One of the more frequent questions library workers have about building comics collections is the best way to catalog comics.  There are many questions that arise around cataloging, including the related issues around labeling collections. While many of us on the site have worked on how best to catalog and classify comics in our own libraries (see the How Do I Label My Collection column) the majority of our writers are not catalogers in our daily work.

For today’s answer to a reader’s question, we brought in guest contributors from the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table (GNCRT) to ensure we had a thorough and helpful answer. The Graphic Novel and Comics Round Table Cataloging and Metadata Committee has done extraordinary work to help clarify best practices and advocate for clear comics cataloging in the library world. The Committee’s Best Practices for Cataloging Comics and Graphic Novels Using RDA and MARC21, released September 2022, provides an in-depth framework for any library workers cataloging graphic novels and comics.

Today’s guest columnists are the current Co-Chairs of the GNCRT Cataloging and Metadata Committee: Deborah Tomaras, the Metadata and Resource Management Librarian at James A. Cannavino Library at Marist College and Allison Bailund, Acquisitions & Cataloging Specialist at San Diego State University.

How do you decide what goes on a serial record for a ‘series’ and what gets its own stand alone record?

Before we discuss options for cataloging comics series, we should clarify that “series” means different things to libraries and publishers. Publishers use “series” to describe any continuing comics title (e.g., Blue exorcist, CatStronauts, and Green Lantern). However, in cataloging, there is a distinction between “series” and “serial.” Serials include comics issued in successive (usually numbered) parts with no predetermined conclusion; these would include Blue exorcist or Green Lantern. But series are groups of separate comics related to each other by having both their own unique titles and also a collective title applying to the group as a whole (i.e., the series title); series don’t always include numbering. So CatStronauts would be the only “series” for catalogers. For clarity’s sake, when referring to the publishing notion of “series,” we’ll say “continuing title/s” or “continuing comic/s.”

There are three basic options for continuing comics: cataloging all volumes individually; cataloging some or all on multi-volume bibliographic records; or cataloging some or all on serial bibliographic records. No choice is more correct than the others; we’ll describe the strengths and challenges of each below. The most important consideration when deciding on local practice is to be as consistent as possible and employ the method that works best for your patrons. It’s also important to remember that comics collection management is linked to how comics are cataloged, so each of the approaches below influences circulation, how holds can be placed, how withdrawn or missing copies are handled, and so on.

Serials include comics issued in successive (usually numbered) parts with no predetermined conclusion; these would include Blue exorcist or Green Lantern. But series are groups of separate comics related to each other by having both their own unique titles and also a collective title applying to the group as a whole (i.e., the series title); series don’t always include numbering. 

Cataloging all comics individually

The first option involves treating each volume as a stand-alone work, and cataloging all comics on individual bibliographic records, regardless of whether they are graphic novels, volumes of a children’s comics series, manga, superhero collected editions, etc.

Strengths of this approach include consistent cataloging for all comics, which creates a uniform search and display in catalogs, and uniform methods for placing holds (title level for all, rather than item level for some). It also makes volume numbers and names for comics more immediately visible in search results (if they’re recorded in the title field), making scanning and finding specific volumes easier. Having volume number and volume title in the title field also supports more “Google”-like searching for volumes (e.g., patrons can type “Saga 3” and get results).

If you add a consistent genre term to all comics (like “Graphic novels” or “Comics (Graphic works)”), and the library catalog allows for “reverse year” sorting of search results, this approach also enables patrons to easily browse the library’s newest comics; multi-volume bibliographic records, by contrast, usually appear at the top of “reverse year” sorts due to their open-ended dates (i.e. “9999”), even when they don’t actually have new volumes added, making finding the newest comics more complicated.

Creating individual records also allows you to easily trace changing creative teams when needed; while multi-volume bibliographic records usually either record only the creative team from the first volume or must continually update a growing list of creators. Individual records also let you assign granular subject headings for story arcs and characters from specific comics volumes, building connections across comics collections.

The biggest challenge of this approach is creating the greatest number of bibliographic records, which means more records in the catalog for patrons to scan. This may be especially daunting for libraries with large manga collections such as Naruto or One piece (both with 70+ volumes). You also need to pay attention to how volume numbers and titles appear so that you can ensure consistency across all volumes; otherwise, volumes can become jumbled in search results, making finding specific volumes more difficult. And you should include variant titles coming from covers, spines, etc., to prevent patron confusion if the cover title does not match the form of the title appearing in search results.

Saga catalog library listing screen from Marist College showing the individual title cataloging approach.

Saga in the Marist College library catalog, using the individual record approach.

Cataloging all comics individually

Pros

  • Consistent
  • Volume numbers and titles more visible in search results
  • Can enable patrons to sort by date so they can see newest titles first
  • Allows for details of character and story arc to be included in subject headings

Cons

  • Creates the most number of records, requiring significant scanning from browsers
  • Will need to ensure consistency in how volume numbers and titles appear, so they don’t become jumbled in search results
  • Will need to include variant titles to prevent confusion if the title on the cover or spine doesn’t match form of the title in the catalog

Cataloging some or all continuing titles using multi-volume bibliographic records

The second option involves using multi-volume bibliographic records for continuing comics, so that all volumes of the same title are on one record, under a single collective title. Some libraries do this for only continuing titles like superhero comics and manga; some libraries also catalog monographic series comics like The Baby-Sitters Club on multi-volume records.

For this approach, you need to make sure your catalog allows item-level holds; and also check other display and search configurations, like the ability to search for volume titles from contents fields, for example. When cataloging all volumes onto a single record, it is important to ensure that the record has a complete table of contents, including any volume titles if present (e.g., No normal and Generation why from Ms. Marvel).

The presence of unique volume titles for some continuing comics has led a few libraries to take a hybrid approach, using the individual record approach described above for sets with volume titles (such as Ms. Marvel), and multi-volume records for sets lacking volume titles (like I hear the sunspot). This method allows patrons to search for individual volumes cataloged separately by volume titles when they’re present; and provides access by item-level volume number in a single collective record when they’re not. This can be especially helpful for long-running titles such as Naruto (72 volumes), or One piece (101 volumes and still going).

However, using a multi-volume approach has some drawbacks, including limiting the ability to search by title variations for individual volumes (spine title, cover title, etc.). Additionally, if the creative team changes (common with American comics, unlike manga), ensuring all the contributors are included can be challenging and make for exceptionally long records with 30+ names. Using a multi-volume record can also be limiting when applying subject headings and/or genre terms since the headings will need to describe all the volumes and not individual story arcs. You also need to pay attention to how volume numbers are recorded, so that they appear in order for item-level holds; having some with “v.” and some with “vol.,” for example, causes volumes to become jumbled, making seeing a library’s holdings and placing holds on specific volumes more difficult.

Multi-volume records can also be tricky to manage if a library has volumes of continuing titles from multiple releases/republishings with slightly different content (remastering, recoloring, new “extras,” etc.). You need to choose whether to have multiple multi-volume records in the catalog (thus diminishing some of the benefits of the approach), or to preserve a single multi-volume bibliographic record for searching and circulation, but include local notes explaining the variations (which loses some of the bibliographic information about the features of both of the releases).

Saga in the San Diego State University Catalog showing the multi-volume cataloging approach.

Saga in the San Diego State University library catalog, using the multi-volume record approach.

Using multi-volume bibliographic records

Pros

  • Keeps all volumes from continuing title on one record
  • Especially useful for long-running superhero titles and manga
  • May also be helpful for “limited series” comics with short runs
  • Can use a hybrid approach with individual records for sets with volume titles and multi-volume records for sets lacking volume titles, so patrons can search for individual volumes separately by volume titles when they’re present and get access by item-level volume number in a single collective record when they’re not

Cons

  • Limits the ability to search for specific volume titles and variations. Record must have complete table of contents and volume titles for patron searching
  • Including all creators for long-running titles, especially when the creators change frequently, makes for unwieldy records and necessitates frequent updates
  • Subject headings will need to apply to the comic as a whole, not individual volumes
  • Must have consistent volume numbers as any inconsistency will make the volume order messy or out of sorts
  • Can be complicated to adjust when new editions are released as to when to create a new record or attach the new editions’ volumes to the original record and lose some bibliographic integrity

Cataloging some or all continuing titles using serial bibliographic records

The final approach to cataloging continuing comics is to use serial records. These are used by many libraries that collect single issues of comics (i.e., floppies). 

Continuing comics titles, especially American superhero titles, may not have a single creator; when cataloged as serials, they often get a main entry based on uniform title instead of personal name. Serial descriptions are also based on the first or earliest available issue in hand; and any major title changes (e.g., a significant change to the first five words of the title) require a new record. Most serial records also do not list contributors; however, if the continuing title has a short run or has consistent contributors, they can be listed in a general note field with access points added. Serials, unlike monographs, can’t include titles of issues in contents notes, thus losing the ability for patrons to search by issue or volume title.

The complexities of serials cataloging mean many libraries treat collected editions and trade paperbacks of continuing titles as multi-volume monographs (even if they have no predetermined end). This is especially true for comics with frequent title changes (i.e., Black Cat comics, Black Cat western comics, Black Cat mystery comics, etc.). 

Other libraries employ a hybrid approach sometimes referred to as a “partially analyzed series;” this method involves cataloging each issue on an individual bibliographic record and then linking these to the serial record for the title as a whole. The serial record itself does not have any items attached to it; instead, it has a summary holdings statement. This allows the library to trace all the creators and provide subject analysis for each individual issue, as described in the section on cataloging all comics individually.

Saga in the Library of Congress catalog showing the serial record approach.

Saga in the Library of Congress catalog, using the serial record approach.

Using serial bibliographic records

Pros

  • Allows for continuing comics with different creators to all be cataloged by title on one record
  • Useful for libraries who collect single issue comics
  • Most serial records do not include creators, so adding as they change is not necessary 
  • Can be combined with individually cataloging every volume to create a holdings record under the title (similar to magazine holdings)

Cons

  • Do not include individual volume titles, so patrons cannot search by volume titles
  • Most serial records do not include creators, so patrons cannot search by writers, artists, etc.
  • Subject headings will need to apply to the comic as a whole, not individual volumes
  • Major titles changes (in the first five words) necessitate a new serial record

Remember–whichever of the above methods you choose, it is important to be as consistent as possible within your catalog, and employ the method that works best for your patrons. We hope this helps you feel more informed and confident in your local comics cataloging choices! 

This answer was distilled from Best Practices for Cataloging Comics and Graphic Novels Using RDA and MARC21, released September 2022 by the ALA Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table’s Metadata and Cataloging Committee (pages 2-6). See that document for more detailed explanations, and also more suggestions (and examples) for improving comics cataloging.

Have a question about comics, graphic novels, manga, and libraries?

Send us a question through this form. We may use it in a future column!

  • Deborah Tomaras

    Metadata and Resource Management Librarian

    Deborah Tomaras is the Metadata and Resource Management Librarian at Marist College. She's currently the co-chair of the ALA Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable's Metadata & Cataloging Committee, and one of the inaugural coordinators for the NACO/SACO Comics and Fiction Funnel. She enjoys proposing terms to help better depict diversity in comics, including subjects like "Superheroes with disabilities" and genres like "Indigenous futurisms comics."

    View all posts
  • Allison Bailund

    Acquisitions & Cataloging Specialist

    Allison Bailund is currently a Cataloging and Acquisitions Specialist at San Diego State University. She's currently the co-chair of the ALA Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable's Metadata & Cataloging Committee, and one of the inaugural coordinators for the NACO/SACO Comics and Fiction Funnel. She enjoys creating name authority records for various superheroes and their "behind the mask identities" such as Stephanie Brown and Miles Morales.

    View all posts
Liked it? Take a second to support us on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!