The problem with working in a field that relies heavily on bureaucratic procedure is that sometimes you propose something, and then so much time passes that you forget about it. Then, suddenly, you get three emails one day saying that the talk on the importance of comic book collections and geek-centric programming in libraries you proposed four months ago has been approved, and you have to present it at three different conferences.
This is the position I recently found myself in, when my talk, “Geek Out: the Importance of Pop Culture in Libraries,” was selected for presentation at the Pennsylvania Library Association’s annual conference, as well as by the Young Adult Library Services Association for presentation at the American Library Asssociation National Conference next summer in San Francisco (there was also an inter-departmental training day, but those are literally so boring that I’ll spare you the title, as even that is enough to make you want to claw your eyes out). This is a pretty big deal for someone of my age and experience level, which means that of course this “good news” immediately threw me into a panic.
How was I going to make a presentation on why non-geeky people should give a damn about Doctor Who interesting? How was I going to translate my relentless enthusiasm for Hawkeye into something that would benefit other people in their real, professional jobs? When I wrote the pitch for this talk, I kept it vague enough so that I could sound like I had a plan and make the presentation after the fact, were I accepted. This approach got me through my undergrad career, so I figured it would be okay. Now, faced with the fact that I was going to have to stand up, alone, in front of a room full of people who were A) older and B) mostly higher ranking than me, I was terrified.
Let me brag on myself for a minute: I am a great public speaker. I’m a natural storyteller. This is something I know about me that has been written in the comments section of my report cards since kindergarten. I can work a room, whether that’s a good or a bad thing (believe me, some of those report card comments weren’t positive). In my worst moments, that means I get up and just completely BS my way through something in a way that is compelling and loud and passionate—but not really genuine. Those moments are not usually about something I care about, or something I have been teased about, or something that has deep personal meaning to me. Geek culture has been a part of my life since I was a small child, but it was not always a thing I was very public with, and I only very recently allowed myself to kind of own my geekdom (which is how I ended up here, writing for WWAC!). Beyond personal social anxiety, I have faced a strong front of adversity from my own co-workers in the past (some of whom have struggled to see comics as a valid medium), and the graphic novel section in my library is essentially maintained only by me.
So, with only a few weeks to pull it together, I had to figure out a way to convince a room full of information professionals that they should really make a cosplay club. Oh, also, explain what cosplay is in the first place.
A great tool for this is to appeal directly to reason. Get some numbers together. Statistics carry a lot of weight in a profession that gets its jollies from creating databases and information hierarchies. When I dropped the fact that (at least digital) comics readership is a pretty even 53.33% male, 46.67% female, the room actually gasped. Take the basic statistics that you think people should know and assume that they don’t know them. I can’t tell you how shocked my colleagues are when they find out that average comic readers are not twelve year old boys, but twenty-and-thirty-something professionals. A woman at one of my sessions actually refused to believe this, repeating “no, no, you’re wrong” at me until I just shrugged and gave up. Good luck circulating your collection, weirdo.
Why is this such a hard thing for people to accept? Because you are realigning what they believe, what they have always believed, to be true. When staring down the facts, people react in one of two ways: they acknowledge it or they deny it. I’ve encountered plenty of both in my career.
Moving from the cut-and-dry “here’s how it is” of comics, I focused strongly on the community aspect. Here’s where having a sense of humor comes in handy. If you’re too serious, you’re seen as a gatekeeper to a world where everyone will be just as serious as you are. If you’re too flip, then they feel justified in dismissing geek culture. I find a nice balance works. I will poke fun at geekery—c’mon, it’s easy—and just as I’ve got them laughing, I’ll throw in an anecdote about how pop culture saves lives, how playing Magic: The Gathering fosters positive social interaction in a demographic that often struggles with it, or how writing fanfiction is an empowering way for young women to safely explore their creativity and sexuality. It’s the one-two punch of nerdery that we’re all familiar with: sometimes it’s the worst, but, ultimately, we love it because it spoke to us in a way that other things didn’t.
Now, with facts and pathos in their mind, they’re ready to talk about programming. In my work as a programming coordinator, my philosophy is generally that too much structure is unappealing. When I host programs for teens, I tend to let them direct me while I provide a few waypoints to keep things going smoothly. My Comic Book Club started initially as a graphic novel book group, but it quickly evolved into a time where teenage dorks can just ramble to me and each other about their fandoms. I explained how easy and cost-effective it is to hold a weekly MTG meet-up—our fastest growing program at my library, which went from four kids to a whopping fifteen at my last meeting (all middle-and-high-school aged boys, a notoriously hard group to bring out to events). Of course, I spoke about Insta-Con, including the difficulties of running it and the joys of seeing it succeed.
At the end of the first talk, I was surrounded by a group of librarians as I attempted to pack up my laptop. “I’m a closet Doctor Who fanatic,” one said, “I never knew this stuff was cool now.” Another asked me how I came to know so much about comics, to which I replied, “I’m a gigantic nerd” and was met by a surprised look—what, just because I’m wearing a well-tailored blazer, I can’t also tell you about the death of Wolverine? Many took my card, and I’ve heard from a number of them about how they’re starting MTG nights, D&D clubs, and how they’ve pitched a library comic-con to their directors and boards.
The library is a point of access, even more than it is a place of information. By providing a safe space, by encouraging obsession, by fostering inspiration through seemingly trivial activities like fanfiction and cosplay, libraries are in a unique position to be a non-retail space for geekery. In a world where comics are usually only accessible through retail purchase, and convention badges skyrocket further towards the prohibitively expensive, can anyone else say that?