I began to notice that a few students would visit the collection multiple times a week, pull an item from the shelf and sit and read for an extended period of time. I’d observe these students simply reading for an hour or so before returning the book to the shelf. I began asking the students if they knew they could check out the items and take them out of the library. They were aware of this option, but preferred to come and read in-house while relaxing. Typically, they’d read a title per visit, and return again later that week to read another one. Observing and conversing with these students provided another potential measure for engagement. It’s not just about the circulation stats. Students will use the resources and spaces however they see fit and we should attempt to incorporate their experience into our practice and accommodate their preferences for interacting with the library. Based on student feedback, we tried a variety of approaches to showcasing out collection. Comfy chairs were shifted to positions more convenient to the collection. Since browsing activity was very high we decided to keep organization fairly loose and didn’t attempt to do detailed shelf reading too often, as it would quickly become a large time commitment, even for a collection of a few hundred books. We brought in a couple of magazine display racks that were no longer being used to showcase our new titles (covers facing out) and attempted to keep volumes of a title together, but students who used the collection explained that they rarely came in looking for a specific title and preferred to browse the collection in its entirety. They weren’t too concerned about fastidious organization, especially when considering that the collection fell within a very small Dewey range and could be confusing to students (side note: I’ve worked in three academic libraries and none have used Library of Congress Classification). Bottom line: don’t be afraid to be super flexible and even “messy” with the collection. The priority is to get the students involved and engaged with the material.
Communicate Internally – As I mentioned above, if your goal is to have a separate collection, you will be working with other library staff to make that happen. Every library is structured differently, but I found it essential to communicate with acquisitions, tech services, and cataloging staff to ensure that our location was set up correctly, items were identified with that location (physically and in the catalog), and were labeled appropriately. I also made sure to communicate with our shelving staff, informing them that we had a new location for graphic novels, and occasionally checking in the general collection for mis-shelved items early on. Communicating your project’s goals and details to your internal community is just as vital as sharing information with your external community. Without buy-in and participation from your co-workers, the collection will not be a viable and active as it could be.
In addition to the links above, check out these articles
Toren, B. J. (2011). Bam! Pow! Graphic novels fight stereotypes in academic libraries: Supporting, collecting, promoting. Technical Services Quarterly, 28(1), 55-69. doi:10.1080/07317131.2011.524523
Wagner, C. (2010). Graphic novel collections in academic ARL libraries. College & Research Libraries, 71(1), 42-48.
Young, B. (2014). Wham! Pow! Discussion of a graphic novel and comic book core collection in an academic library. Mississippi Libraries, 77(1), 9-11.