Graphic Novels in Collection Development: Two Kinds of Equality

– tylerdnns

Webinar Title: “Comics and Libraries: A No-Fear Graphic Novel Reader’s advisory.

This webinar, hosted by Krista King and Cathy Crum, took place in February of this year. King and Crum begin with a brief overview of comic books and their history. This means the format’s trajectory from merely popular and “cheap” to one that is taken seriously. This reminded me of the ways in which technology went from a humble, small subset to something for everyone. Listening to this webinar, I noticed several ways in which technology and graphic novels seem to have direct parallels–one of which is a historical habit of excluding women.

King begins by explaining the difference between comic and graphic novel. This section of the webinar is for an older set of librarians. The hosts explain that they often get asked by librarians if graphic novels are “explicit or taboo” books. This presentation is for people who don’t know what a graphic novel is, but it is also skillfully informative enough to appeal to someone with more knowledge as well. A lot of ground is covered.

“Graphic novels are a natural extension of the comic book,” King defines. “They tell a story using pictures and sequence panels, speech bubbles, and other conventions of the comic book format.”

Much of the webinar is Cook and King discussing the variety of ways in which graphic novels are effective learning tools. They often bolstered this continued theme with lesser-known insider “fan” knowledge (related, in one instance, to the evolution of the paper-thickness). As a fellow comic fan, I appreciated this marriage of “scholarly info” that both hosts threw in with “cool facts.” This webinar allowed the hosts to speak effectively both as educators and fans.

A third into the webinar’s 90 minutes, the speakers went into an age-based break-down of the genre. In the last five years, we are informed, graphic novels have begun to be marketed towards even the earliest readers. The youth coordinators monitoring the talk discuss how educators help publishers make sure language in these books is appropriate for “nurturing minds.” We are recommended ALA-approved titles for readers as young as four to adult readers who read Alan Moore.

Graphic novels are described in depth as being a helpful tool to bridge a literacy gap; for example, someone who is not a strong a reader can be “met halfway” by images in a panel. Following this general idea, the webinar also combines word and text to give listeners a comprehensive overview of their topic. Throughout the talk, numerous slides were devoted to picturing notable graphic novels for each audiences. Other slides linked to relevant book lists and awards for the genre. There really is no excuse for coming away from this webinar without a laundry list of great titles.

Graphic novels, our hosts explain, are a well-established format in their own right. They work well in an adult collection, a teen collection, or a children’s collection. Graphic novels can be gritty with adult themes or they can cater to children making the leap from picture book to chapter book.

A continued thread throughout the webinar is discussion of inequity in the comic industry. Our hosts explain that the genre is historically created by, about, and marketed towards males. Female representations are often sexist–back in the day, they mostly were, I’d surmise.

An interesting paint was made about how modern franchises like Spiderman and Thor re-brand their titles using female characters. The hosts bring up various female comic creators throughout the talk, so there is definite cause to hope for progress in this matter. Also, the recent crop of female superheroes with hopefully get more girls into graphic novels. This, I’m confident, can only lead to the next generation having more female comic creators.

A lot of firsts seem to be happening as far as social issues in comics. Cook and King describe many of these. But there is still a ways to go. The ratio of male-to-female creators or title/main characters is still overwhelmingly male. All the ways in which females are marginalized in the tech world eerily apply to the comic world, both on and behind the pages. The hierarchy of exclusion that exists in both worlds are similar, just short of identical.

Which is why this webinar was so refreshing. Both an overview of comics was given, but also the context of the comic book industry, particulars that reflect where we are socially. Many of our readings have been about the importance of understanding an object, but also it’s social and historical context. This webinar’s creators understand the importance of this as well.

Finally I loved all the ways in which the hosts were inclusive. For example, mangas are treated as something akin to the cheap Harlequin romance novels by the high brow. In this presentation, though, graphic novels are literature. The implication coming away from this webinar is that librarians should have Watchmen just as high on the shelf as David Copperfield. This presentation was all about equalizing all aspects of the genre. How many people, for example, would by thoughtful enough to call a graphic novelization of Twilight a learning tool? I appreciated how inclusive and informed the hosts were in this way. I agree with them.

As long as you’re reading something, isn’t that all that matters?

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Renewed Respect for Story-Time: Shadowing My BFF

By tylerdnns

Preparation work for this blog assignment was actually great fun. For starters, it admittedly wasn’t work. Secondly, the intersectionality and general coolness of the place I chose freed it from any tedium. For this assignment, I got to follow and observe the work of my best friend, Mr. Seth Persons, a librarian at the MET. Seth works at both the Thomas J. Watson Library, an art history and research-geared space for college age-patrons and also the Nolen library, which is more oriented toward the general public.

For membership at the Watson Library, the requirements are minimal. There’s the age-restriction, but any photo or student ID will get you in. The Nolen Library is even more inclusive—anyone can get a membership.

During my brief visit, I got to observe first-hand both the excitement and minutiae that Seth gets to experience everyday–both as a desk librarian at Nolen and a systems librarian/all-around tech wizard at Watson. Seth wore many hats throughout the day, and in him I saw all the versatility and mental acumen that the job really requires. It was exhausting and intimidating, both to his credit.

Libraries from my childhood often felt authoritative. Whenever I went into one, the atmosphere could feel stifling and almost judgmental. I felt out-of-place — as if a stern figure was always seconds away from pointing a finger and forbidding the most minor of infractions. But the libraries where Seth works aren’t related to those horror setting from my childhood. They were much more open and less restrictive. Since I am an aspiring picture book author/illustrator, I was especially interested in the Nolen library, which is 1/3 picture books and is noted for a story-time for ages 3-5 every morning. There is also a story–time for aged 5-8 in the evenings. I didn’t see young people scared to talk there. That was cool. It wasn’t a repressive place, by any stretch.

There was a welcoming atmosphere in the Nolen Library that was mirrored by the staff. Which is amazing, given how busy these librarians often are—given the multitude of varied pressures and stresses that I witnessed them experience in just my short time there.

It wasn’t a particularly busy day. I wanted to chose a low-key time, so the library wasn’t packed with story-time listeners and parents and nannies, etc. I chose a time when I wouldn’t be impeding my friend from doing his work. As I often hear about the emotional duress that being a public servant can bring on, this was really the only thing that made sense.

As I toured the stacks at the Nolen Library, Seth told me about a particularly eventful story-time that’d recently happened in the very room. I am aware, as I wrote, of how stressful it can be to be any librarian. This story and Seth’s descriptions related to it made me respect fully the emotional demands placed on anyone running a story-time, be it a children’s librarian, a volunteer, or any staff member.

Managing a library, especially a story-time, seems akin to being a ring-leader in a circus. You don’t just manage the little ones, commanding respect, but maintaining a balance that doesn’t turn you into a jerk. That’s one level. But, according to Seth, it’s also managing parents. Managing nannies. Managing volunteers. Making sure the kids don’t idly destroy the legitimate artworks on display near them. All of this during story-time.

But story-time doesn’t swallow the Nolen Library completely, despite picture books being so large a part of their collection. While story-time was happening on that particular day, a group of high-schoolers were also having class in the library.

The library is never a static place and different groups often have to be managed at the same time. But a librarian like Seth also has to contend with a lot of behind-the-scenes technology stuff. In addition to having to fix the circulation desk scanner like every single say, he is also responsible for devices that I wouldn’t even begin to know how to approach, much less turn on, much less operate correctly.

The day left me with a renewed admiration for librarians, volunteers, and everyone involved in any large story-time ever. These people manage so much stress, both for other people externally and also for themselves internally, and are so infrequently lauded for it. People like my best friend, in my humble opinion, are literal unsung superheroes.

After our observance, me and Seth at chicken salad for lunch. I looked at art when he had to go back to work. It was a great experience and day.

I Want To Believe: ‘Illegal Alien’ as Dropped Subject Heading?

By tylerdnns

When the word “alien” is used to classify an individual, it is inaccurate, silly, and downright disrespectful. On one hand, it brings to mind science fiction fodder from the 1950—bulbous heads with tubular arms bearing “We come in peace” banners. It’s disrespectful, obviously, because it reduces a human being, no better than you or I, to this cheap, cartoon visual.

The history of the term begins unexpectedly. This now-offensive term was once used to supplant a much more offensive one.

In the 70s, “a group of Chicano UCLA students […] suggest[ed] the [LA Times] use the term illegal alien. They were responding to an editorial in the publication whose title referred to people who’d crossed illegally from Mexico as wetbacks.” So for a period, the term was a politically correct answer to what now seems like an archaic and particularly nasty slur (that reputable newspapers would publish without a thought)

So in the 80’s, when politicians like Ronald Reagan were using the term, it didn’t strike people as offensive as it does now. According to NPR, it wasn’t until the 90’s that the phrase started becoming associated with bigotry. Despite this current understanding that the term is outdated, it is prominently linked to political, right-wing rhetoric.

Politicians like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump coupling the words “illegal alien” with the word “criminal,” (NPR) as an antecedent or vice-versa. They are essentially labeling a voiceless people in a way that the people themselves don’t determine.

The current political climate in which the term “illegal alien” has an insidious relevancy is interesting when compared to the Peet article. It describes the avenues and roadblocks a Dartmouth student navigated in her quest to remove “illegal alien” as a subject heading with the Library of Congress. While researching, the student noticed that many inflammatory readings about non-citizens were found under the heading “illegal alien.”

The student took her concerns with the heading to a rights group for the undocumented students at Dartmouth. From there, the bipartisan group took the student’s concerns to librarians at Dartmouth. The librarians advised that the group would have to take it up with the Library of Congress directly. What follows was a description that, frankly, painted the Library of Congress as an impenetrable and hierarchical force at best. On the more extreme side, an absolute, perhaps harsher interpretation might cast LC as sometimes-protector of the hegemony.

After six grueling months of waiting, the Library of Congress finally got back to Dartmouth students, denying the change. The LC memo stated that the terms “illegal alien” and “undocumented immigrant” were not interchangeable. In their eyes, the connotation for each phrase was different.

Then, after what seems like relatively small pressure from ALA and civil rights groups, the Library of Congress relented. They changed the heading to “non-citizen”…for three months, at least. After that short span, Republicans (specifically) tried to stop this.

One Republican senator from Tennessee (neighbor to my own home state, Alabama) even went so far as to say the name-change would cost taxpayers frivolously, and therefore would not have been worth pursuing. As if using more thoughtful words wouldn’t lead to a more uniform, thoughtful community benefiting everyone…

The bill was ultimately passed, then denied, and is now currently up in limbo. The end of the Library Journal article is optimistic. It highlights the enterprising Dartmouth student, a former undocumented individual who is now a modern incarnation of civil rights hero. The article champions individuals like her, and as readers we are implicitly encouraged to follow suit.

Despite the bill not passing by the time of the article’s publication, the work done by the students was still necessary. The publicity generated by their efforts makes “illegal alien” seem even more antediluvian and backwards, further discourages thoughtful people (most of us, in my opinion) from using it. Any publicity, if it encourages less usage of this word, will paint researchers who use this tag as insensitive, pressuring everyone to use it less in every capacity, unless trying to incite (like insensitive, topical politicians of the day). In short, I don’t think anyone who matters is going to be using this term.

Both words in the label “illegal alien” are propaganda. “Illegal” implies criminal activity even when none occured. “Alien” is a particularly cartoonish way of saying an object doesn’t belong. It is not just propaganda, but it is immoral propaganda.

This reminded me of the struggles for more apt representation (or representation at all) in the Library of Congress subject headings outlined in the Drabinski readings. “Lesbian” finally got validation from LC as a subject heading in 1976. The dynamics of power, of literally waiting for the hegemony to realize that a disrespect is taking place, and then waiting on them to care enough to change it, is relevant in the Dartmouth case as well. When a dominant class is put in charge of defining a less-influential other, they are only going to approach this task with the limited understanding they bring to the table.

The Drabinski article was about how people are limited by their biases, whether they realize it or not. Even when the defenders of these inaccurate subject headings are in the wrong, they often don’t seem to realize or spend too much time defending instead of just realizing the new for something new and more respectful. If harmful language can exist in libraries, those hallowed places idealized by Madison and Jefferson, then what hope is there for the drastically more-chaotic spaces outside of it?

Above all else, we just have to ask people and understand what they feel comfortable being called. Why is that so hard?

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://lms.pratt.edu/

Greene, D. (2015, August 19). The Evolution Of The Immigration Term: Alien. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/

Peet, L. (2016). LC Drops “Illegal Alien” Subject Heading. Library Journal, 141(11), 12-13.

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