Geeking Out About Libraries

By: Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau

One thing geeks like to do is talk endlessly about their favorite topics. I once held court in the lobby of the LAX Marriott until 6 AM explaining to five guys how everyone in the DCU is at least a little bisexual, except for Barry Allen and maybe a few other people.

This is why I am on panels at science fiction conventions: it gives legitimacy to my soliloquies about geeky topics. It’s also the same reason I give presentations at professional conferences. I have a captive audience for fifty minutes where I can go on and on about some detail of librarianship.

There, you caught me. I am a librarian. But I’m not like THOSE librarians. I am a cool librarian. At least, I like to think of myself as one. I have some very modern views about the 749 Dewey classification section and I don’t use those wavy paper borders when I do bulletin boards. I am librarianing on the edge.

Libraries are dying. At least, that’s what we’ve been told for the last hundred years. First the pulps were going to destroy literacy and interest in books that elevated the culture and the mind, then the newsstand comics. Why come into a stuffy hall of learning and check out The Bobbsey Twins, when you could read the latest adventures of Superman for a nickel? Why read when there is television? Why come to the library to do proper research  when there is the Internet?

The truth is, they’re not dying. It’s the same bad PR schtick that’s been going around for at least a hundred years. It hasn’t died before, and it won’t die on my watch.  It’s evolving and changing, like everything does, if it wishes to persist.

What’s our library evolving into? A meeting space, a study place, wifi in every corner of the building (but not enough outlets for recharging–sorry!), audio books, inner-library loans, personal help from staff navigating computers for new users. Kids playing library-owned video games in back, and DVD checkouts. The library isn’t what it used to be. This includes the graphic novel collections.

Other things of geeky concern may filter through. But graphic novels are my game. I have started a graphic novel collection at every library I have worked at. And to the surprise of those around me, the books checked out.

There was the usual opposition. Some arguments that have been around as long as comics have been with us. Kids will not read as well, or at the same level if the book is mostly pictures. The content will turn kids into deviants. It’s too violent, too mature. The list goes on.

Libraries liked to pretend comics didn’t even exist until well into the 1990s. It was just easier that way. Occasionally, if you went to a “cool” and “hip” library, like the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, PA, you could find novelizations of your favorite comic storylines. Yeah, that was a thing. They were cast off into a tiny, ill-kempt corner of the “new and popular” section with a sign on dot matrix printer paper that said “young adult” (with lower-case letters, just to show you how little they cared–they couldn’t be bothered to capitalize it). The novelizations of Doomsday (that time Superman was beaten to death for sales increases) and Knightfall (that time Batman was crippled for sales increases) would be tucked in with TV tie-in novels, Quantum Leap, Star Trek, Highlander. And those heavy-handed books meant to teach teens important moral lessons. People who were teens in the 90s know how desperate young adult reading was. We complain about supernatural romance taking over the YA section, but that’s because there is a beautiful glut of choices. But back in the day, man. You don’t know the struggle. And yes, I read all those Quantum Leap books.

Comics were bringing about the ruination of the youth (for the last fifty years or so), there was no way they were going to stock them in libraries.

Then two things happened: The first is the trade paperback. The graphic novel: the compilation of multiple comics into a complete story with a beginning middle and end that did not leave the reader hanging and waiting for more. Now, they weren’t new to the industry. Tin Tin had been put out that way since the dawn of time. Will Eisner put one out in 1978 and popularized the term “graphic novel.” Manga had been coming out in Japan in book format for ages. The history of the graphic novel goes back even further, and someday I may give you even more minute and historical information than you care about, in another article.

The comic book industry (which had been “dying” since, like, the 1950s) saw an opportunity to make money off of already-published stories. The daily cartoons in the newspapers were doing this. Heck, Peanuts has been running old comics since the death of its creator died in 2000, and I’m not entirely sure most people have noticed yet. So why not? Put together runs of books, or allow writers to tell new stories that couldn’t be chopped up into 22 page segments and dragged out over months and months, let them tell their entire large story, and we’ll sell them in book stores and make lots of money. Oh yeah, and we’ll call them graphic novels to lend legitimacy to an art form we’ve been perfecting since the middle ages. That will show the McCarthyists.

Another thing happened: comics took a sharp left and became more grown-up. In what is now known as the Silver age of comics, characters tended to be brightly colored in inked, their stories were mostly hopeful, moderately self-contained, and while adults were still reading them, they were seen as nostalgia-bait and not adult reading material. Prints like Vertigo and Wildstorm popped up–places where writers could tell adult stories. Not just those with blood, death, gore and violence (there was that too) but stories with adult themes. Stories that were complex and complicated. Stories that, well, weren’t for children. People like Neil Gaiman came along with Sandman, something far from superhero fair, it was dark and slightly twisted, like a dream you don’t quite understand. And people loved it. By the time one of Gaiman’s stories was nominated for a Hugo, the reading public, and librarians, were opening to the idea of the graphic novel as literature.

So graphic novels became kind of legitimate, and libraries kind of stocked them, but usually buried away in the art section. That’s where art books went, after all. In the art section. For twenty years, librarians had (what I consider to be) useless debates about where to PUT the graphic novels. This is, of course, after twenty years of useless debates on whether graphic novels were worth putting in libraries, those curators of culture and thereby the better angels of our nature.

Most libraries today, except for ones run by white-haired wizards, have brought the graphic novels forward into their own collection, like children’s books, or young adult, etc. We are visual people and our ability to communicate involves both a visual language and text, so it is perfectly sensible to pull graphic novels free, and give them their own special place in the library.

But–the struggle continues. How do you gain acceptance for visual storytelling in general? How do you justify the start-up cost of what can be seen as a ‘frivolous’ collection, especially in a high school or college library. How do you promote them, once you have them?

All these questions and more will be answered at another time, dear readers. I’m afraid I’ve run out of column space for now.