The Canadian Comics Open Library Is Shaping Our Shelves

Canadian Comics Library logo

Finding comic books at your local library can sometimes be an effort in frustration, or worse, futility. If they are available at all, they are often lumped under a single label, hidden away on a shelf in the corner. Part of the issue, explained librarian Rotem Diamant in a CBC interview, is that the current book store and library cataloguing systems consider comics to be a single genre, rather than understanding that they are a medium of storytelling and expression themselves. Just as there are various genres for books and movies, so too can you find comics telling a variety of different stories.

In 2018, Diamant and several librarians came together to work to change this misconception, forming the Canadian Comics Open Library and turning their hopes into a physical dream with the opening of their flagship location in Toronto. 

Since their March 2019 opening, the library’s catalogue has expanded exponentially from their 500-title startup thanks to donations and work with the community. The location also offers workshops and provides tools for zine makers. Despite the initial disappointment of a failed crowdfunding attempt, the little comics library that could is continuing to prove that a comics library is not only wanted, but very much a needed part of the literary community.

Here, Diamant shares her insight into the organizations plans and hopes for the future.

How many pop-up libraries did you run before settling on this flagship location? What was the response from patrons to those sites?

We held our first big pop-up library at The 519 when we first launched in late November, with about 500 comics, our full collection at the time. We were planning for other pop-ups throughout this year, but we were very lucky to be able to move into our space at CSI much sooner than anticipated, and moved the entire collection there instead! Since then, we have set up small pop-ups at a few academic conferences, with a priority to showcase zines and small press.

Response from the community at pop-up library events has been great, especially regarding the visibility of comics that are underrepresented in the broader industry through our stickering and cataloguing system. At our first pop-up, there was a family that arrived first thing and stayed all day reading comics; they looked comfortable finding and choosing comics from the shelves, and participated in the workshops and panel conversation, and that was so great to see. We had one very long communal table set up at this event, and we noticed it led to many conversations between visitors who had not necessarily known each other before the event—but at the same time, there were also many people who read on their own the entire time. As an introvert who also enjoys being around people, I think it is important that visitors can feel comfortable finding a quiet space and disengaging at big events.

So many people at that first event commented that they wished the collection could be there permanently; remembering that makes me thankful for the opportunities we’ve had since then. I remember my heart sinking when we had to pack up the library after that event and put everything in storage for an indeterminate amount of time, and the overwhelming fear that the crowdfunding campaign would fail, and that people would not see the need for a project like this.

How have your first few months at this location been?

The third floor lounge in the Centre for Social Innovation is very cozy, and the community at CSI has been welcoming and accommodating, even those who are “definitely not comics readers” in their words.

The past four months have been challenging but rewarding, and we know how lucky we are to be in a fully accessible space in Toronto at an affordable price through our partnership with CSI. CCOL is a challenging project since it is volunteer-run and we would like to do a lot more than we are able to at a given time. It is often a full time job for me. That being said, we now have over 20 volunteers who run the library and contribute to projects as Volunteer Librarians throughout the week, which is amazing to me.

It is also great to see visitors who have never read comics timidly approach the shelves and then end up browsing and exclaiming something like, “I didn’t know comics could be about this!”. We try to display comics cover facing out when we can, and we also have one bookcase entirely dedicated to a subject display that changes each month. When someone who has traditionally avoided comics because they thought comics were just for cis white men or kids, sees comic adaptations of Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, they do a double take and there is a shift in perspective that can take place. We’ve also had positive feedback about the stickers that we place on comics from those in the marginalized communities represented by the stickers, which is really important to us.

We’ve had visits from students researching on graphic novels and comics for library science courses, artists who are working on zines, families who live in Regent Park, youth art camps, as well as academic researchers conducting surveys on the decolonization of libraries—so visitor interest is diverse as well.

Shelves of comics for International Womens Month
Photo by Ardo Omer, WWAC contributer and CCOL advisor

We are enjoying getting to know the community at Regent Park through events like the Regent Park Community cleanup, and “Patty on the Party-o”, an annual event at CSI where different members can host an activity and we hosted drawing games. Bo Doodley, our Resident Comics Creator for July, recently held a workshop event about building resilience through art, speaking about her work and how art can be used as a tool for coping with mental and physical illness; we had a much higher community turnout than we originally anticipated, and look forward to being able to host similar events this year.

Comics are still a marginal medium in many communities and places, but this can be difficult to see if you love comics, work with comics, frequent comics shops, and feel comfortable exploring the collections at public and academic libraries. Since opening, I was really surprised to see firsthand some of the dismissive attitudes that still exist, but I think that the quality and scope of work out there can easily counteract this. That’s why making these narratives more accessible is so important.

Your board and advisors are a wonderfully diverse team that bring so many different skills and perspectives to the table. How did you come together to form this organization?

I met several initial board members through the Toronto Zine Library (TZL), where many of us also volunteered, and others through the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, where we were recent MI graduates at the time. For a while, I was just ranting about the project to my partner and perplexed family members (not comics readers), and organizing from home, experimenting with website design and open source cataloguing software, surrounded by mountains of comic books that my kind partner and roommate tried not to knock over.

I began speaking about the project and asking for advice from a friend who completed a practicum placement with me at the Toronto Tool Library, other MI graduates, and other TZL members, several of whom happened to be librarians, zine makers, and artists. I think there are many shared interests between CCOL and zine libraries, regarding the importance of accessibility of information, DIY culture and issues of censorship, and the political and personal nature of zines and comics. I met other advisors through comics events and meet ups, including our launch event. They are people whose work I really admire and whose personal goals seemed to align with our project goals in terms of accessibility and a love of comics.

I wanted to make sure that CCOL is a feminist organization, including having representation of women and diverse experiences on the board, and I hope our board and advisors will always reflect this. It took time and some growing pains to develop a board where everyone’s goals and personal motivations matched the accessibility goals of this library project.

Over 1000 comics already! Congratulations! How does it feel to have this kind of response?

Thank you! It feels great! Especially when we get to meet local cartoonists who drop off their comics or zines and share some stories or thoughts about the project; or, we hear that someone discovered something new to them at the comics library, met another creator through the project, or participated at a zine fair/found a helpful resource through our website. We have also heard that our website is being used as a resource for a few different university/college courses, which is very exciting to us.

Because our crowdfunding campaign in November was not successful (we met about 4% of our asking goal), there were some very disheartening moments. We were asking for a lot during that campaign, in terms of trust especially with being a new organization, and we understand that response now. It has made a big difference being able to physically show what we wanted to do, and it is really exciting building a community and getting to know other comics communities in the city.

We will run out of shelf space eventually because of all the donations we’ve been getting, but we think this is a good problem to have. We have heard that there is also a feeling of appreciation that there is a home where odd, ARC, and even well-loved comics can go, where community members can read them, including zines and hard to find press. We even have a few comics in the collection that creators told us only a few select family members had seen previously.

What makes your cataloguing and display system unique?

One of the main differences between ours and larger systems, is we catalogue and organize comics by subject in the physical library space. In this way we treat comics as a medium instead of a genre of fiction. 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. In our online catalogue, we use comprehensive keywords as well that are decided on by volunteers, and can accommodate feedback from community members.

My hope is that our library can be used as a case study for how other larger systems can organize comics in a more accessible way in the library space. None of us are professional cataloguers, and we are not suggesting that our procedures should or could work in larger systems, but we are optimistic that there is a lot more that can be done!

If anyone is interested in learning more details about this, I recently presented a paper about the politics of our library and traditional comics classification at the 2nd Annual Conference of the Comics Studies Society COMICS/POLITICS on July 25th at Ryerson, and we published the entire presentation on our website blog!

Cataloguing the cartoonist database is no small task. How many submissions do you receive on a regular basis? What is your criteria for accepting submissions?

Lately, I have been receiving around 2-3 submissions per week, although some weeks are much quieter than others. When I created the database, I tried to include vendors from zine fairs, and cross-referenced information with other comics databases, such as cartoonist Marinaomi’s Queer Cartoonists Database and Cartoonists of Color Database (both amazing resources), and resources such as the Canadian comics creator list from the The Joe Shuster Awards. I tried to add comprehensive tags, and felt it was important to link to creators’ websites and social media (if public and professional), since that is also sometimes the only place cartoonists post work. Our library volunteers are also working on a spreadsheet with new entries for the database—research largely based on the amazing guest lists from TCAF (Toronto Comic Arts Festival).

Something we have been thinking about is that the term “Canadian” is not ideal, because not everyone who lives in Canada identifies as being Canadian. Additionally, there are many people who live in Canada but are not permanent residents (such as migrant workers), who are often left out of other national databases and award opportunities; comics scholar Kim Jooha spoke about this during a panel at TCAF on Librarian and Educator Day (on a critical history of Canadian alternative comix). For our database, creators do not need to be permanent residents, or identify as being “Canadian”. We include creators who have produced work in Canada, as well as creators from Canada working abroad. We define “cartoonists” as anyone involved in the process of creating comics; this can include: inkers, illustrators, writers, pencilers, letterists, colourists, editors, translators, as well as publishers, etc.

We hope to increase representation of local creators like zine makers, small press, and artists who self-publish, since often these narratives can be difficult to find outside of the creator’s home province. Comics zines also lack representation in comics scholarship and are frequently left out of other academic and public collections since they tend to not include ISBNs. I hope this project is something that will help counteract that.

What are some of the short and long term goals for the library?

We would love to see the comics library at Regent Park become a well-used community space and resource to comics creators, readers and newcomers to comics.

It can be difficult getting Toronto community members to venture a bit east to the library from downtown, so we are planning to host more events this year that will work as the perfect excuse for people to visit. Thanks to a Literary Project Grant through the Toronto Arts Council, we will be hosting 5 Comics Creator Residencies this year, prioritizing women, trans, non-binary, and 2SLGBTQIAP comics creators; this means we can offer more events while supporting up and coming artists.

We want to provide fair pay to artists to run workshops and events; although we have a space, we need more funding to do so. We also want the library space to be a free resource for Toronto meetups and collectives that are looking for a space to host small events, zine launches, comics exchanges, etc. We have Drawing Day every Sunday morning at the library, a drawing meetup for all ages and levels of experience, hosted by Toronto cartoonist Jordan Reg. Aelick.

Another goal is to find sponsorship for our blog so that we can pay contributors to write about Canadian comics and comics-related issues from diverse perspectives.

Once we have over 2000 comics, one of our goals is to make the collection circulating; this involves adding call numbers and barcodes to the physical collection, and setting up new procedures for volunteers.

Our long term (and largest) goal is to set up non-profit comics libraries in different provinces across Canada, including communities that have far less access to comics than a vibrant comics city like Toronto. Something we have found since opening our first branch is that even in Toronto where there is a vibrant comics community, there are barriers to comics accessibility that prevent people from engaging with the medium and creating comics. We love being part of the Toronto comics community and we look forward to being part of the larger comics community across Canada!

The Canada Comics Open Library‘s flagship location can be found at 585 Dundas Street East on the third floor of the Daniels Spectrum Building. Their hours are usually Wednesday to Sunday from 11am to 6pm.

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Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.