Comics and YA: How Shelving Creates Access

I think that I’ve got a pretty great job. On any given day I could be helping a teen find a read-a-like for her favorite fantasy series, telling another teen that no they can’t eat buffalo wings at the public computers, doing a Harry Potter-inspired craft program, or reminding someone that not everything you read on the Internet is true and to always check your sources. Librarians get to do a lot of different things but my one of my favorite job duties is collection development. I love to read reviews and pick our new books for the teen collection.

Our teen collection serves students in grades 6 – 12 as well as anyone else interested in reading YA literature. We buy fiction, nonfiction, audiobooks, magazines, video games, manga, and comics in our section. The most fun –  and sometimes the most fraught –  collection to buy for is comics. Comics and manga tend to get a bad rap from parents for any number of problems: they’re perceived to be too violent, too juvenile, to coddle readers instead of challenging them, or are just generally not what parents want their kids to be reading. Of course, there are great comics for teen that are challenging, well written, and that encourage reading. Getting parents and other comics detractors to accept comics requires from hard selling from teachers, librarians, and other comics defenders but it also requires a good collection of comics.

Two of the fundamental five laws of libraries by one of the founders of library science, S.R. Ranganathan, say “Every reader his/her book,” and “every book its reader.” This applies to comics as well so there’s a lot to consider when selecting, cataloging, and shelving comics, and especially comics in the Teen Room.

Selection: Appeal vs Audience vs “Appropriate”

It can be a challenge to develop a collection for teens in grades 6 – 12. A book that may be appropriate for a 6th grader may not necessarily appeal to a 12th grader. Yet, they are going to sit right next to each other on the shelf in the same section. I find myself saying this to parents who are asking about “safe” books for their teens all the time. Whether or not books are “safe” and what that even means is a question for another time, but I have to remind them that we serve a big range of teens. If given the chance I will also remind teens and parents that appropriate is very subjective and that we aim for appropriate for most teens.

In my teen comics section we have comics that may appeal to a middle schooler like Raina Telgemeier’s books but we also have V for Vendetta, which tops out the more mature end of the scale of comics in the Teen Room. It’s a constant balance of trying to get enough titles for everyone so they feel comfortable in the teen room, but also able to transition in and out of it. Again, Telgemeier’s books straddle the Childrens/Teen divide in a similar way that Alan Moore straddles Teen/Adult. We generally buy comics that feature teen characters or have teen appeal that also could be considered appropriate. The Walking Dead has a ton of teen appeal, but its’ adult themes and violence make it a better match for the adult section.

For me, having a teen feel comfortable getting books in the library means that they are able to feel comfortable knowing that the Teen Room has books specifically for them, but also reminding them they are welcome to get books from any section they choose. Sometimes that means a 14 year old is reading books from the Children’s Room, Teen Room, and Adult section all at the same time. That’s ok!

Cataloging: “Correct” vs Accessible

Technically, the Dewey Decimal Classification number for comics is 741.5 but most public libraries don’t put their comics and graphic novels there. Like fiction, which again Dewey would technically put in the 800s aka the “literature” category, most comics end up being cataloged and shelved by the author’s last name. In comics, this often means the writer’s last name. Sorry artists, you get second billing here.

So if you’re looking for the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, you want to look under “North, Ryan.” But would you be looking for “North, Ryan” in the general fiction section or somewhere else. In reading more about what other libraries do in preparation to write this post, I have seen at least one person mention comics being interfiled with the rest of fiction. I have a hard time believing that anyone would do this but I suppose anything is possible. It just seems that for the most part, when readers are looking for titles to read they are going to go format, i.e. comics, first.

This is anecdotal on my part but most of my readers advisory involves finding a book or comic first, and then a genre second. I usually get requests like, “I need a new manga series, I like horror manga,” more frequently than, “I want to read horror; I don’t care about the format.” So it makes the most sense to me, to keep the formats separate. Most public libraries are set up this way in regards to sections like fiction, comics, and audiobooks. These are all separate formats but include many different genres within them.

Since comics readers are often looking for more comics, it makes sense to have them all in one section. It can be a bit of a specialized collection, so interfiling them with fiction would be terrible for patrons’ access. Libraries are all about making collections, resources, and everything we offer as easily accessible as possible. Making comics their own section gives comics readers the most access. We’re all about that.

The comics and graphic novels that really seem to trip up patrons and librarians both are nonfiction and memoir comics. Would a comics memoir go in biographies like any other memoir? Would a comic about the human body like the super adorable Human Body Theater go in the general nonfiction section under it’s Dewey call number of 612 or with the comics? Or is it a hybrid of the two?

Here’s an example of a few different options for this book. My library — Memorial Hall — has it in Teen Graphic 612 in the teen comics section. But we also have it in the Childrens room comic section. Other libraries have it in regular, non-graphic nonfiction. And yeah, one library has it as “YA F Wicks (Graphic)” which is not only a super confusing call number but also perhaps they don’t know it’s nonfiction? We just won’t talk about that library.

Again, my library has it in comics but I think a strong case could be made to put it in nonfiction. It all just depends of your approach. Our thinking was that it may circulate more if its more accessible to our comics readers, who may pick it up out of interest, than as an instructive book in the 600s. What’s important is that patrons can find what they need. In some or even many cases, it may be best for some comics to be in multiple locations at once.

This has the potential to be a bit confusing – “Why aren’t they just in the same place!? Ugh, so confusing!!” — but there is precedent for libraries to do this. For example, in adult fiction we often have the same title in regular adult fiction and one our our smaller collections, like “Book Club Fiction.” A patron may be looking for something like The Time Traveler’s Wife just because they have heard it’s good and head to “Adult Fiction N” to find the book. But they may also want a great book for the book club to discuss and find it browsing in the Book Club collection. Comics can work the same way: in the comics section for those looking for comics of all different genres and types, and maybe as an informative title in the 600 section.

Comics can also suffer from stereotyping and ghettoization. Sure, keeping the comics together in it’s own section can make it easier for comic-loving patrons to find new and different titles, but it can also reinforce those ideas that comics are only for kids or teens or non-serious readers. Comics and graphic novels can be award-winning literature. Titles such as Maus (Pulitzer Prize 1992), American Born Chinese (Printz Winner 2007), This One Summer (Printz and Caldecott 2015), and March: Book Three (National Book Award 2016) come to mind when thinking about award winning comics. Books like these can help to show comic-skeptics that good storytelling and artistry isn’t just limited to prose works. Spreading out comics throughout the library and putting them in multiple sections may expose new readers to the format, helping them to find new ways of engaging with literature.

Sure, keeping the comics together in it’s own section can make it easier for comic-loving patrons to find new and different titles, but it can also reinforce those ideas that comics are only for kids or teens or non-serious readers.

One last note about cataloging I want to mention is that there are still more options for comics. My colleague and I are currently in the midst of a big manga and comics collection development project. Last year we transitioned all the comics from being cataloged and shelved by title or series title to being shelved by author. Shelving something by a title doesn’t really work in big collections, but it worked for many years for us. It was great for teens who just wanted to read all or any Batman comics but really hard for everyone else who was used to looking for books by the author’s last name. We changed comics to being organized by the author’s last name, but kept manga series by title. It was a bit of a compromise as we felt manga was much more recognizable by series name. It just goes to show there are options and a lot can work as long as you educate patrons and are willing to help them locate items.

Shelving locations and cataloging isn’t just important for patron access, it can make a difference in the way that some people view the items in those collections. Again, in my library’s reorganization of our teen comics section – Or “Teen Graphic” as we call it – we realized we need to make a change in our labeling. Previously, our collection was called “Teen Graphic Novel” in the catalog. Graphic novel, a term that I’ve found to be used mostly in libraries to refer to almost every kind of comic or sequential art, is a fine term, but not always accurate. Human Body Theater? It’s sequential art but it’s definitely not a novel! It’s nonfiction, so we changed our cataloging and our spine labeling to just “Teen Graphic.” While a small change, it indicates to patrons that it’s not just fiction works in the section but nonfiction and memoir as well. It’s small but a little can go a long way to educate patrons about how comics are a format, another way of telling all different types of stories, as opposed to a genre, or only consisting of superhero stories. Comics contain multitudes and as strange as it seems, cataloging and shelving help to make that clear!

Comics are great for teens and great for readers! It takes a bit of thinking to ensure that they are available and accessible to who needs them. They are a special type of collection, so they deserve special love. Go check your local library and see how comics are cataloged, shelved, and displayed. Again, this is what works in my library but there are more options for shelving. The goal of libraries and librarians is to get books and resources into the hands of those who need them. Sometimes this means being creative, flexible, and willing to change.

I’d love to hear about any interesting or innovative sections of comics in your library. Are they all together or mixed in with other collections? What do you like when looking for comics — all the same section by format or do you like finding comic memoirs in the greater memoir section? There’s no one right way to shelve and catalog comics. What’s important is that you can find them and if you can’t, just ask!

Anna Tschetter

Anna Tschetter

Anna is a teen librarian North of Boston. She runs, sews, eats cookies, and is so obnoxious she names all of her D&D characters after 19th century New England whaling families. Tweetsies: @lcarslibrarian