Dear Comic Book Authors and Illustrators:

Yesterday, I attended the Kids Read Comics convention at the Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn.  It was expertly planned and organized and featured lots of great folks who are creating great stuff for kids.

I sat in on two great panels, one on comics created from personal experience or real events (as opposed to those featuring superheroes, mythological creatures, legends, or other fictional), and one on planning comics-centric programming in your library. 

Here’s what was weird.  Neither panel focused on cataloguing or shelving practices in libraries, but the topic came up both times. 

Here’s what bugs you about us librarians: we might all agree to call Garfield a comic, but we librarians do love to call everything else a graphic novel.  Even if it is not a novel.  Laika, about the Soviet dog in space? We call that a graphic novel.  It’s not. It’s non-fiction.  Smile, a memoir? We call that a graphic novel, too.  Myths? Legends? Bring ‘em on. We’ll call ‘em all graphic novels.  Part comic, part text, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Absolutely. Graphic Novel.  Frankly, if it has a story that goes on beyond four panels, we graphicnovelize it.

That bothers you. A lot. I heard you loud and clear. 

When I got to my library five years ago, we had a few battered copies of Garfield. They were catalogued as 741.5 (741 being the general Dewey number for drawings; 741.5 being for comics AND graphic novels AND sequential art).  So as my collection grew, I kept adding to 741.5.  And technically, 741.5 is the proper location for sequential art meant to “delight.”  Our librarian mistake comes if/when we label that section Graphic Novels, because that is more specific than what the Dewey Decimal Classification calls it.

Meanwhile, if I bought a biography in graphic format, it went in biographies; and it if was a Max Axiom book about energy, it went in the 300s.  And that’s technically correct cataloguing, too — if the book’s primary purpose is to “persuade or inform,” it goes into the subject area to which it belongs.

Guess which titles circulated? The 741.5s.  Guess which ones didn’t? The biographies and 300s.  Guess which books I moved into 741.5 so they’d start getting kids’ hands? Yup.

Some of my colleagues, who had no 741.5 section, or whose shelving and/or preferences leaned toward having a separate section, labeled that separate section Graphic Novels.  They used that nomenclature, in part, to fly under the radar screen. Sometimes, they worried that “Comics” didn’t sound like something that a lot of taxpayers or school administrators would approve of, so they worried that a “Comics” sign would draw negative attention and impede their implementation plans.  Or they legitimately started the collection as a gathering of graphic novels, adding comics and memoir and non-fiction when they realized that GN was the hottest real estate in the library.

So, being the subversive lot of MLIS-holders they/we are, they called it Graphic Novels and threw out the sayings that make you cringe: visual content would lead kids to love text later; visual content helps translate content for English Language Learners.  (And yes, your stuff sometimes does have that effect; we’re not lying, just not leading the evening news with the top story you’d prefer — that they’re worthy in their own right.)

Having relatively small collections to start off with, they threw all kinds of books-with-panels-and-word-balloons together.  It made the collection look less puny and more robust and appealing. Power in numbers:  Garfield, Babymouse, Bone, memoir, non-fiction, you name it, all mashed together.

I hear you.  You feel like that oversimplified your genre. My first book was about drama integration and “seatwork” was one of my LC Subject Headings.  I didn’t like being miscategorized, either.

But here’s the thing. The 741.5 Club, the GN Brigade and you, the creators, have the same objective: to get your works into users’ hands. All librarians are trying to do is put items that are visually similar into the same place, because our users/patrons/students are currently choosing what to read based on the format it’s in.  If we put T-Minus next to the space books, it’s not going to get into users’ hands as much as if we put it next to Bone.  We’d rather have your stuff get read.  And so do you. 

So help us out. Give us some time to build our collections until the point that graphic content / comics / sequential art / books with panels-and-balloons can be further subdivided (or the economy improves and we aren’t so frightened of taxpayer/administrator backlash).  In the meantime, try not to fret. And keep writing. Our kids love what you do. That’s why we put it where they can find it.

PS – If you are a glutton for punishment, or are a closet cataloguer, you can check out this documentation or this 28-slide PowerPoint.  You’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know.  (We had to pay tuition to learn this cataloguing stuff — you get it for free!)

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