Graphic Novels in Today's Libraries
How are graphic novels viewed in libraries across the country today? While attitudes toward graphic novels and manga are changing, and librarians were among the first to change them, we wanted to learn more about how the formats are received and perceived today. So we asked some librarians to share their experiences. Their responses were fascinating.
We spoke with Eva Volin, head children’s librarian in Alameda, California; Amy Alessio, teen coordinator for the Schaumburg Twp. Dist. Library in Illinois; David Serchay, youth services librarian for the Margate Branch of the Broward County Library System and author of The Librarian’s Guide to Graphic Novels for Children and Tweens and The Librarian’s Guide to Graphic Novels for Adults, and Arlene Allen, teen services librarian at the Main Library of the Broward County Library System. Here’s what they had to say.
Tell us about the graphic novel sections in your library: Are they separated by age or interfiled with fiction and nonfiction? Please describe.
Eva Volin: We have three distinct graphic novels sections, one in children’s, one in teens, and one in adult.
Amy Alessio: We have graphic novels in teen, adult, and youth collections. They are separated out under 741.5 in youth and adult and are separated out in their own large section.
David Serchay: In Broward County, graphic novels are cataloged in nonfiction, usually in the 741s (graphic nonfiction and biographies are cataloged in the appropriate number). They are also cataloged with age listings of juvenile (J), young adult (YA), and adult (no special prefix). Some libraries have their J, YA, and adult nonfiction sections separate from one another, while others have a combined nonfiction section. Some branches have also chosen to create a special graphic novel section in the library. Some of them are just J and YA, while others include adult-cataloged titles as well. In addition, what is owned by one branch can be sent to another if a patron requests it.
Arlene Allen: The Main Library does physically separate graphic novels by age—there are designated J, YA, and adult graphic novels.
Broward County offers an Interlibrary Loan service as well; graphic novels not in our holdings can be obtained from any library nationwide that participates in this service that carries the specific title.
Is funding for graphic novels separate, or is it part of the teen, adult, and youth collections?
Serchay: J and YA manga and graphic novels are a separate area of the overall Youth Services budget. Adult graphic novels are ordered from the adult fiction budget, but there is not separate “budget line” for them.
Alessio: Each age collection has funding for them. For example, teen GN funding is under teen collection, but its own budget line.
Volin: The funding for GNs is taken out of our general book fund. The book fund is broken out into children’s, teen, and adult books.
Do you collect circulation statistics on the graphic novels? Do you know how they compare to the statistics for fiction and nonfiction titles?
Alessio: Yes. With a collection of 6,000, we circulate an average of 4,000 books a month. A little under half of those are graphic novels.
Volin: We don’t pull statistics for specific sections. I can tell you that graphic novels tend to turn at least 2-3 times more often than general nonbestseller titles do.
Serchay: Generally they are just nonfiction stats, though that is often listed as YA nonfiction, and a large number of the YA nonfiction books are the graphic novels. If needed, we could get a listing of circulation for all titles in the 741s, but it is our understanding that when checked, circulation has been very high, and this is one reason that they have a separate budget and a graphic novel selection committee.
How much have the graphic novel and manga sections at your library changed over the past five years?
Volin: The children’s GN collection is only 18 months old, and it has transformed and rejuvenated the children’s section. Kids who had previously only used the library as a drop-in babysitting/computer service are now relaxing on the couches reading. Girls are devouring manga that is age-appropriate and mothers are discovering that comics actually improve reading skills. It’s been a boon.
Serchay: They have greatly increased at a rate of over 1,000 titles a year (with an average of four copies per title). Many branches have also chosen to create a separate area for them.
Allen: In the case of manga, more than 500 volumes a year are published, so the library’s collection in terms of both titles and volumes has grown significantly.
Alessio: Definitely GNs have grown at all three of our buildings. What we are seeing now is that with so many more publishers producing graphic novels, and different types of graphic novels, the old standby mangas and long-running series are not as popular. There is more to choose from.
How are graphic novels received by staff? By patrons? Is there a particular group who really seems to embrace them?
Alessio: The teens are certainly the most enthusiastic readers of GNs, but we do see many adults and younger children looking for them as well. At first, as with any new media, staff had to go through an education process. The cultural lines of acceptability were the hardest to teach. Now, though, it is an accepted and well-known collection in the library.
Volin: Some staff education was necessary—especially for those who understood the word graphic to mean “dirty.” But seeing the books circulate as quickly as they do, and seeing the kids excited by the collection, and going on to pick up prose books when they are done with the comics, has converted most of the staff into believers.
Allen: Manga is primarily embraced by teens and young adults, although there are some adults often seen perusing the collection. Anime and manga clubs have an age range of about 11 through 23 years. Titles like Naruto, Shaman King, and other manga that have their companion anime series on television are also popular with children as young as 8.
Serchay: Most staff members appreciate that even if it’s not something they like, the patrons do. Some branches have asked for more due to increased demand. As far as patrons go, all ages seem to enjoy them.
Who are the main patrons of graphic novels and manga in your library?
Volin: Primarily kids and teens. But we do have an impressive adult GN collection, so that area is building a diehard clientele, too.
Do you find it helpful when publishers put suggested ages on books? Do you follow those guidelines? What do you do when you are unsure which age group a graphic novel should be shelved under?
Volin: There are few things more useless than the “all ages” tag. Very few books will please an 8-year-old, a 20-year-old, and a 60-year-old. It’s completely meaningless. Until the publishers standardize their ratings systems into something constant, the way the MPAA has done with movies, the less helpful the ratings on GNs will be.
Serchay: We do. YA tends to be the default designation if we are unaware of the proper area, and we adjust upward or downward when necessary.
Allen: We often visit comics shops and bookstores and read review publications to investigate certain titles further. Sometimes it is important to actually look at manga—especially that which is rated OT—because of cultural differences. What is accepted in terms of sexuality in Japan is regarded quite differently in America.
Alessio: We do find this helpful but are not limited by the suggested ages. When we are unsure, we consult with our local comic book dealer.
What special challenges are there in managing and maintaining the graphica section?
Alessio: Keeping the collection in order is hard with many huge series. It is not always possible to maintain the series alongside the standalones, due to space. So then finding the titles is somewhat challenging for staff at times, and many of the titles go missing or are beat up quickly.
Serchay: Theft is, of course, an issue, as is replacing titles. For example, when a volume of a manga series is missing, it needs to be replaced or else the story is incomplete.
Volin: Traditionally, fiction is alphabetized by author’s last name or by Dewey number. With 14 different authors all writing X-Men, it can be very difficult for casual browsers to find what they’re looking for. Libraries, if they want to be customer-friendly, need to adopt a bookstore model shelving system for their GN collections. Cataloging can also be a challenge, particularly with manga. Catalogers who are unfamiliar with GNs can be frustrated by how the entries should be formatted.
Do you feel the industry embraces graphic novels and why do you think so? In what way could more library staff learn about the genre? In what ways could library staff better promote graphic novels?
Volin: The library industry? Yes and no. I think the teen librarians have embraced GNs and are great about getting the books into libraries. But there are still so many libraries that are still getting started that we continue to need Beginning GN Collection–type workshops across the country. This isn’t yesterday’s news yet. For many library systems, this is still a new idea and we need to answer their questions with patience and respect.
Serchay: Libraries are embracing graphic novels because they realize that they are both popular and good. Library staff can learn more about the format (not a genre) by reading information online as well as the books on the subject. Graphic novels can be promoted by using such things as the Demco graphic novel stickers and standee and the posters by Demco and ALA. Programs for things like Free Comic Book Day can also be helpful, and also they include graphic novels in book displays either by themselves or mixed in with other books.
Allen: Classes and lectures on graphic novels and manga are helpful as well in helping staff members overcome preconceived notions and prejudices against the format.
Alessio: I think librarians were way ahead of the bookstore chains with the GNs. Many school media and public librarians were attending trainings and celebrating the genre years ago. After the Printz was given to American Born Chinese, I have noticed that having graphic novels is no longer a question for libraries. More library staff who are in locations where they do not have access to comic stores or conferences could utilize the YALSA Great Graphic Novels list or take online readers advisory courses for all ages, where they would find suggested graphic novels and traditional fiction as well.
We also offer writing and drawing classes by gentlemen who are published by DC and independent presses in those techniques. This has been a great way to further promote the collections.
Has the current economy affected your graphica collection yet? If so, how?
Serchay: Yes and no. While the overall youth services budget was lowered, the percentage that went for graphic novels has increased.
Allen: Of course, the graphic novel industry itself has been impacted. One manga company has cut its title production in half, and two others have gone out of business. Due to that, there may be fewer new manga titles on our shelves in 2009.
Volin: Only in that my materials budget is lower, so all of my buying is much more carefully done. If I’m buying fewer GNs, I’m also buying fewer everything else.
Alessio: Not yet. What we anticipate is a small collections budget, and more careful ordering.