23 February 2009

How Libraries Shelve Their Comics

I find it interesting that both the Foundation for Children's Books panel on graphic novels at Boston College last month and the Graphic Novel Reporter's roundtable of librarians spent a fair amount of time on the burning question of how to file comics volumes in the library so readers can find them.

When I want to browse the books in comics form at my local library, I have five different places to look:

  • special shelves near adult fiction, but separated from them.
  • a nearby special shelf that's deemed part of the young adult section.
  • a special shelf in the children's room. (Easier to wrestle the last volume of Bone away from a much smaller patron.)
  • 741.5 in adult nonfiction--the Dewey decimal classification for sequential art, encompassing Calvin and Hobbes collections, coffee-table books on collecting, critical works, and biographies of comics creators.
  • 741.5 in the new books room.
In addition, the children's librarians have responded to demand by posting a list of books in comics form that they'd shelved normally before the craze hit.

On those special comics graphic-novel shelves, the books are filed alphabetically, usually by the name of the first writer credited on the book. That works great when one is working one's way through the output of a respected scripter, such as Neil Gaiman (as one might well be).

But putting the writer first can cause problems. Wildstorm credited Alé Garza as the primary creator of Ninja Boy: Faded Dreams; his name appears first on the cover. But in my library (and most others) the book's filed under W for scripter Allen Warner.

On the other hand, adaptations of prose works, such as P. Craig Russell's Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, aren't filed under the original storyteller's name. I've found some Manga Shakespeare volumes credited to the scripter, some to the artist, none to Shakespeare.

There's no distinction on my library's shelves between fictional and non-fiction comics work. I think there should be, though that might mean non-fiction comics get less attention. Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story, a brilliant exploration of the medium, and Sharon Rudahl's Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman shouldn't be treated like fiction just because they're in comics form.

My library makes no distinction between anthologies of short stories by various creators (e.g, Kazu Kubuishi's Flight, DC's Crisis on Multiple Earths) and volumes created to stand alone (Michel Rabagliati's Paul Has a Summer Job).

But none of those distinctions are the biggest problem readers find with the usual shelving, according to librarians at those forums. We comics fans like to read all of a series. That's not a problem with most Japanese series, which are created by a consistent person or team. That's not a problem with the work of auteurs like Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze), Hergé (Tintin), or Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man). Filing by writer's last name keeps all those volumes together.

But it's a problem when readers want to read all X-Men, or (heaven help us) all Batman. Over the decades those corporate-owned comics have been scripted by so many people that, alphabetically by author, the volumes end up all over the place. Both Robin Brenner at the FCB and Eva Volin in the GNR roundtable made the same basic point:
Libraries, if they want to be customer-friendly, need to adopt a bookstore model shelving system for their GN collections.
In other words, keep the series together.

TOMORROW: How the big American comics publishers make life hard for librarians.


Jennifer said...

Ah, this makes me feel better. I started a juvenile graphic novel area in our children's section last year and we have a YA section. Plus adult stuff in the 740s.

I have been doing the YA and J graphic novels as a mix - by author when it's a recognizable person (such as Gaiman) by series when it's different authors (like x-men or batman)

Our cataloguer is not really happy with this. Sometimes my cataloguer soul is not really happy with this either. But I know I'm right.

And now you have justified me!

Sam said...

At one local library both Babymouse and Nexus are shelved together in the kids section.
Babymouse is about a mouse and Nexus is about a tortured hero who is subjected to the anguish of mass murder victims until he must murder the murderer in self defense.

True, not everyone has read Nexus as thoroughly as I have, but even a cursory flip through its pages should make it clear that it is not appropriate for a 7-year-old.

J. L. Bell said...

And that doesn't even get into the horrors lurking in Babymouse: The Musical.