This post is the script from our presentation at the 2nd Annual Conference of the Comics Studies Society COMICS/POLITICS on July 25th (Community Day), at Ryerson University. This paper was written and presented by Rotem Anna Diamant, in collaboration with Brandon Haworth.

Librarianship is a radical act. It is radical and political because libraries not only house and retrieve information freely, but also serve as meeting places for broad communities, for the creation of and meditation on thoughts, and more and more often a warm place to spend the day. Being a librarian is often anti-capitalist. Especially now, given the effects of neoliberal policies and practices on public sector services and communities around the world. However, as University of Michigan History Librarian Maura Seale notes, “Like all institutions, libraries participate in racialized discourses, are embedded in power relations, and reproduce relations of domination and subordination” (p. 592). Today, I will speak about special libraries and where they appear in the story of radical librarianship.

The Canada Comics Open Library (CCOL) is a Canadian registered non-profit and volunteer-run organization with a mission to create comics-centric libraries that are inclusive, educational, and recreational public spaces. This paper will examine the creation of our grassroots special library as a political act, first touching on the politics of public librarianship, and the way comics are traditionally catalogued, organized, and understood in public and academic libraries as a frame of reference.

Work by Morales, Knowles, and Bourg (2014), has discussed the need for diversity and social justice in librarianship, noting the American Library Association’s statement on this with regard to the United States, “We value our nation’s diversity and strive to reflect that diversity by providing a full spectrum of resources and services to the communities we serve.” This work then takes the critical next step beyond simply diverse library staffing and notes, “The collection development decisions made by academic libraries and librarians have profound impacts on who and what is represented in the scholarly and cultural record” (p. 445, p. 446). This follows for all libraries.

However, this is very likely at odds with the ALA’s apolitical or post-political stance on the neutrality of collection development and practice. In 2016, Seale noted this with respect to the Ferguson Public Library practice as a model for the ALA’s post-political vision of librarianship that is, “completely decoupled from political, economic, social, and historical contexts. This decontextualized discourse fits seamlessly within neoliberal ideology and is ultimately antidemocratic” (p. 588). Seale wrote this referring to the library’s neutral response and actions following the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown on August 9th 2014 by white police officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson Missouri.

In fact, the ALA Code of Ethics, particularly Statements 6 & 7 pictured on the slide, may be interpreted in a manner which precludes what may be viewed as political librarianship. In today’s political climate, being a woman is political, as is falling outside the binary on the gender or sexuality spectrum, or being of a particular nationality or race. What are the limits to this code and where are the boundaries of pretending to be apolitical?

We believe, an apolitical approach could discourage inclusive and diverse librarianship, preventing librarians from practicing anti-racism and harm reduction through critical collection development, collection organization, and displays. Many librarians do work outside of this code to take important political stances in collection development, programming, community engagement, and other areas of librarianship, and the ALA has also worked against this code in their public statements. Fortunately, the ALA does not enforce its code of ethics and notes the difficulty in interpretation of such codes and the impact that doing so may have on a person or organization.

Another topic of deep interest to us in this area is, supposedly “universal” classification systems and how they reinforce the universality of western ideologies regarding the demarcation of information and knowledge. These systems, such as Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress Classification, while updated over time by a group of people, have been shown to marginalize several people for race, ability (Adler, Huber, Nix, 2017), sex and gender (Fox 2016). There is a unique intersection of special libraries, as a mode of librarianship which enables the subversion of such codes and classification systems, and comics— a hybrid and complex medium for storytelling.

Traditionally, in the Library of Congress Classification, comics are shelved together within the same subject area, as a genre in “Comic Book, Strips, etc”, in the PN6700-6790s range. There, they are distinguished by region (often place of publication) and subdivided by author, publisher or title. The regional breakdown includes: US, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and one titled “Other” regions or countries A-Z (6790). For example, in the Library of Congress Catalog, Canadian comics are placed in PN6733. Pictured on the slide is the complete breakdown of the range.

In Dewey Decimal Classification, similar to LCC, comics are often shelved in one area in Arts in 741.5s. Here they can be subgrouped by individual author or writer in comic books, graphic novels, and fotonovelas in 741.59, and cartoons, caricatures, and comic strips, 741.569. In both subsections, they are organized by “individual works, collections of works, and historical, descriptive, or critical treatments of works”, where geographic area can be added. (p. 163, Culbertson and Jackson).

Michigan State University (MSU), which holds one of the world’s largest Comic Book Collections with over 200,000 U.S-published comics and 500 shelf-feet of comics from other countries, places American comic books in the PN6725 to PN6728 range based on LCC. Comics are sub grouped by title in the PN6728 range or by author in the PN6727s. The organization of comics by title (often for series) rather than the author also reflects an earlier era of comics where they were not creator-owned, and artists had less rights over their own work built into their contracts, and were therefore less visible (1950s).

The problem with all this is that the oversaturation of comics in the mainstream market made by cis white men (Beaty and Woo), and simultaneous lack of subject breakdown and visual cues specific to creator representation in the physical library space, makes it difficult for people to find underrepresented and marginalized creators and see the scope of narratives that exist on the shelves. For example, it is immensely difficult to browse the shelves to find the autobiographies that tell the stories of people with illnesses (such as In-Between Days, a memoir of cancer by Teva Harrison); or, unique perspectives of historical events and time periods (such as My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris, a 1960s Chicago murder mystery, which has themes of mental health and queerness); or, autobiographies about transgendered and queer creators (such as Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition by Julia Kaye and On Loving Women by Diane Obomsawin); or superhero comics made by creators of colour, such as Ichiro by Ryan Inzana, that narrates complex family relationships due to generational differences and immigration.

Another shortcoming of LCC and DDC is lack of zine representation; zines are self-published booklets that are uncensored and often personal and political. Since many zines do not have ISBNs or a cataloguing copy from national bibliographic agencies such as OCLC, public librarians face difficulty including them. There are a few zine reference collections in public libraries, but they are often uncatalogued, with a pdf of the content of the collection available to the public.

We will now look at what is being done in library systems to address these shortcomings, and ask what more can be done?

There are many ways that librarians and cataloguers compensate for the inherited shortcomings of traditional classification models such as Dewey and LCC and digital format standards for cataloguing systems like MARC (the machine readable catalogue) with regards to comics. One change is that comics are no longer catalogued using just the first artist and et alia in the 245 author field, a change implemented through newer RDA (Resource Description and Access ) standards. Previously in Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2), a cataloguer would only list all authors if there were 3 or less, and the other contributors, such as pencilers, —were represented by the et alia, or not mentioned at all (Fee, Willian T.B. p. 40). For creators, there is now the option of the added entry 505 table of contents note, the 100 primary responsibility field, and 700s added entry for personal name fields— All this is to say, records for comics are much more comprehensive than they used to be! This is largely due to unique uses of previously limited MARC fields.

In the physical library space, public and academic libraries do a great job of setting up comics in broader subject displays, such as for Pride and throughout the year. Locally, the Toronto Public Library also works hard to make underrepresented voices heard. For example, at the Don Mills branch of the TPL, librarians have added stickers for visible representation of Indigenous creators, and several public libraries host inclusive events such as Drag Queen Story Time.

Public libraries also invite cartoonists into the library to host workshops; for example, in Toronto, cartoonist Tory Woollcott (who wrote Mirror Mind, about her experiences with Dyslexia) lead a graphic novel workshop for teens. Cartoonists and artists Eric Kim, Kean Soo, Megan Kearney, and Clayton Hammer will also be hosting comics and cartooning workshops at Toronto Public Library.

The High Park and Northern District TPL branches also host a Graphic Novel Book Club for teens. In addition, public libraries host larger scale comics events, such as the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF). Co-founded by Christopher Butcher and Peter Birkemoe of the Beguiling, TCAF is a diverse comics event with free panels, workshops, and a chance to meet and support local and international cartoonists. TCAF is held at the Toronto Reference Library, with over 25,000 in attendance in recent years.

Although comics are usually shelved as one subject, librarians use headings to make comics more discoverable in the online public access catalogue or OPAC, in the 650 and 655 fields, highlighting select subject and genre areas. However, as  Librarians Anna Culbertson and Pamela Jackson at the San Diego State University point out, “There are only a handful of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) that apply to most comics and less than thirty Genre/Form Headings available for narrowing these results.” (p.164 Culbertson). The genre headings also do not translate to browsability in the physical library space. LibraryThing for Libraries (LTFL), is a paid service that a few public libraries also use to improve OPACs and share metadata such as social tags (West, p. 302).

Sometimes, at the cataloguers discretion, non-fiction comics may be shelved outside of the comics section in the broader subject area with other books. For example, in Dewey and LCC, the call numbers for Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco can both be located under history of the Middle East. Some of the benefits of this include: library visitors will be able to discover comics through their favourite subject area; it may encourage the library member to engage differently with their topic of interest and hopefully; it may help dispel popular myths about the comics medium itself.

However, there are also many drawbacks of shelving select non-fiction comics outside of the main comics and graphic novel section in the library. First, it segregates these narratives from the comics section and may create (or encourage) a hierarchy of what comics “deserve” to be outside of the comics section. Also, it may feed into the historical and still common bias that most comics are a lesser form of literature, are solely made for and by cis white men, or are just for kids (we hear this at the library!). Lastly, doing so also eliminates the possibility for someone browsing the comics area to stumble into this work.

All this led us to reflect on a few questions which guided our initial cataloguing process: Primarily, how do we showcase the wide array of subjects and creators within the comics medium?

At CCOL we aim to adopt an open approach to librarianship to address shortcomings in cataloguing, both digital and physical, reduce barriers to accessibility, and showcase underrepresented stories in the comics medium.

We apply an open approach directly with a homegrown classification scheme and flexible open source software to catalogue comics. Library volunteers help catalogue donated materials, so we created an internal document with cataloguing procedures for comics, including a step-by-step guide to cataloguing, definitions, screenshots of our software, information about hardware, and keyword taxonomy guidelines (which is also a current volunteer-run project).

We use an Integrated Library System called OpenBiblio and continuously develop the code to support browsing and cataloguing comics. This includes adding simple features such as cover photos as well as more interesting OPAC browsability and discoverability features such as keyword, publisher, and genre breakdowns. There are MARC fields we do not include for simplicity, but may include in the future, such as: cover price and page count (extent).

We also tailor MARC fields to meet our requirements; for example, the field for “Topical term or geographic name as entry element” is our Subject field, which gets parsed as a subject category directly reflected on our OPAC homepage. On the shelf, and reflected in record call# info, we organize comics by subject first, not region, and then creator or editor, and year of publication.

This slide shows an example of a call # for Surviving the City, a story about friendship and navigating growing up Indigenous in Winnipeg, Manitoba, written by Tasha Spillett and illustrated by Natasha Donovan. The country code is included in the call # for general interest, but we do not shelve according to country code because we want to avoid placing a creator in an identity-related section that they may not identify with; for example, not everyone who lives in “Canada” identifies as being Canadian.

Keywords are also an important way to increase discoverability, browsability, and searchability of the collection. These access points improve a library’s catalogue where, as library researcher Wendy West points out, library material  “can become ‘lost’ because vocabulary common to users, but not part of the Library of Congress subject headings, is not included in the bibliographic record” (West, p. 304). Tagging allows us to use more current and diverse language, including identity-related language representing communities that lack representation in traditional library classification.

Our keywords and tagging are community driven— decided on by volunteers and considering feedback from community members. Our goal is for keywords to be improved and updated over time as our understanding of topics and identities change. We use the “Expansion of summary note” MARC field, pictured in this record detail, where comma separated keywords are parsed and counted for in the OPAC. This enables the public to see the distribution of content in the collection and allows community driven research.

For physical cataloguing, we organize comics by primary subject, using the subject areas: Everyday Fiction; Autobiography; Biography; Historical Fiction; Anthology; Speculative (sci fi, fantasy, superhero, surreal); Horror; Reference; and these same subjects for the YA collection.

Since comics are a hybrid medium and can fit into multiple subject areas, we’ve come up against many issues of where to put them. For example, one difficult decision is whether to place a comic in the Non-Fiction or Autobiography section, since comics are often narrated through personal experiences. For this reason, we place many journalism comics in Autobiography. In addition, we add tags such as “journalism” and other descriptive metadata in the record. For now, our Non-Fiction section is not subdivided, since it is fairly small, but we may subdivide this section over time.

We also use a stickering system across all subject sections to showcase underrepresented narratives, that highlights BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) creators, LGBTQ+ comics, and narratives that cover the subject and experiences of mental health, physical health, and disability. Since each of these stickers is an umbrella for a variety of identities and experiences, we try to compensate for this by adding more in depth keywords. One concern with stickers is that in some elementary school libraries, there have been incidents where kids have been bullied for picking up books with rainbow stickers. Our hope is that by promoting safe space practices, diverse collection development, and showing an abundance of narratives that represent these everyday experiences, visible across all comics subjects, we can reduce or avoid this in our own library. In this way, we also hope our stickering system will work to de-stigmatize experiences like mental illness, physical illness, and disability.

For example, historically, and still reflected in current library systems, disability is often perceived as an illness needing a cure, following conventions in medical and social scientific communities; however, as Adler, Huber, and Nix further note in their research on marking and marginalization of books about disability, “people with disabilities have gained definitional control over concepts and issues, and increasingly the term “disability” has come to denote a social/political category, often in resistance to medicalized perspectives on “able-bodiedness” (p.121). We hope these stickers and added keywords will work to make these everyday experiences more visible, counteracting widely used stigmatizing labels in larger classification schemes where, as this research goes on to note, “disabilities or people with disabilities are marked as special topics, set against an assumed “normal.” (p.126).

Every month, we also create subject displays to showcase a variety of experiences told through comics. In May of 2019, we created displays for Jewish Heritage Month, a display for Arab, Muslim, Middle East North Africa (MENA) creators, as well for Asian Heritage Month; In june, we curated a Pride and Indigenous History Month display. We also profile local and self-published creators through our Canadian Cartoonists database resource, and we use our blog as a tool to highlight underrepresented creators and publishers and respond to current events and political decisions.

To meet our goals, we added feedback forms to most pages of our website and record visitor suggestions as well as keep a daily library journal to record volunteer experiences. We also have a pool of free memberships based on a pay it forward model, so no one is turned away for lack of money. Otherwise, membership is PWYC, suggested $5 per year, to help us pay for library supplies and renting the space each month.

Include story if time allows: We currently catalogue by age group subdivided into Adult and Young Adult, and are planning to subdivide the Young adult section in the near future. Many visitors, including parents who have not read comics, assume comics are all for children, and many young children run up to the shelves and immediately pull material to read, so this subdivision is important. Recently, this has happened with Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet, a very dark fairy tale that follows a cast of cruel Disney-like characters drawn in lush watercolours, as they go about their grotesque daily routines and social rituals for survival, within and surrounding the body of a decaying corpse of a little girl in the forest. One regular library member, a child who is very vocal about his opinions on comics, pulled Beautiful Darkness from the shelf, brought it to the couch, began reading it for about one minute, and then slammed it down and shouted out loud, “Boring!”. We don’t censor anything in our collection, so our membership form includes a disclaimer and signature field for parents or guardians for members younger than 13. Once someone is a member, they have access to everything, similar to the public library.

We are applying for grants to host more projects and events in the library space, provide opportunities for up and coming cartoonists, and to create another avenue for community members to engage with comics. Pictured are a few posters of events we’ve hosted over the past year. This year, CCOL will host 5 grant-funded artist residencies prioritizing women, trans, and non-binary comics creators. (The blue poster in the center is an upcoming workshop this Sunday, hosted by our first Resident Comics Creator, Bo Doodley).

These are images from our first event, our project launch at the 519 on November 24th:

Our politics and engagement with cultural conversations are reflected in the way we prioritize wide representation in comics through efforts to obtain comics across all subjects made by marginalized creators and comics that deal with everyday experiences. We also seek zines and self-published works when making purchases to make sure that the collection includes narratives created by people that may lack access to or do not want to participate in mainstream publication.

This is a recent snapshot of sticker representation in the collection, with a lot of room for development. Despite how diverse comics are in our library and vastly beyond, we have experienced firsthand that many people do not see how political comics are.

We’ve heard: comics are just for kids; are just made by cis white men for cis white men; are a low form of art and that no one in the art community has explored the medium before; cartoonists are just animators; comics are mostly dirty; are not valid literature; are just for lazy readers; are all digital anyhow, so physical collections are not needed, and many more. Some of these attitudes are also visible historically through Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code Authority, both published in 1954, a reflection societal fears that comics were degrading the minds of America’s youth.

To be honest, it can be difficult getting people to walk up to the bookshelves, since many community members in Regent Park have never picked up a comic before, or seen themselves represented in comics, or the last time they saw a comic was in their younger brother’s bedroom decades ago, according to at least 4 people I spoke with. However, once people walk up to the shelves and can see how the comics are organized—the scope of narratives and representation within subject areas— feedback has been only positive (added).

Despite the goals of our project, there are many problems inherent in creating a new library system. For example: when we create controlled vocabularies for keyword consistency, we bring in our own personal biases and experiences. We also want to recognize our privilege in having had the time to dedicate to the project, build our website, and get the library space running. We attempt to mitigate this with an open approach, allowing volunteers and community to be directly involved with our practices.

Because our software and practices enable us to experiment with accessible metadata formation, searchability, and information organization, and because we are a small and private library working outside of the constraints of government-controlled libraries, there are accessible changes that we are able to implement from the ground up. We are not suggesting that larger library systems should or even could implement the changes or strategies we have adopted (and we are not professional cataloguers!). We only wish to create an accessible collection for our community, and engage with a larger conversation about how the ways libraries organize information, in this case, comics and graphic novels, affects how people understand and engage with the diverse stories told through this medium.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Culbertson, A., & Jackson, P. (2016). Comics and the modern library catalog: new rules for breaking the rules. The Serials Librarian71(3-4), 162-172.
  • Seale, M. (2016). Compliant Trust: The Public Good and Democracy in the ALA’s” Core Values of Librarianship”. library trends64(3), 585-603.
  • Morales, M., Knowles, E. C., & Bourg, C. (2014). Diversity, social justice, and the future of libraries. portal: Libraries and the Academy14(3), 439-451.
  • O’English, L., Matthews, J. G., & Lindsay, E. B. (2006). Graphic novels in academic libraries: From Maus to manga and beyond. The Journal of Academic Librarianship32(2), 173-182.
  • Fox, M. J. (2016). Legal Discourse’s Epistemic Interplay with Sex and Gender Classification in the Dewey Decimal Classification System. library trends64(4), 687-713.
  • Adler, M., Huber, J. T., & Nix, A. T. (2017). Stigmatizing disability: library classifications and the marking and marginalization of books about people with disabilities. The Library Quarterly87(2), 117-135.
  • West, W. (2013). Tag, You’re It: Enhancing Access to Graphic Novels. portal: Libraries and the Academy13(3), 301-324.
  • Fee, W. T. (2013). Where is the Justice… League?: Graphic novel cataloging and classification. Serials Review39(1), 37-46.
  • Beaty, B., & Woo, B. (2016). The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books. Springer. CHAPTER 9 Not by a White Man, p. 97

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President at Canada Comics Open Library