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March 16, 2009

OP-ED: Karen Green on Columbia University's Graphic Novel Collection


Comics and the Academic Library: Plans in the Present and Hopes for the Future


As possibly all too many of GNR’s readers already know, I began a graphic novels collection at Columbia University about four years ago. Columbia has a top-notch research collection, but our holdings can also be mined for entertainment value. I was able to find novels I wanted to read in our collection, but I wasn’t able to find trade publications of comics, despite their being reviewed in the same media—The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books,etc.—as the other titles that piqued my curiosity. 

I decided to pitch the idea of a cohesive comics collection for our general, circulating stacks (as opposed to the comprehensive special collections at universities such as Ohio State and Michigan State), and my first task was to find a faculty member who would support the notion. Purely by chance—as the result of a dean overhearing my conversation with a colleague in an elevator—I learned about a professor of Middle Eastern history who had been trying to get a comics course approved for our School of Continuing Education. Once I had him onboard, I marshaled my reasons, which included the aforementioned recognition in the mainstream critical press (as well as in academic publications), the importance of graphic novels to a film school and film studies program (which Columbia has), and the absence of any concerted effort on the part of a New York City institution to collect these materials, despite the city’s prominence in the history of the industry.
I was awarded a green light and a small acquisitions fund—and four years later, we have over 1,000 titles and growing. How did that happen? How do you build a collection from scratch?
In the best of all possible worlds, a new collection supports curricular needs. Faculty teach courses, they need books—they tell the librarian what they need and we take it from there. In the absence of that faculty liaison function, I had a few tools to rely on to amplify my own knowledge.

  • Award-winning titles: It’s very easy to find websites that list all the winners of the Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz awards. Creating lists of the winners—and even the runners-up—not only points to titles that have won recognition within the medium but also forms the seeds of a rudimentary authors-to-watch-for list.
  • Newsletters and blogs: I think I literally began by Googling comics and reviews. Not the most scientific or professional method, I’ll admit. I read through a lot of enthusiastic fan sites before beginning to stumble over certain resources again and again. And this was how I discovered the Publishers Weekly newsletter PW Comics Week and the blog created by one of its editors, The Beat. It was also how I found sites like The Comics Reporter, Newsarama, and Comic Book Resources. These were helpful…to a degree, as I’ll explain further below.
  • Guides: The first books I looked through had titles like The 101 Best Graphic Novels. They were written primarily for public librarians, but they did give me a sense of what certain titles were like, and whether I thought they belonged in the collection. More recently, resources such as Gene Kannenberg Jr.’s 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide or Paul Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know have served as introductory catalogs to the medium.

    And then there was others' expertise. I used whatever was at my disposal.

    • Comics stores: Rather than simply add a “comics” subject area to our English-language approval plan (the process by which books in areas of interest are sent automatically to libraries by a single vendor), I decided to see if I could set up a local comics shop as our vendor. Some of the bloggers I’d read spoke highly of Jim Hanley’s Universe, so I went down and talked to the staff, who were incredibly helpful. In addition to filling orders for titles unlikely to be listed with our approval vendor, they encouraged me to come down from time to time and walk the aisles with one of their employees, listening to recommendations of what was interesting and what was popular.
    • People who know: I already knew a professor and a grad student at Columbia who were longtime fanboys. I picked their brains endlessly. What did they like, and why? What superhero storylines were essential, from which writers and artists? What titles lent themselves to the sort of close readings that would reward research? This was invaluable, while also underscoring my own areas of weakness. I had grown up on newspaper strips, Archies, Mad, and indie comics; I was completely ignorant of the mainstream superhero tradition. I needed these guys.
    • Reading lists: It was my great good fortune, when the collection was about a year and a half old, to learn that Columbia’s Heyman Center for the Humanities had invited Art Spiegelman to teach a course called “Comics: Marching into the Canon.” Course reading lists are sacrosanct: The library makes every effort possible to locate anything a professor requires. Spiegelman’s list of essential works was about 80 titles long; we had fewer than 25 of these. It took a lot of time on sites like, since many were out of print, but we managed to locate almost everything on that list.
    • Events and conventions: New York is still a great town for comics. Just after I began the collection, the first New York Comic-Con kicked off, where I could begin meeting creators and publishers. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, located in SoHo, had exhibits and functions where I could further cement relationships forged at Cons. The American Library Association, which has professional conferences that meet twice yearly, has a massive exhibit hall where they launched a “Graphic Novel Alley” the year I began my collection: a specific piece of real estate where all the comics publishers’ booths were located.

The effect was cumulative. As my expertise expanded, so did our collection.
But one thing was obvious. When I went to comic conventions, to events, to ALA, or listened to the library talk, it was all about public libraries. There was a good reason for this. Public librarians—notably women such as Kat Kan and Michele Gorman—had been in the vanguard of promoting graphic novels as appropriate material for library collections. Though comics had long been scorned as mind-rot for juvies, public librarians had begun to see that, if they wanted their young patrons to love reading, one way to start them on the path was by introducing them to comics. Education programs were beginning to recognize that using graphic novels was a way to entice reluctant readers toward literacy, and the public librarians were leading the charge.
As a result, they had very specific concerns: Which titles would be popular with children, tweens, young adults, generating circulation statistics that would justify their purchase? What titles were appropriate for them? The notion of comics as a gateway to literacy became more and more important, and with that the assurance that sex, violence, and mature content were identified and thus avoidable. These were the library concerns that publishers and creators were addressing—but they weren’t my concerns. I operated on the assumption that Columbia’s library patrons were already literate and capable of handling even the most mature themes. Research collections don’t rely on circulation stats; as a grad student, I’d used books that hadn’t been checked out since the 1940s. So what help did I want from publishers and vendors?
Well, how do academic libraries buy anything? We rely on scholarship published by academic presses or literary publishers; we look at book reviews published in critical journals; we check the Library of Congress Subject Headings that illuminate the subject matter of the book. We rely on the judgment of our approval vendors. We encourage recommendations from faculty and students. We check our peer institutions’ holdings. We see what titles are cited in current scholarship. But how does that translate to a graphic novels collection?
The most pressing need, in my opinion, is for an organized index to reviews. There are databases to which Columbia subscribes that index scholarly and mainstream periodicals for book reviews—but only a small percentage of comics are reviewed in these venues. If I’m curious about a scholarly book, say, Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity, I look it up in a book review database and get citations for reviews in Library Journal, Harper’s, The Classical Review, Ancient Philosophy, International History Review, The Journal of Hellenic Studies,and The American Journal of Philology. If I want to see what reviewers are saying about Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, however, I get bupkiss. I could go to a half-dozen or more comics blogs and search for American Flagg! at each one of them, then separate the posts where Chaykin’s work is merely mentioned from ones that actually review it; I could check issues of The Comics Journal, which isn’t yet indexed by any database—but that’s simply too much of an investment of time for each title. If substantive reviewers can’t get resources like Book Review Digest Plus or Book Review Index to cite their work—and as long as the reviews appear on blogs, that’s unlikely to happen—then perhaps they need to develop their own resource to aggregate these reviews and help out the purchaser who wants to know where a title fits in a literary or artistic tradition, or to understand what the larger themes are that are addressed in a given work.
And these are the kinds of reviews that academic librarians need. Recommended reading ages are not useful indicators: Is something appropriate for 8-year-olds because it’s specifically geared to their interests and tastes (making it of less interest to a research collection—especially one that doesn’t have a children’s literature focus) or is it appropriate because its rich and complex story is blessedly free of nipples—like Jeff Smith’s Bone or Peter Kuper’s Sticks and Stones? These are the kinds of distinctions that are useful. Think about how The New York Times Book Review approaches a novel: How it fits in the author’s oeuvre, the power of its prose, the success of its story, the sophistication of its themes, etc. Why should Ames’ and Haspiel’s The Alcoholic or Rick Veitch’s Army@Love get any different treatment?
So: Good, accessible reviews—that’s my number one goal. But I’m not just about want, want, want: What can academic libraries contribute to the industry?
Well…expertise. Organization. Archiving. This is what libraries do. Columbia University, for example, has the finest Oral History department in the world. Interviews are done carefully, according to a prescribed method, then transcribed and archived. For a year or two, I’ve been talking to publishers, editors, creators, comics scholars—really, anyone who would listen—about working with Columbia’s Oral History Research Office (OHRO) to create an oral history of the comics industry. There are still Golden Age creators waiting to tell their stories, and there are plenty of available Silver Age creators, too. Industry professionals who’ve been immersed in the medium for 40 or 50 years, since they were teenagers, have stories to tell. This requires OHRO staff who understand how to interview people in the industry, and/or independent interviewers who are willing to work within Columbia’s framework. It also requires money. How can we all work together to make this happen?
Another area is digitization. There are some long-lived publishers out there with rich and surprising archives. Not just of their publications, but of the ephemera that has been used to promote their work through the decades. Plenty of creators have collections like this as well. Why not share it? Work with academic institutions, or with independent digital publishers, to make this material available online.
There is a publisher, Alexander Street Press, who is beginning this process. They specialize in comprehensive and meticulously indexed digital collections—really cool stuff, such as Twentieth Century Advice Literature: North American Guides on Race, Sex, Gender, and the Family or The American Civil War: Letters and Diaries—and they are now branching out into comics. In the fall, they will release Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels; soon after, a collection of early American and British newspaper strips will follow. Why can’t libraries and publishers work together to contribute content to databases such as this?
This is such an incredibly exciting moment we’re in: a new Golden Age, where creative efflorescence has met popular and critical acceptance. Academic libraries can help foster research, drive sales, promote historical archiving. The present economy may have thrown all of us a curve, but it shouldn’t stop us. We can work together to make the medium stronger. Help us, and help us help you!
—Karen Green, Ancient & Medieval History and Religion Librarian and Graphic Novels Librarian, Columbia University