In early October of this year I decided to run a short survey here at No Flying No Tights taking stock of the current state of graphic novel collections in public libraries.  Prompted by a discussion over at the Graphic Novels in Libraries listserv, I decided to see if we could find out just what collections look like in libraries today, what the limits are to our collections, and how we decide which age ranges (children’s, teen, and adult) are represented in those collections.

I’m presenting the results of that survey here, with a few notes about conclusions to be drawn and potential solutions for the problems raised.

Happily, we gathered information from colleagues all across the United States and Canada, from all sorts of communities, large and small, conservative and liberal.  We received a total of 425 responses, 360 of which were from public libraries.  For the purposes of this post, I’m only going to be looking at public libraries, but I will follow-up with a post about the other findings from other institutions.

Looking only at public libraries for this report, here’s the breakdown:

  • 86.9% have a Children’s graphic novel collection
  • 83.3% have a Teen graphic novel collection
  • 64.2% have an Adult graphic novel collection
  • 10.3% have a combination Teen/Adult graphic novel collection
  • 2.5% have a combination Children’s/Teen graphic novel collection

Other organizational schemes reported interfiling titles throughout a collection.  Those that selected graphic novels in this way noted they didn’t think of it as a collection (at least not yet.)

Robin’s note: It is heartening to see many libraries maintain both a Children’s and a Teen graphic novel collection, however they may be shelved.  There are a smaller but still a significant percentage of libraries collecting graphic novels for adult readers.  I admit to being a bit surprised by how many institutions maintain a children’s collection, but it is a wonderful surprise.  The results did make me wonder how well reviews and reviewers are meeting the demands of that audience, given how much trouble Children’s and school librarians report having keeping up with what is current and appropriate for their audiences. I take their substantial presence as a push to be more supportive!

The reasons given for not having a graphic novel collection (either in general in the library or specifically in one age range):

  • Lack of funding
  • Lack of space
  • Low demand for graphic novels

Unsurprisingly, the biggest limits for all librarians were budgets and space.  Almost every librarian reported having their budgets diminish, although many mentioned that this was happening for every collection, not just graphic novels.

Space was another significant concern, especially for continuing series (and manga was called out many times for having series that simply numbered too many volumes for libraries to keep the entire series on the shelf.)  Lack of space is also what may prevent librarians from starting new collections in an area where they don’t already have one, and is what keeps collections from growing.

Many librarians reported there was no demand for graphic novels (for a specific age range or of a particular type, like manga) and thus they were not collecting them.

The specifics for not maintaining collections aimed at the three major age ranges — children, teens, and/or adults — are as follows:

On not having a Children’s collection:

  • The administrative staff/supervisors feel it’s inappropriate for younger readers

Robin’s note: Given the presence of graphic novels in so many Children’s collections, it’s unfortunate to hear that supervisors remain reluctant or unconvinced of their worth.  More education is needed for administrators and collection development staff about how there are graphic novels for every age range and to reassure supervisors that they can build a strong collection for children.

On not having a Teen collection:

  • Too difficult to distinguish between teen and adult, so everything goes to adult
  • Budget is more substantial for adult collection
  • Combined with adult due to space/shelving concerns
  • Graphic novels are shelved with 741.5 and there is no teen nonfiction, so they go in adult
  • Teens are more comfortable browsing the format whereas adults feel uncomfortable browsing in a teen section
  • Worried about kids accessing teen/adult titles, so they all go in adult

Robin’s note: When limitations like space are mentioned, all of we librarians can definitely relate.  Managing the space of any collection is always a challenge.  Same goes for budgeting — I can see how titles might end up being purchased in an area (adult) that simply has more funding at the moment.

The concern about distinguishing between teen and adult, or about children accessing teen/adult titles, signals graphic novel advocates still have a ways to go to assuage librarians concerns and help them find the resources that will help selectors choose wisely.

On not having an Adult collection:

  • Staff or administration opposed to having an adult collection
  • No challenges (yet) to adult titles shelved in teen collection
  • Adults will use the teen collection
  • All graphic novels are seen as for kids, so staff and/or administration don’t see why they should have an adult collection

Robin’s note: Here I will note that it was interesting to see two contradictory ideas — that adults are uncomfortable using a teen collection (from the comments above) or that adults will happily use a teen collection.  I’ve personally seen instances where both are true.  There are some adult readers who don’t mind looking in teen collections for their reading, especially when they understand those titles to have strong appeal to teens.  However, I’ve also seen adults feel out of place browsing the teen collection or dismissive of titles found there as not being sophisticated.

It’s true that libraries frequently, for example, expect teens to browse for their films among the adult DVD collection.  However, we don’t frequently make adults browse within the teen or children’s collection for their content.  Why is it considered acceptable to do this for graphic novels?

Finally, I fear that in dismissing the idea of an adult collection too many staff are opening themselves up for challenges.  Keeping adult titles in teen and crossing your fingers that no one will challenge them reinforces the (incorrect) notion that all comics are for young readers and thus leads to more of a shock if a reader finds surprising content.  By placing titles intended for adults in an adult collection, we protect ourselves from challenges and reinforce the idea that appeal and content drive where we place items in our collections.

I asked everyone to identify and comment on what limits affected their building and maintaining of a graphic novel collection.

General Limits

  • 66.6% Budget
  • 58.8% Space
  • 35.7% Lack of demand
  • 14.3% Lack of support for collection

Other limitations mentioned:

  • bad binding/lack of durability
  • Titles go out of print too fast to replace
  • Vendor constraints (can only purchase through specific vendors who don’t have the desired titles)
  • Graphic novels are more expensive than traditional prose titles, and so fewer will be purchased
  • Having to weed ruthlessly in order to maintain the collection in a constrained space
  • No room for complete series (especially manga series)
  • Keeping up with series takes too much time
  • Selectors lack of knowledge/understanding of what’s available
  • Content concerns in more conservative communities
  • Theft (if titles are only going to get stolen, the library won’t purchase them)

Binding woes
Bad binding continues to be a problem that plagues many librarians.  Particularly true of titles printed on slick, thicker paper and bound with less that flexible glue (including titles from publishers like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and more), these bindings are simply not built to stand up to being read the 50 to 100 times most libraries need.  Manga used to be the worst offender, but the major companies listened to library complaints and have strengthened their binding.  It’s time for other companies to follow suit.

Out of print
Titles going out of print before we can purchase or replace titles is also a continuing concern.  Book publishers seem to do better on this, but the comics publishers (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc.) let titles go out of print far too quickly for a library’s time frame.  It’s particularly infuriating when you have readers looking for the beginning of a series and realize that you can no longer get the first five volumes.

The problem of keeping up with series is difficult for any library, but particularly so with diminishing budgets.  Many librarians order the first few volumes in a number of series and then see how each circulates — if it goes out, they’ll continue ordering the series, but if it’s not circulating, they’ll stop at those few volumes.

One note I can’t stress enough is that for some series, and especially manga series, you must have the complete run of volumes for the story to make sense.  I liken manga series to television shows like Lost: you have to start at the beginning, and you have to see all the plot points in each episode, or else you will quickly feel lost in the narrative.  Many librarians know this, but feel frustrated by the lack of availability of older volumes (for replacement copies) and the annoyance of having random volumes from a series go missing or get stolen.  We all try to anticipate replacing copies when they go missing, but it can be quite difficult when the publisher’s have either gone out of business or do not keep older volumes in print (I’m looking at you, Marvel!).

Adult collections
The most interesting and informative comments about limitations involved adult collections.  Unlike maintaining separate children’s or teen collections, the majority of libraries that did collect adult titles reported having them interfiled either in fiction/nonfiction or having them all shelved in 741.5.  This was noted by many as a problem.  Interfiling made what collection the library had feel hidden or invisible, especially for browsers, although some mentioned having spine labels to identify the graphic titles in their collection.

Over thirty respondents stated that the reasoning behind not having or maintaining an adult graphic novel collection was a lack of apparent interest from patrons.  Not separating out the collection may well be a significant reason librarians are not seeing demand.  If patrons don’t know you collect the format, they are unlikely to realize one, there are titles to check out, and two, that they could request more.  In my experience, patrons won’t realize there are graphic novels for their age range unless you establish the collection first, advertise and educate your patrons about it by creating a display or shelving titles prominently as a separate collection, and then see how it circulates.

Similarly, those that reported they had adult collections but that the titles weren’t circulating seemed to be falling prey to a problem I’ve seen in many a library, including my own: their instincts led them to purchase mainly classics, adaptations, and/or titles well-reviewed in library journals.  This might seem like the safest way to introduce the format and prove the collection’s worth, but many reported that this didn’t work.  Adult selectors reported that classic, well-reviewed literary titles are very much not the titles that will prove a collection or boost circulation.  Instead, their patrons prefer popular titles and superhero series.

My own history selecting for adults has borne this out in my adult collection’s circulation statistics.  Titles like Miriam Katin’s We Are On Our Own, Josh Neufeld’s A. D. New Orleans: After the Deluge, and Mat Johnson’s Incognegro are all worthy titles that libraries should own, but they are never going to circulate as high as titles like Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Bill Willingham’s Fables, or Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers.

Others noted some problems in how collections originated and thus were continuing to be maintained.  Many adult collections were and are created when someone realizes a title is inappropriate for a teen collection, and so the initial collection tends to be a reaction of moving mature content to an adult area.  The collection thus begins as a place to put mature or explicit material without necessarily growing to become a collection that more broadly reflects adult tastes and appeal.

A call for education
A number of libraries noted concerns about their colleagues’ lack of awareness that graphic novels are not just for kids and teens.  Others noted the same resistance to adult collections from patrons.  As an advocate for the format, I’ve spent the last nine years reaching out to library staff to educate about graphic novels and comics, but it’s clear that work is still important.  Many librarians reported that their administrators, supervisors, and staff were the ones objecting to maintaining graphic novel collections, and so it looks like while teen and children’s librarians are willing and able to collect comics, adult selectors and administrators are still not convinced.  I personally would love to see more professional articles aimed at directors, administration in general, and adult selectors explaining the format, its popularity with adults, and hopefully debunk common misconceptions about the format.

One librarian, Bill Cassinelli of Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin, IL, sums it all up with the following comment:

“Regarding libraries who have no graphic novels because they think there is no interest: When I started here 16 years ago, you could count the number of graphic novels the library owned on two hands. Once the collection started to grow and word got out that the library was checking out this material, interest suddenly appeared and quickly grew; GNs are now one of the largest circulating collections in our library. There will be no interest if there is nothing there to be interested in. Libraries have to be able to brave the unknown, collect these materials (the local comic shop will be a great asset in building your collection) and watch them fly off the shelves.”

I sincerely hope that the results of this survey will be a starting point for discussions among librarians and, hopefully, with whomever may be skeptical in your library, concerning collecting graphic novels.

  • Robin B.

    | She/Her Teen Librarian, Public Library of Brookline

    Editor in Chief

    Robin E. Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. She has chaired the American Library Association Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection List Committee, the Margaret A. Edwards Award Committee, and served on the Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She is currently the President of the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table for ALA. She was a judge for the 2007 Eisner awards, helped judge the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards in 2011, and contributes to the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal. She regularly gives lectures and workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime at comics conventions including New York and San Diego Comic-Con and at the American Library Association’s conferences. Her guide, Understanding Manga and Anime (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), was nominated for a 2008 Eisner Award.

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