Comic Books, Special Collections, and the Academic Library

ACRL announces the publication of Comic Books, Special Collections, and the Academic Library, edited by Brian Flota and Kate Morris. The book is a collection of best practices for the acquisition, preservation, storage, and cataloging of comics, particularly single-issue (or floppy) comics, within the special collections units of academic library collections.

Learn more about Comic Books, Special Collections, and the Academic Library in this excerpt from the Introduction by the editors, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.


The Landscape of Comic Books, Special Collections, and Academic Libraries

As comic book properties continue their reign over popular culture, there has been continued growth in the academic field of Comics Studies. As a result, graphic novels and comic trade paperbacks have begun to populate the shelves of many academic libraries. Single issue collections of “floppy” comic books, however, tend to find their home in special collections libraries because their flimsy construction, highly acidic paper, and, occasionally, the scarcity of certain specific issues warrants special storage and handling. Furthermore, after decades of neglecting comic books because of the perception of them as “lowbrow” cultural objects, with a few major exceptions, academic libraries only recently began to seriously collect them. Given the challenges of time, cost, and space associated with collecting, cataloging, and preserving these pieces of comics history, thoughtful consideration must go into any decision to begin such a collection or to sustain existing collections.

Comic Books, Special Collections, and the Academic Library aims to be the first collection of essays about comic books in libraries geared toward the academic library and special collections in particular. Each section is framed in the form of a question, such as “Why Should Your Institution Collect Comics?” and “How Do You Engage in Library Instruction with Your Comics Collection?” Challenges specific to comic book collections in academic libraries are addressed, such as finding space and funds to build a collection, making diverse and inclusive collections, leading innovative library instruction sessions with comics, and working with undergraduate and graduate students on comics research. Authors offer best practices for developing, cultivating, growing, cataloging, and making use of comic book collections from academic librarians who have been trailblazers in this arena.

Special collections units within academic libraries have historically built their reputations on the backs of pre-print manuscripts (such as books of hours), incunabula, valuable books such as William Shakespeare’s “First Folio” (1623) and the “Double Elephant Folio” of John James Audobon’s The Birds of America (1827-38), limited edition fine press books, and archival manuscript collections. To this day, many job advertisements for special collections librarians prefer or require literacy in Latin. It is against this airy backdrop, one that has had more than a century to develop its own specific cataloging and metadata vernacular (see, for example, Fredson Bowers’ “signature” 1949 tome Principles of Bibliographical Description), that comics fight for space.

When the first comic books began appearing in the 1930s in the US, they cost ten cents and were printed on some of the cheapest quality paper (newsprint) available. Unlike the rare books mentioned above, which were geared towards those with the highest possible levels of education (be they members of the aristocracy, the clergy, or the university), comics, at least initially, were aimed at younger and less traditionally literate audiences. The mismatch between the content of traditionally held special collections materials and comic books couldn’t be greater. To complicate things further, while the special collections library world and the rare book collecting world generally share the same lingo for the books they are buying and selling, comic book collectors and librarians often appear to be speaking two completely different languages. As if this weren’t enough, the all-encompassing term comics can include comic strips, single-issue comic books, graphic novels and trade paperback reprints, digital or web comics, minicomics, original comic art, and certain fanzines, just to name a few variations, all of which have their own specific bibliographic elements and affiliated collector and practitioner communities. And this is but one reason why there is a need for a volume such as the one you are currently reading.

One of the main reasons we proposed Comic Books, Special Collections, and the Academic Library was because of the relative lack of “best practices” literature or scholarship regarding the acquisition, preservation, storage, and cataloging of comics, particularly single-issue (or floppy) comics, within the special collections units of academic library collections.

The foundational work in this regard is the series of books and articles published by Randall W. Scott, the former Michigan State University librarian who established that school’s early and important comic book, popular culture, and comic arts collection in the early 1970s. His books, especially A Subject Index to Comic Books and Related Material (1975) and Comics Librarianship: A Handbook (1990), were essential to getting this conversation started. Given the fraught relationship between librarians and comic books historically,[1] the series of books that appeared between 2009 and 2018, focusing on incorporating comic books into library collections, was unexpected and welcomed. Noteworthy titles include Graphic Novels: Beyond the Basics (2009, edited by Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper), Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives: Essays on Readers, Research, History and Cataloging (2010, edited by Robert G. Weiner), Bryan D. Fagan and Jody Condit Fagan’s Comic Book Collections for Libraries (2011), and Matthew Z. Wood’s Comic Book Collections and Programming: A Practical Guide for Librarians (2018). Most of these books provide a basic overview of comics, participate in canon formation, and focus on graphic novels and trade paperback reprints. Most of the pieces in them focus on public library collections. Wood’s book even goes so far as to discourage libraries from accepting donations of single-issue comic books.[2]

There have been a handful of noteworthy scholarly essays about comic books in libraries as well. Allen Ellis and Doug Highsmith’s “About Face: Comic Books in Library Literature” (2000, Serials Review) provides an excellent overview of how librarians have engaged with comic books since they became a force within popular culture in the 1930s, though little of it focuses on academic libraries. The best contributions to the literature have largely been in the field of metadata and cataloging, advocating several different approaches. D.S. Serchay’s “Comic Book Collectors: The Serial Librarians of the Home” (1998, Serials Review), Gary W. Markham’s “Cataloging the Publications of Dark Horse Comics: One Publisher in an Academic Catalog” (2006, Journal of Academic Librarianship), and the oft-cited 2016 essay by Anne Culbertson and Pamela Jackson, “Comics and the Modern Library Catalog: New Rules for Breaking the Rules” (The Serials Librarian), foreshadow and provide the building blocks for several of the chapters in this very collection.

The collection Comics and Critical Librarianship: Reframing the Narrative in Academic Libraries (2019), edited by Olivia Piepmeier and Stephanie Grimm, really opened up the conversation about these topics and provided the greatest single book-length inspiration for this book. Its inspiration can be found all over Comic Books, Special Collections, and the Academic Library. In fact, several contributors to that collection appear in (or have co-edited) this one. And while it does the best job to date addressing many of the concerns found in this book, it is ultimately focused on academic librarians using their comics collections to specifically address social justice issues, not necessarily the “nuts and bolts” of academic comic book collecting.

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There are many reasons to be optimistic about the state of comic book collections in academic library special collections. As the Comics Studies discipline continues to develop and blossom, more and more collections are beginning to emerge. More books, like this one, are being published, and more conferences centering around Comics Studies and Comics Librarianship are happening, such as the Comics Studies and Practices Symposium held at San Diego University in July 2022 and the Comics Studies Society’s annual conference, now in its sixth year. But challenges remain. There is still a paucity of comic book collections in academic libraries. They are often initiated by a significant donation with little thought given by administrators to the future sustainability of the collection. Because of the time-consuming nature of cataloging comics, storing and preserving these often brittle artifacts, and a general lack of staffing to complete this work, there is a risk of collections falling into a state of neglect.[3] The administrative will to encourage or demand Comics Librarians “do more with less” can lead to unsustainable workloads and burnout. The perils of censorship and book banning continue to emerge and might have an impact on collections as well as on the professional reputations of certain librarians with what may be unfairly perceived as controversial content. But rather than shy away from these risks, this is precisely the moment for Comics Librarians, Comics Studies scholars, and comic book lovers to rally around the preservation of material long deemed too lowbrow to preserve in our ivory-est of towers. It is our great hope that the thirty-two contributors to this book will ignite in the reader the inspiration to build, develop, refine, and diversify these collections so that comics history can be experienced by those who seek it out for their research, curiosity, or aesthetic pleasure.

Notes

[1] See Brian Flota, “Challenging ‘Stereotypes and Fixity’: African American Comic Books in the Academic Archive,” in Comics and Critical Librarianship: Reframing the Narrative in Academic Libraries, ed. Olivia Piepmeier and Stephanie Grimm (Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2019), 102-104.

[2] Matthew Z. Wood, Comic Book Collections and Programming: A Practical Guide for Librarians (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 33.

[3] Chapter 10 of this book, Jordan Jancocek’s “Processing Legacy Comic Book Collections in a Special Collections Library,” demonstrates the amount of time and hard work that goes into revitalizing a neglected collection.