One of the frequent questions we have all encountered in our professional work with comics and libraries is the question of how best to maintain a comics collection in a library where the physical space available is limited. We all wish we had unlimited shelf space and unlimited budgets, but we all struggle to make the best choices within limits for our collections and community.
For this Ask the Comics Librarians column, two of our contributors with experience in building collections in smaller spaces, Meredith and Shannan, weigh in with advice.
What does your space look like? What’s your collection size?
Everyone loves a cozy library but one of the downsides of working in a smaller branch is lack of shelf space, especially in our children’s area which is less than half the adult area. Until recently, I only had 6 shelves for my branch’s graphic novel collection, which is our second most popular children’s collection, behind picture books. It was only thanks to a closed-during-the-pandemic weeding project that I was able to expand to 10 shelves. Our current children’s graphic novel collection is somewhere between 150-175 items.
I’ve worked in a few smaller library environments, but my current is just about my smallest, not helped by the fact that all of my books are on carts while the teen space gets renovated! Currently I have about 990 books (a mix of novels, nonfiction, and Spanish materials), 68 audiobooks on CD, and 762 graphic novels (combining manga and comics) in the teen collection.
Is there a struggle with small spaces you’re still trying to find a solution to?
I struggle with graphic novel series, especially if it’s okay to ever split them up and weed some of the less popular titles in the series. Some, like Amulet, see consistent checkouts for all volumes. Other series, primarily ones without an overarching story, might have a few volumes that are checked out frequently with others spending more time on your shelf. It’s okay to weed the ones that aren’t moving. You’ll have more space to give other series a shot or replace the worn out copies of titles in other popular series. But it’s still a struggle every time to decide what’s the best call for each series!
Finding ways to carve out space for displays is the toughest thing for me. It feels like if there’s an empty countertop or shelving unit, then I should be using that to maximize storage of other things or for flyers. There’s no perfect solution for this because it really depends on your space and your resources, but having a small book cart that’s dedicated to the department means it can serve as a rolling display and maybe also passive programming supplies.
What are some ways you’ve found to maximize your space?
Weed regularly. I personally love weeding! It’s a great way to find the gaps in your collection and get a better understanding of what your readers are looking for. Some graphic novels have lasting popularity but others are, unfortunately, much more an of-the-moment trend. Don’t be afraid to get rid of that beat-up copy of a book that hasn’t circulated in 3 years, even if it was the hottest hold back then.
Another thing I’ve found to be helpful in my small space is shelving by book title. This was a system already in place when I arrived at my branch. This includes kids’ non-fiction graphic novels. How does this relate to the small space? When readers come in looking for a specific title, it’s easier to direct them to an alphabetized layout. For non-graphic novel series, we keep them shelved by series title. With graphic novels, especially ones with popular characters like Marvel or DC superheroes, being able to point to all the Spider-man or Batman books makes for easier navigation. Plus, it helps you see what characters your readers want and which ones maybe can make their way to the weeding cart. Kids who like a particular series won’t be looking for each individual book but instead, they can find them all in one spot together.
One of the lucky things about being part of a system library is that it takes some of the guilt away at curating my collection more closely to my population, and it means that if there are books I can’t keep at my location, there are other locations that might want them so they’re not just getting weeded. So, I generally try to pack as much manga in my space as I can, because that’s really been what the majority of teens have been asking for the last few years, cycling out the series I’m noticing aren’t really moving, and checking with patrons on what they’d like to see at the branch. This is true of duplicates too; if I see that I’ve got more than two copies of something on the shelf, I put the duplicates up for grabs for other branches. Those duplicates are taking up precious shelf space for new and interesting books.
Do you have tips for someone starting work in a small space for the first time?
Don’t be afraid to curate for your community. I read a lot about new releases for kids’ graphic novels and get grand ideas of being able to get them all for my branch. Realistically though, I know what’s getting checked out. Some libraries can’t keep manga on the shelf. At my branch, with the exception of a few Pokemon books, kids’ manga rarely goes out. Rather than continuing to hope it gets popular, I don’t purchase it with my discretionary money.
Be sure to talk to your readers about what they’re looking for! Booklists are always helpful but patron feedback is crucial in making sure what’s on your small shelf space is what the community wants.
I think one of the biggest things for starting work in a small space is to be aggressive with the collection. Weed books that are grubby, aren’t circulating, and are just gathering dust on the shelf. A small collection needs to be one that’s moving because there’s no room for those books people pass over time and again. I try to keep the weeded books and comics that are in better condition to use for future crafts, within reason (because lack of space). This also means being aggressive in promoting the collection, with displays and other ways to bring attention to it, and bringing it to the attention of patrons who may not realize what’s available. Weeding comics and manga can be nerve-wracking because if a series isn’t complete but has dropped in popularity, there’s every chance it’ll flare back up when say an adaptation comes out but the older volumes won’t be available anymore for purchase.
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