Cataloguing Comics: Robert G. Weiner on Comics and Libraries
Robert G. Weiner is the author of the newly released Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives, a helpful resource for librarians (and the general public interested in the inner workings of their local libraries). With more and more librarians embracing graphic novels and promoting them to their patrons, the book is perfectly timed. We talked to Weiner, himself an associate humanities librarian at Texas Tech University, as well as liaison for the College of Visual and Performing Arts, about the book.
What prompted you to write Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives? What do you think made it necessary at this time?
Well, I had been working with graphic novels for over 10 years while I was at the Lubbock Public Library. I helped build one of the biggest and best collections of graphic novels for any public library in the country and developed a unique cataloging system for it. When I came to Texas Tech in 2008, one of my colleagues, social sciences librarian Brian Quinn, suggested, since I had previously done all this research and development in the area of comics and graphic novels as a professional/academic librarian, I should do something related to graphic novels and libraries. I had previously written Marvel Graphic Novels: An Annotated Guide 1965-2005 (published in 2008, and six years in the making) and had edited Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero (published in 2009). I had also written a number of academic articles and book chapters related to comics, including one in which I “proved” the existence of Spider-Man in the International Journal of Comic Art.
I noticed that there were plenty of articles related to graphic novels and libraries in the general library literature, but there were no books that brought in the wide variety of perspectives from librarians/professors/archivists/historians/etc. that I was aiming for. I sought to gather a wide range of essays from public and academic librarians that discussed subjects such as cataloging, outreach, history, webcomics, metacomics, etc.; I wanted a volume that had practical applications as well some history and theory.
The reason it was time for such a volume is that there really was nothing, at least in book form, that covered the range of ideas and applications that Graphic Novels and Comics in Archives does from such a diverse group of practitioners. My volume, along with Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Insights and Issues for Libraries by Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper, go a long way toward giving librarians and scholars information and advice.
The other thing I set out to do was to present works by some well-known scholars and writers like Randall Scott (who should be the hero of every academic and librarian that works with comics), Amy Kiste Nyberg, Francisca Goldsmith, Elizabeth Figa, Stephen Weiner, and Derek Parker Royal, alongside other practitioners.
It just seemed like the right time to put together such a collection—12 years after I first started thinking, "Hmmm, perhaps libraries and graphic novels have a place together.”
How long did you spend putting this book together?
It took close to two years from the initial idea and proposal to its completion.
A lot of hard work went into editing and putting this volume together. I sent out a call for papers to various lists and library-related message boards. I worked with authors and solicited some pieces from specific authors. I’m doing a sequel of sorts with my colleague, social sciences librarian Carrye Syma, here at Texas Tech. We are in the process of soliciting pieces related to graphic novels, comics, and education for publication in 2012. Again we want librarians/academics/school teachers/historians to discuss how sequential art has been used to educate and enlighten students.
I am also working on a Spider-Man book, similar to the Captain America book, with Professor Dr. Robert Peaslee (also at TTU). So the work goes on. I hope to talk to Graphic Novel Reporter again when those come out.
What has the response been to the book so far?
Very positive. I’ve had librarians email me from all around the world asking questions about the book, and so far the reviews have been very good.
Why do you think comics are gaining such popularity in libraries?
Well, let’s face it, graphic novels and comics are for the most part fun to read. They are an excellent way to teach concepts in a unique manner (for example, at Texas Tech, we have a business professor, Jeremy Short, who has written a graphic novel management textbook, Atlas Black, which has met with great success and acclaim).
Keep in mind that from the 1940s onward, many libraries/librarians have viewed comics in a negative light. Randall Scott did pioneering work in the 1970s collecting comics and arguing for the cultural and historical value for comics. It really has only been in the last 15 years that librarians have accepted comics as part of collection development in earnest. Even when I first started collecting comics at the public library in the late 1990s, there were many doubts as to whether this was a good thing. However, the concern of my boss at the time was, “Do the graphic novels circulate?” Which of course they do. If they circulate, then the money is well spent.
Graphic novels have a much higher profile now than they did even 10 years ago. They are the one area of print publishing that keeps growing year after year, so of course libraries now want to collect them and have them as a vital part of their collections. Certainly what graphic novels we have here at the Texas Tech University Library are always being used. Also in universities across the country there are comics-related (or those using a graphic novel or two) classes being taught in record numbers used in all disciplines.
With all the superhero movies and other films based upon sequential art literature (and folks don’t seem to be sick of them yet), it is not surprising that so many libraries (academic, public, school) have embraced them.
What are some of the things your fellow librarians can learn from your book?
My volume has practical advice about how to work with graphic novels, whether in academic, public, school libraries, or even archives. There is also excellent background related to how librarians have historically viewed comics and graphic novels, including an article by David Hopkins talking about the history of manga in Japanese libraries. Very interesting stuff! There is also material looking at the aesthetics and nomenclature related to comics and libraries. A good portion of the volume looks at both teenage and adult audiences for graphic novels. So nearly every librarian, teacher, professor, academic, etc. can take away something practical and useful.
The "Archive" portion of the book is a very interesting topic. Tell us a little about what you cover in terms of archiving and cataloging.
Well, we only have a few pieces related to archives (I wish there were more), but at least the topic is covered a little. William Fee’s piece “The Perils of Doctor Strange: Preserving Pennsylvania-Centered Comics at the State Library of Pennsylvania” looks at the State Archives of Pennsylvania and their goal of collecting art/comics related to creators (artists/writers) from Pennsylvania. Fee discusses how the State Archives has gone about collecting comics, and relates both the negative and positive experiences they have had. It is an excellent piece that should be of interest to everyone, but especially to those who want to start (or have) more specialized archival collections.
I briefly discuss the cataloging system used at the Lubbock Public Library when I was there. An example of an “In-House” cataloging/shelving system for graphic novels that can be adapted to meet your library’s specific needs. But the system I helped create may not work as well for academic libraries. I hope it is useful even though I now work in the academic setting.
Randell Scott discusses the comic art collection at Michigan State University, which probably has the largest comic/graphic novel collection in the world. The book also contains an interview with Scott, which is very interesting.
What's your background with comics?
Well, let’s see. I started reading comics when I was very little. I used to have this Batman bow-tie I would wear to my brother’s high school band concerts. I remember reading a story in the Legion of Super-Heroes of how Chemical King dies that affected my young psyche to the point that I remember it today, even though I have not reread the story for close to 40 years. Other characters that resonated with me when I was a kid include 3-D Man, Moon Knight, Silver Surfer, Kull, Black Panther, and Human Fly. Most were Marvel characters, which helps explain why I work so much with Marvel characters today. I’ve probably read more Marvel-related graphic novels than anything else. For the Marvel Graphic Novels guide book, I actually read nearly all the books included, even those published by Epic, which is why it took six years. But ultimately I think the guide makes a good contribution to the scholarship on Marvel comics.
I’ve been involved with comics on and off for years. For me, graphic novels are not just a hobby or anything like that; they are part of my scholarship and the work I do as a librarian and academic. It is an integral part of my profession.
What are some comics and graphic novels that you particularly are a fan of right now?
Oddly, I’ve been reading Scott Pilgrim and the Green Lantern Blackest Night series. (Hey, DC has a lot to offer too.) I remember hearing Scott McCloud talk about how great the Scott Pilgrim series was back in 2008 at an academic sequential art conference that I was attending. Since the movie was coming out, I thought I’d better become familiar with it. It’s great! I still like to go back and read all those retrospective collections of Marvel/DC and others. It is all interesting and worth reading and studying. One can find a great deal about American history and culture from reading comics from all historical periods. I’ve also been reading Stephen King’s The Stand adaptation by Marvel and rereading Tomb of Dracula, which still holds up.
Are there essential graphic novels that you would recommend for every library to carry?
Well, in addition to standards like the Watchman, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, I would recommend the following: Craig Thompson’s Blankets; Alex Ross’s Marvels; Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke; the Hernandez Brothers’ Love & Rockets; the work of Grant Morrison, recent and past; Geoff John’s Blackest Night series; Chris Claremont’s run on the X-Men; the early works of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby; Bob Kane’s early work on Batman; and early Superman. Of course, Scott Pilgrim and both the Tomb of Dracula Omnibus and/or collections.
Of course, I would also recommend manga: Akira, Death Note, Adolf, and Nausica: The Valley of the Wind; Moonshadow by J. M. DeMatteis (which I consider to be one of the greatest graphic novels ever published—up there with any piece of classic literature you care to name).
I could go on and on, but most important, I would recommend that librarians, both academic and public, consider what their communities want as well, what courses are being taught using graphic novels, and what folks want to read. One of the things that surprised me here at the Texas Tech Library was that a Dr. Who graphic novel was circulating like mad. Students were using it not only to read for fun, but for their study of media/science fiction. With the new Who series so popular, it should not have surprised me, but it did.
What are some mistakes you see many libraries and/or librarians making often in regards to graphic novels?
Well, I know there are still a few holdouts in the academic and library circles who fail to see the value of comics/sequential art. They still see it as children’s trash/lowbrow reading. What we know is that you use both sides of the brain when reading a sequential art story (even manga). A Spider-Man or Batman story can have as many plot twists and as much depth as any work by Shakespeare, Jack London, Hemingway, etc.—and be just as good!
Librarians and academics should have open minds and be willing to accept new formats whether graphic novels, e-books, or whatever it may be. Unfortunately that is not always the case.
Conversely, what do you see librarians doing exceptionally well when it comes to comics?
Promotion of graphic novels to the wider community for outreach and literacy! Librarians have led the charge in this regard and are great advocates for the right to read what you want. It is great to be associated with a forward thinking, open minded, and proactive profession.