The Comic Pimp: Issue #6

Fri, October 17th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
James Sime, Columnist

GETTING COMICS INTO LIBRARIES

Guerrilla marketing is the comic industry's cutting-edge answer for promotion. We all know it. I've been talking about this street-fighting subject for weeks, profiling everything from grass-roots methods to put comic books into people's hands to introducing new guerrilla concepts to help raise awareness of the graphic literature. To finish up this series of articles we're going to break out one of the biggest guerrilla guns there is...

Libraries.

[Sime goes to the Library]Let's go guerrilla and get those comics into the libraries! With such a massive audience of readers of all ages and tastes, there simply is no better place for finding new comic readers than public libraries, particularly younger readers. Many articles have been written about the importance of comics and graphic novels in the libraries and there has been decades of discussion on the value of turning new readers onto comics by using the public library system. And now The Comic Pimp is going to show you exactly how to do just that.

This in-depth series of articles on how to get comics into the libraries was written with the help of Isotope's brilliant Special Projects Director Kirsten Baldock. Kirsten has been a Librarian's Assistant for the past three and a half years in the Oakland Public Library system and is soon to be a librarian herself in the new year. She has the unique perspective of being actively involved in both libraries and the comic industry, not just as a fan or a patron, but as an integral and essential member of both communities. In these final columns on guerrilla marketing we're going to continue the tradition of full disclosure and revealing the behind-the-scenes processes that make things happen, and we're going to make the entire comic industry privy to Kirsten's unique knowledge and years of experience!

It's time for that punk rock style comic promotion, smart do-it-yourself trench fighting action, and while getting comics into the libraries is a guerrilla marketing method of getting comics into the public eye, it shouldn't be guerrilla warfare on the library staff. As well-intentioned as it may be, donating comics in the library's drop-box or suggesting a book that doesn't fit with the library's circulation or acquisitions policies isn't going to help the libraries or the comic industry one bit. Using this practical guide to how libraries work and the best way comic readers can interact with their local library staff to start a comic collection or enhance an existing one is the best kind of guerrilla marketing there is!

Know What Your Library Already Owns

Whether you're interested in donating some comics or want to suggest books to be added to the collection, you'll need to know what books they already have before you even try to talk to the library staff. Graphic novels in libraries tend to be in either the Juvenile (children's) or Young Adult (teens') sections. Despite the proliferation of newspaper and magazine articles entitled "Comics Grow Up," libraries still find that the majority of comic readers are in these younger categories. You should also look in the adult section, however, since there may be comics there as well.

These days it is less likely that you will find any single-issue comics in libraries. This is thanks to the dominance of the graphic novel format and the reality that magazine-format periodical materials are traditionally hard for libraries to catalogue, store and maintain. Consequently, libraries are more likely to stock graphic novels or trade paperbacks.

Kirsten's Inside Scoop: Graphic novels and trade paperbacks will most likely be located in the non-fiction under the Dewey Decimal number 741.5 followed by the author's last name. For those of you who are interested, the 700 classification is art books, the 741 classification is for books on special applications of drawing, and the 741.5 is specifically cartoons, caricatures, and comics.

You may also find some comics in the fiction or biography sections. Art Spiegelman's "Maus" and Judd Winick's "Pedro and Me," for example, are often found in the biography section.

Some libraries are smart enough to know that comics will get used more if they are in the fiction section. So, before you give up hope that there are graphic novels in the library, you should look through the fiction section, which is alphabetical by the author's last name. If your local branch does carry single issue comics, they will be located in the magazine section or on display.

Make sure your research is thorough before approaching a librarian, be sure to check the library catalog to see what books the branch or local system already has that may be checked out or on hold.

How Did These Comics Get in the Library in the First Place?

If your library has some comics already, you may find yourself wondering how it got there in the first place. Who picked these books and where did the money for them come from?

What comic fans call collecting, librarians call Collection Development. Most libraries have at least both a children's librarian and an adult librarian in charge of collection development at that specific library. In some cases with very small branches, it may be that the librarian in charge of collection development may not even work at the library branch, but in another more centralized location. Young Adult collections rarely have a Young Adult specialist in charge of the Collection development. These duties usually fall to either the adult or children's librarian for that branch.

Kirsten's Inside Scoop: Who pays for the comics?

Well, you do, with your tax dollars! Most public libraries are funded by either a city or a county, though some are funded by the state. The library proposes its budget and the governing body either approves it or, usually, cuts it back a little. Part of the library budget goes to collection development. The collection development budget is split between Adult services and Children's services and then between the Main library and the branches. So each librarian in charge of a collection has their own budget for their collection.

So, for example, if you found three comic books in the Children's collection at a small local branch, chances are that the children's librarian at that branch is already interested in adding comics to the collection.

Why are there usually so few comics if the children's librarian is inclined to add comics to the collection? It's probably a matter of money. Remember that in addition to keeping the kids entertained with fiction and picture books, the children's librarian also has to get books to help kids write reports on volcanoes, butterflies, endangered species, and mummies. Also it's the children's librarian's job to get books that will help a parent convince their children that it's okay to have a sibling or that kindergarten isn't a scary place (its all the grades after that are the problem). So, only a small portion of the budget ends up going to comics.

Another major re4ason that there aren't more comics at any given branch is because there are no good resources to help librarians select comics specifically. Most libraries provide librarians with a set list from which to order books. (There are a number of independent for-profit businesses that put together these lists.) Comic books rarely make it onto these lists at all. Of course, a librarian can always order a book that isn't on the list, but if they are not aware of a comic or the need for it, they are unlikely to put in a special order for it.

Now that you know what the library has and how it got there, you can approach the librarian to find out how you can help build that graphic novel collection into something brilliant and glorious.

Find Out What you Can Do Without Creating More Work for your Librarian.

[Sime goes to the Library]Every good guerrilla project starts with thought and planning, this goes doubly for getting comics into the public libraries! Because this is such an important task you are undertaking in the name of comics and the comic industry, you should make sure you speak with the librarians before you take any action. If you act like a damn fool or a jackass it makes the whole industry look bad, and none of us want that. It's important to find out what guerrilla approach would work best at your particular branch, and what methodology you can apply toward getting the best results.

You don't want to donate a fat stack of expensive graphic novels if the library doesn't intend to use them, do you? Work smart and work with your local librarians and you'll see those shelves filling up with excellent comics. In order to do this you need to talk to the librarians in charge of Collection Development.

Kirsten's Inside Scoop: Who Is Who In the Library

In most cases, the staff members at the desks are not the ones ordering the books. The people at the desk where you check out books (the circulation desk) tend to be called Library Pages or Library Aides. In most cases these staff members tend to be high school or college students, so approaching them about getting comics in the library would be like giving a new latte recipe to the counter people at Starbucks. They may be into your ideas but they aren't the decision makers, they are also unlikely to pass along your message in a very reliable fashion.

The people you see when you have a question and go to the Reference Desk are usually Reference Librarians, but often Paraprofessionals like Librarian Assistants. This is a better starting point as the person at the Reference desk may also be in charge of Collection Development. Keep in mind that in small libraries, there may be only one desk for circulation and reference. In this case, the staff will all probably take turns at the desk and you'll need to ask to speak to a librarian.

At most libraries, the Librarians are like managers. Keep in mind that asking to speak to the manager always puts people on edge, so you might want to give some indication of your intentions. You might say, for example, "I'm interested in helping the library develop a graphic novel collection. May I speak to the Librarian in charge of the Young Adult or Children's collection?"

Once you are talking to the right person, you can determine what kind of contribution from you will be welcome. The Librarian(s) may have some ideas of how you can help them out, but it's also good if you have an idea of what you want to do as well. If the Librarian doesn't have any idea how you can help, you don't want to create more work for them by making them come up with something. They are more likely to say "No" if it creates additional work for them. It also prevents you from getting into something you are not comfortable doing.

Many librarians want the help of expert comic connoisseurs like ourselves, and sometimes the best thing you can offer the libraries is your expertise, but that doesn't mean you can't make donations...

Donations

Everybody likes to get something for nothing, and that's especially true for libraries where money is always tight. With city, state and federal budgets perpetually pissing down to zero, libraries are constantly getting the financial chokehold. The easiest way to get a comic into the library is to donate it.

If you really want to get the right books in the libraries open up your wallet and get the library all those books you wish it had!

However, not all donations that are made end up getting into library collections. So if you're going to hand them a big pile of expensive books that you spent your hard-earned dollars on, you might as well equip yourself with the best set of circumstances to ensure that the books you do donate make it on the shelves.

Kirsten's Inside Scoop: The condition of a book makes all the difference in whether the Librarian will even considering adding a book to the collection. The book should be in good condition, preferably new condition. If the book is in bad shape, it'll go right into the free bin no matter what book it is, Shakespeare or Steranko.

You remember the last time you loaned a graphic novel to a close friend and it came back with the covers and pages all rolled back? Imagine what it would look like if you had loaned it to about fifty of your closest friends. Library books go through a lot of wear and tear. Books that have already served their time will not last in the Library long. Books that won't last are not worth the time and money needed to catalog and process them.

This also means that format is very important. Remember that you will rarely find single-issue comics in the library. This is the reason. Comics in the floppy format don't hold up as well as graphic novels.

Graphic novels don't hold up as well as other library books! Most books are available with a library binding. Basically the glue (and the stitching in cloth bound books) is stronger to withstand more use and abuse. Even books that don't have the library binding tend to use better, stronger glue than the average graphic novel. This is another reason why Librarians are reluctant to spend money on graphic novels.

So, hardcover books are best, but nearly unused graphic novels or trade paperbacks are fine, again, especially if it comes at no cost to the library.

The second most important consideration is the appropriateness of the comic. Remember where you found graphic novel collections in your library or where the Librarian indicated that graphic novels are likely to go. You will not necessarily convince the Librarian to start a graphic novel collection in the adult collection simply by donating some smart, yet situationally adult comics, like "Preacher," to the library. Stick to what the Librarians told you.

If they want children's books, make sure you donate graphic novels appropriate for children. Usually this means that you should watch out for nudity and/or sexual situations, swearing, adult situations, and excessive violence. Use your own discretion to determine what is okay for children and teens, but remember that the Librarian may be more conservative.

After all, angry parents are the Librarian's problem, not yours.

How you present the comic donation makes a big difference in whether the books make it into a library's collection. So use some common sense!

Leaving a box of books on the library's doorstep before they are even open isn't likely to help get those comics onto the library's shelves. Think about how wet your car's windshield is when you get up at six in the morning, and now think about what all that condensation is going to do to those comics. Don't waste your librarian's time cleaning up after you. Dumping comics into the library's book drop without even a note, won't help either. Librarians are notoriously helpful people and your donation will probably just end up going into the lost and found rather than being added to the collection.

Kirsten's Inside Scoop: It is always best to deliver the books in person and give the Librarian some indication of why you think that it is a good addition to the collection. This can be a really brief statement like "This graphic novel is an essential part of any comic collection and I wanted you to have it for your graphic novel collection. I think it is most appropriate for teens."

You could also make a copy of a review of the comic for the Librarian in case they are not available to talk to you when you donate the book. This also gives them a more in depth idea of the content of the books you are donating.

Additionally, some library systems require that Librarians, particularly Children's Librarians, get two reviews of a book before it can be added to the collection. Providing those reviews helps ensure that the book makes it into the collection.

Donations should be made in small batches. Getting a box of books is often overwhelming to Librarians and prevents you from giving much attention to each individual book. Treat them like they are special. Bring them in one or two at a time.

Other Donating Opportunities

If your goal is to get the comics into the people's hands, you can donate comics (even single-issues!) to the library for special reading programs. Most libraries at least have a reading program during the summer, but some also run programs during the school year. These programs usually give cool prizes to enthusiastic kids to reward them for reading. Libraries love to reward reading with more reading, so these prizes are often books. Graphic novels, comics, or even toys and posters could be donated to be used as prizes in these programs.

Not half bad, eh?

Tune in next week when Kirsten and I will continue with our guerrilla campaign to get comics into the libraries with an in-depth expose of other methods the comic industry can use to help librarians stock their shelves full of sexy graphic novels.

Only here at The Comic Pimp, baby!

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