Egads! Comics! In the Library!

Libraries are sites where social anxieties and fears about the direction of American culture have often been expressed and contested. Whether dealing with their openness, which allows the homeless and the mentally ill to read alongside children and their nervous parents, or controversies about the ‘waste’ of spending resources on DVDs and video games, or widening access to the internet and its bevy of ‘objectionable’ material, libraries frequently test people’s commitments to values like equality and freedom.

As comics, that great corrupter and retarding influence on youth, have become more mainstream, and a generation of librarians raised on comics has entered the profession, their efforts to build collections of comic books in libraries have illuminated a number of key tropes in popular discussions and attitudes toward the medium.

At the end of March, I participated in a day-long discussion of comics and libraries organized by Sara Ryan, Teen Services Librarian for the Multnomah County Library system in Portland, Oregon (see Sara Ryan, “PLA 2010: Librarians get graphic preconference notes”, 31 March 2010). The stories told by public and school librarians, most dating from the early 2000s, about their efforts to integrate and organize comics within their collections were both specific to their institutional contexts and revealing of wider issues in the public reception of comics.

Book: Ghost World

Author: Daniel Clowes

Publisher: Fantagraphics

Publication Date: 2001-01

Image: issue that librarians addressed was fear: fear of patron reaction to a growing collection of comics at their library. Everything bad that people think about comics — that they expose kids to sex and violence and freaks, that they keep kids from learning to reading ‘real’ books, that they are junk food for the brain — becomes a potential protest to their inclusion on the shelves. Not only do librarians need to be prepared to answer such objections, but those who see a place for comics in the library need to address the fears held by some of their colleagues.

While the stereotype of librarians as uptight, conservative-minded shushers is, at best, antiquated, there are individuals who see their jobs in high culture terms, and who have romantic notions about literature and books, and see what they do as properly providing an antidote to popular media like TV. Whether dealing with the feelings of other librarians or those of patrons, librarians interested in seeing more comics in the library have had to conduct their negotiations both within and outside of their profession.

What makes these negotiations necessary is the very publicness of libraries. Parents who don’t want their kids buying comics at the local Borders or nearby comics shop or grocery most likely see that as a domestic problem. Few would bother to protest the presence of the presumably offending material in the store. If a shop owner or company wants to make money selling comics, that’s their business. It’s my job to keep my kid from taking her allowance down there if I don’t want her buying comics.

At the library, my kid doesn’t have to buy comics; she just has to find them. Even if she isn’t of an age when she can check them out herself, she can still sit and read them in the library without anyone telling her to put them back if she isn’t going to buy them. Not only that, but directly or indirectly, the comics she finds were paid for with my tax dollars!

The choice to sell comics in a store is a private decision; housing them in a library is a public one. As a result, it’s a decision that opens up discussions of what comics mean, with regard to their literary merit. Are they art or literature? Trash or treasure? Ennobling or ignoble?

For many librarians, how such questions are answered is not really relevant. Whether motivated by their own love of the medium or by the interest of patrons, providing access to comics, and to information in whatever form, is central to what they do. However, addressing that issue of access opens up a range of other questions about what comics mean to society.

Another twist: it’s easy to assume that cataloging, how to classify and shelve the items in a collection, would be a dry and esoteric subject. In practice, how items are cataloged both reflects and shapes how people think about and relate to media.

Last month, I considered the complexities of authorship in comics (“Creator: Various”, PopMatters, 10 March 2010), and those complexities certainly complicate the problem of how to categorize comics. If the writer is listed as ‘author’, and comics are shelved by an author’s last name, that doesn’t help someone looking for a book penciled or inked by a particular artist. Fundamentally, this brings one back to the question of who is the author, and what kind medium comics is. The openness of the answer may explain some people’s unease with featuring such books in the library.

Typically, in comic book stores, comics are shelved not by creator, but by publisher, at least until you get to really small presses and self-published works. Major comics publishers all have distinctive designs for their book spines that make them easy to identify on a shelf. While this facilitates browsing for avid fans and readers of, particularly, the Marvel and DC universes, it also lends itself to criticism of comics as ‘product’ rather than ‘art’ or ‘literature’.

Regardless of how to interpret different ways of categorizing comics in a library, what underlies such questions is how readers read, and what comics means to them. Do they follow writers (what one librarian at the session I was at called the “Neil Gaiman problem”)? Do they follow publishers (as above)? Do they follow pencilers (or some other artist)? Do they follow a particular character (what another librarian called the “Wolverine problem”)?

There is no single way to answer these questions, but the fact that one has to ask them in the first place is revealing about the many ways that people relate to comics. For some, the idea that someone would read anything about one character, regardless of author or artist, suggests much about the low nature of so many comics, proving that they are more about corporate properties than artistic or literary expression. For others, such questions are reflective of the deeply fannish nature of comics reading, and the diverse nature of that fandom. The different reasons that people seek out different comics is a sign of what makes the medium unique, not a lesser form of expression.

Working through the cataloging issues for comics in libraries is a tension between thinking of comics as belonging to particular genres of art or literature and thinking of comics as an independent medium.

To see comics as an independent medium, is to argue for shelving them on their own, however else you wish to categorize them once you do. Librarians who have decided to do this have done so largely in response to patrons who simply want to find comics without having to sort through multiple shelves of books in different parts of the library. This approach suggests that, yes, there is something different about comics — they aren’t ‘normal’ books. However, that is precisely why people want to read them, and not why they avoid them.

To see comics as belonging to the larger category of ‘books’ is to argue for shelving them alongside other books of the same type. Superheroes with science fiction or fantasy. Memoirs with memoirs. Historical fiction with historical fiction, and so on. Before librarians became actively interested in cultivating comics collections, this is how comics, to the extent that they were in libraries at all, were shelved. Arguably, this way of categorizing comics sends the message, “don’t worry, they’re just books like any other”. From an advocate’s perspective it also facilitates discovery on the part of those who may not know they are looking for a comic when they first enter the library, but that’s what they end up with.

It’s notable that many of the fears that run through people’s feelings about libraries are about children. The presumption that comics are for kids is a persistent idea in American culture and it fuels anxieties about having comics in the library, as well as creating one of the biggest problems for librarians, which is educating patrons in the range of subjects covered by comics.

Book: Black Hole

Author: Charles Burns

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday (reprint)

Publication Date: 2008-01

Format: Paperback

Image: it were already widely accepted that comics are not just aimed at young readers, then there would probably be fewer concerns or questions about their inclusion in library collections. It isn’t hard to see how parents may not be thrilled with their ten-year-old coming home with Charles Burns’ Black Hole (Pantheon, 2005) or a book from Marvel’s Max line, but such books aren’t made for that reader any more than D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is.

As professionals, many librarians see the need to educate themselves about comics, regardless of their own reading preferences. Few patrons or parents of patrons feel the same obligation. The position of comics as a source of social fears and cultural anxieties undoubtedly plays a role in justifying such disinterest, not matter how useful it might be for understanding what their kids should or should not be reading and why their local library has a comics section.

The history of American libraries is, in some ways, a history of giving people access to ‘dangerous’ books and information. What people think of as dangerous, and what they accept as safe, says much about their values. The creation of comics sections in libraries points to changing attitudes about the form, even if such change does not always come easy.