Comics And Libraries

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Many people believe that libraries can help promote reading graphic novels and comic books by including them in their collections. I spoke with Don Wentworth, Senior Staff Librarian of Reference Service at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and manager of its graphic novel collection, about the Carnegie Library’s graphic novel collection.

How long has the CLP been actively building its graphic novel collection?

About 4 years. We’ve been seriously working on it for over 4 years now.

How do you decide what books to buy?

It’s a somewhat different than usual way of buying books. Normally, we buy according to reviews. (I’m one of three people who select books). With GNs, we use lots of sources. The Comics Journal is one. We also use the Library Journal, Book List and Publisher’s Weekly. But they leave a lot to be desired in terms of the visual presentation of the books, even the Comics Journal.

Most of the books we buy directly from vendors, (comic shops). Phantom of the Attic and Copasetic Comics both have good array. Phantom has more popular, superhero stuff, but they have some edgy books too. Copasetic is run by one-guy; it’s a very personal collection. Bill, the owner, is very into underground comics. He gives us what we’re looking for in terms of an adult-oriented collection and mainstream books, too. We develop our collection with the Teen collection side-by-side. The shop clerks are very helpful, and are always pointing out new material. Nothing beats seeing the book itself.

While most of the books are in the humanities collection, some are in the Teen collection. How do you decide where a book goes?

Those are two separate collections run by different people. We’re independent of each other. We’ll talk to each other, sometimes purchase books together. The Teen librarian buys mostly through BWI, a library service that specializes in teen books. (Learn more at www.bwibooks.com). The biggest distinction is if they feel the material is more adult oriented, they put it in Humanities. If we feel a book is more teen in nature, we give it to them.

Does your location near two major universities, (Pittsburgh University and Carnegie Mellon University) factor into your selections?

Yes, it influences all our collection as whole. We tend to get students for their recreational needs more than their class material. We see heavy use in that area from students. The CMU newspaper, The Tartan, recently ran a great review of our GN collection.

It’s very popular. We have over 1,000 books, approaching 1,500. A GN can go out 25 times a year, while most of our other older books go out 4 times a year. Students will often grab a pile of GN’s and read.

Is theft a big problem?

No more than regular books. It just depends on the people. It always boggles my mind when people steal free books.

In your opinion, what is the artistic and literary value of comic books and graphic novels?

Great question. Personally, I’ve been a librarian for over 30 years. I’ve always been interested in comics. I read Marvel in the Silver Age just when they were exploding. I found comics were a great way to get pre-teen and teenage boys to read. When I read comics, I was into Conan, Spider-Man, Green Lantern, that sort of stuff. When I discovered the Conan comics were based on novels, I started reading those. I also found the Lovecraft novels through comics. That got me hooked on books, and I read both at the same time. I went on to be English major. I see the connection. There is literary worth in many of these things. So, from my personal experience, I see a direct connection between comics and books. I think there is a lot of merit in comics, cartoons, and GN’s because they get people reading.

We like to get things that are literature related. We’re getting an adaptation of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. (Stephane Heuet) has done a wonderful job adapting the novels. We’ve also got the ‘Classics Illustrated’ series, with authors like Dickens, Poe, and Charlotte Bronte. Today, from guys who work strictly in the GN form, we look for writers like Alan Moore, Daniel Clowes, and Art Spiegelman. I think those guys are lifting the whole field up with things that are art with a capital “A”. It’s great stuff

I wanted to say how just reading a comic in a library gives the book a sense of legitimacy; that a comic must be important because it’s in a library.

You could say that. In the old days, libraries were proscriptive; only the “good” material was included. Today, libraries need to be more descriptive, include more popular works, more things people want to read. GN’s have a mass popularity that people are very interested in. As far as worth and legitimacy goes, and as far as being in the library, I think they’re totally appropriate. The culture has changed greatly in the last 30 years, and so has the reading public. Libraries need to reflect the culture and reflect what people are interested in.

Many GNs written for an adult audience contain adult language and material. Have you ever had problems with parents complaining about their children borrowing such books?

We anticipated these problems, but they haven’t come up. We’ve gone out of our way to distinguish collections. We are a big urban library. We can place things separately. Teen books are totally separate from adult. We get a few complaints from time to time, but we haven’t received complaints about the GNs. We’re here to offer people what they want to read. We do not discriminate against any points of view.

What advice would you give to other libraries to help start their own GN collections?

There are some classic titles in the field. Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” & Steven Weiner’s “101 Graphic Novels for Libraries” are specifically designed to explain what the GN is to people. They’re perfect for librarians to develop their collections. There’s a lot of web-based material on GNs to find. For starting YA collection, check BWI, and the Librarian listserv for teen libraries. It’s an e-mail exchange amongst librarians to talk about good and bad titles and different issues.

GN is an umbrella term for anything from comics to cartoon strip collections, single artist tiles, anthologies, superheroes, manga, etc. We run the full gamut. I recommend segregating those parts out to make them more useful for your customers. Urge librarians to talk to others who’ve done it. Making the connection with your local comics store is huge. Even if you don’t end up buying there, just going there, seeing what people are buying, seeing the books is a big help.

Some shops think that people won’t buy books from them if they can get it for free at the library. Jeff at Phantom has had people buy books they checked out of library. They wanted to see if it was worth buying. Hats off to him for being broadminded in his approach. The stores give us great discounts. We give him good yearly business anyway. They’ve been great. Really helpful.

Do you ever read GNs? What are your favorites?

I do. I still like old school books. I’m reading the latest incarnation of “Conan”. I like more of the modern guys. Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is right up my alley. I love Daniel Clowes. Certainly Art Spiegleman. I’m looking forward to his “In the Shadow of No Towers”. I read some of his material in the London Review of Books. It’s just absolutely outstanding. He’s had trouble getting it serialized here in the U.S., but I think its coming out this month. (Note: it is available now from Pantheon Books.) R. Crumb, just across the board. I’m definitely in the old school category.

Many comic shops and libraries are taking part in an event called 24 Hour Comics. Local artists come to the store or library and spend 4 straight hours writing and drawing a complete 24-page comic. Does that sound like something you might do?

It sounds interesting. We’d have to run by PR people. It would attract good crowd.

(I give him the address for 24hourcomics.com. He visits the site.)

Looks particularly interesting. Hey, Scott McCloud’s doing it! Is this the first time this is happening?

No, they did it last year. It was pretty successful. They’re putting out a collection of some of the comics made.

Well, we’ll definitely check that out.

Finally, because I ask this of everyone, what would you do with a million dollars?

(Laughs) I’d give a little bit to the Pittsburgh Food Bank, because they always need help. I always wanted to open my own bookstore, even though it wouldn’t be good for me. But that would be after I go on vacation.

Thank you, Mr. Wentworth, for stepping into the firing line.

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