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April 26, 2011

Feature Story: One Book, One Conference at TLA: The Discussion


Attendees of the recent Texas Library Association (TLA) annual conference—which took place April 12–15 in Austin—were greeted with a nice graphic-novel welcome this year: Besides panels about graphic novels and a forum featuring some well-known creators and the $20,000 Great Graphic Novel Library Giveaway, the book selected for the One Book, One Conference reading group was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile. The graphic novel, which tells the story of a woman who one night discovers a supernatural library that houses every single thing she’s ever read and who subsequently spends the rest of her life looking for it again, is a beautifully illustrated and haunting story. It’s also a book that contains its fair share of controversy and discussion points, as evidenced by the healthy, invigorating discussion that took place when TLA attendees got together to talk about the book. Here, Texas Tech University Associate Humanities Librarian Rob Weiner, who moderated the One Book, One Conference panel at the show, gives us the scoop on the book and the discussion around it.


How did The Night Bookmobile get selected for this distinction?

TLA membership chose the book (some of the others on the ballot were Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, David B’s Epileptic, and David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir). I think for obvious reasons The Night Bookmobile was chosen because it is about a librarian.

What was the reaction when this graphic novel was announced as the pick for “One Book, One Conference”?

I think the choice of a graphic novel was seen as a positive thing. Most librarians don’t “thumb their nose” at graphic novels anymore. We are realizing as a profession the positive aspects of comics/graphic novels. Using a graphic novel for the “One Book, One Conference” is just another step in the acceptance of graphic novels by librarians.

What was the audience like for the discussion?

There was a nice mix between librarians who had previous knowledge of graphic novels and those who were reading a graphic novel for the first time. We had a nice cross-section of participants, including school, public, and academic librarians. In that way, I think TLA was breaking some new ground here and exposing some librarians to a new storytelling/art form. 

How did the discussion go?

It went very well.. Obviously there were those who had mixed emotions (including myself) about The Night Bookmobile. There are some very positive things about the book (without giving away spoilers), but its portrayal of librarians/librarianship at least in the main character is controversial. Everyone who read the book had some kind of response to its view of librarians. Other discussion revolved around the concept of the librarian’s role as a gatekeeper of knowledge and as an information provider. Parts of the book are inspiring, but the tone of the volume is very serious (the goal of the author was to have a story about the “claims that books place on their readers”). The artistic style of the book was also “hotly” discussed and debated! We had lots of good discussion and no one was shy about joining in.

Without giving too much away, what did you find controversial about the portrayal of librarians in the book?

Well, let’s just say that the book deals with a suicide. I don’t want to give too much away.

What did you think were the most interesting discussion topics covered?

I think the emotions that were brought up in some of the respondents concerning librarianship and the way the main character becomes a librarian. What happens to her after she is a librarian certainly brought forth much discussion and comment.

After the discussion, did you get the sense that librarians would recommend the book to readers?

We did have mix of librarians who were not used to reading graphic novels alongside those who read them regularly. I think it was mixed! There were those who would certainly recommend the book, but others who may be a bit hesitant. As one participant pointed out to me, the discussion questions that worked the best were general questions about the book and librarianship. Those questions that required a more intimate knowledge of graphic novels didn’t work as well in the discussion. With that being said, I did have a librarian approach me and tell me it was one of the BEST TLA presentation he had been to. No joke!

How did you get involved?

When I heard that TLA was going to use a graphic novel for “One Book, One Conference,” I immediately contacted the TLA program committee to see if I could be the moderator/facilitator. They agreed. I invited some colleagues to be discussion leaders with me: WyLaina Hildreth (Aassistant Manager, Denton Public Library), Carrye Syma (Associate Social Sciences Librarian, Texas Tech University), and Dr. Elizabeth Figa (Professor of Library and Information Science, University of North Texas). I think these participants also shows the wide cross-section of interest in graphic novels.

Graphic novels seemed to have a much bigger presence at TLA this year. What do you think made that the case?

I think that having some graphic novel writers/artists like Hope Larson, Raina Telgemeier, and Dave Roman helped tremendously. Those panels were well attended and attendees were very interested in what the writers/artists had to say. There were more programs related to graphic novels and partnerships with the comic/graphic novel vendors. Also the Maverick Graphic Novel list committee contributed a great deal to the success of graphic novels at TLA.

Personally I am proud to be associated with an organization like TLA that is responding so positively to the call of graphic novels and libraries. I noticed the graphic novel/comics vendors were a little more prominently placed than in years past.

Do you think a graphic novel will be selected again for this distinction in the future?

I certainly hope so. In case it is, I’d volunteer to lead the discussion again.

What were some of the discussion questions that came up about the book?

Here is what we used as for part of the discussion:

What is the significance of the Bookmobile coming around only at low points in Alexandra’s life?

In today’s digital age, what does The Night Bookmobile say about books as physical objects?

How does the music of Jimi Hendrix, the Dead Kennedys, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Marley affect the narrative? What do all of these musical artists have in common?

What does The Night Bookmobile say about our professional calling as librarians to preserve humanity's “collective memory"?

Librarian Robert Openshaw is not the first librarian in sequential art. How does his character compare with other librarians in comics (e.g, the librarian in Neal Gaiman’s Sandman)?

What does Alexandra’s desire to be a librarian say about the being a professional librarian in the “real world"?

What point do you think Niffenegger is trying to make about being a librarian today?

What does The Night Bookmobile say about the library profession as a whole (and our ever changing roles)?  

Does The Night Bookmobile portray suicide as positive?

The Night Bookmobile is in some ways a very dark tale. Do you think it’s a tragedy?

How did you like the artistic style?

Niffenegger sometimes “breaks the fourth wall” by directly talking to the reader. Do you think it is an effective storytelling technique in this particular instance?

The author argues that The Night Bookmobile is “about the claims that books place on their readers.” Do you think she is successful in conveying this point?

Does the Bookmobile still have a place in today’s world?