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Find more Notes from the Field
There’s a vast, varied, and dynamic world of webcomics on the internet, and many librarians might already be familiar with them, even if they don’t know it yet. After all, some of the most critically acclaimed comics in recent years started as webcomics—Morris Award finalist Check, Please!, by Ngozi Ukazu; Stonewall Honor Book As the Crow Flies, by Melanie Gillman; National Book Award finalist Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson; and so on. They come in a variety of genres, for a range of age groups, and a wide array of platforms—not just webcomics-exclusive platforms but Instagram, Tumblr, and more. Some are short stories; others have been updating with one continuous story for years; and, for the most part, they’re free, unlimited by lending caps, and you can start reading them right now.
With a few exceptions, most libraries don’t incorporate webcomics into their collections, and that’s understandable—the seemingly infinite titles, ever-shifting landscape, and lack of cohesive platforms can make finding them, let alone cataloging them, a challenge. But webcomics are very likely already popular with your patrons, so how can libraries better incorporate them? I spoke with Dr. Carol Tilley, professor at University of Illinois School of Information Sciences, about ways libraries can make use of webcomics, some helpful resources already available, and why they’re important.
Hunter: How are librarians currently using webcomics in their libraries?
Tilley: They’re not, very much. There are archival projects underway, like the Library of Congress webcomics archive (loc.gov/collections/webcomics-web-archive/), and the Ivy Plus Library Confederation has a larger webcomics archive (archive-it.org/collections/10181), lead by librarians at Columbia and University of Chicago. With the latter, those records are in WorldCat, which would make it easier for librarians to do copycataloging and get things into their local catalogs, but I don’t get the sense that there’s much of that happening. The biggest barrier is figuring out how to integrate webcomics into the regular workflow.
I do try to encourage my students to think about how they can include webcomics as a regular part of their readers’ advisory repertoire. When I talk about RA conversations, I pair webcomics with newspaper comics strips—many folks are coming to comics writ large through webcomics, just as many people my age and older came to comics through newspaper comics. There’s an interest and an appeal for reading webcomics, but not a good infrastructure or set of connections for a lot of librarians, especially those who might be in a one-person school library setting, to actually integrate webcomics into their library’s catalog beyond occasional recommendations or including them on a reading list.
Hunter: Where should librarians hoping to incorporate webcomics into their libraries start?
Tilley: I encourage all of my students to figure out ways—even if it’s just in one-on-one RA—to include webcomics, such as pairing webcomics with physical materials from popular creators, including them on online lists. Anything small!
It’s also useful to think about them in the development of local resource collections: are there any web cartoonists in your community who you might showcase just as you might showcase other local resources?
Imagine if you could create a cardboard or paperboard surrogate for a webcomic that you could place in your shelving ranges—something basic, visual, to put on cardstock to interfile to make them more discoverable for your browsing patrons.
Of course, cataloging has associated costs, but if you are in a position to include some records, that could be helpful. Maybe you can’t put 100 different records in for 100 different webcomics, but if you can put 5 records for some key starting points, that would make a difference.
Hunter: How would you approach keeping track of records that are constantly shifting or changing, as webcomics often do?
Tilley: I don’t have a good response to that! One of the things the Ivy Plus Confederation archive does is label records as a “continually updated resource.” We maintain our collections in a lot of different ways, and while I don’t think a library is going to start posting links to thousands and thousands of webcomics, you could have one point person who goes through 50 records every year or so, to make sure the links are still active, whether notes needs to be added about a hiatus or discontinuation. It would be like doing a shelf-based collection assessment, except a little more virtually.
But this shouldn’t be a barrier to getting started. We don’t promise that the magazines we collect are going to be around next month, for instance. We have to be willing to take a risk, to think about who our community is, who our users are, what kind of resources they want, and how they want to engage with the library. I don’t think that every library, of any type, needs to necessarily do things with webcomics, but if you already have a robust print comics collection and stuff is circulating and you’re doing programming, I think webcomics are a logical next step. If your budget is limited, and you’re looking for ways to expand access to the print comics you have, webcomics might be one way of doing that. But I would never want to say that simply adding hundreds and hundreds of catalog records makes sense for every library or every community.
Hunter: What do you think is keeping librarians from doing more with webcomics?
Tilley: I keep going back to the corollaries between webcomics and newspaper strips—many librarians ignored comics strips until they were in bound volumes. There was no interest in collecting them or indexing them or keeping them available for wide use, and I think we’re still in that stage in webcomics. We’ll buy them if a publisher picks them up and reprints a set of webcomics, but in their current state, we’re not as engaged with them, as a profession. There are some barriers there that we need to jump over. Part of it is that there’s fear that we don’t understand the format enough, and we don’t know enough about it, and how could we possibly get started? I think those are red herrings. Webcomics are like anything we might collect: we have to have a goal, we have to have some boundaries, we have to have an audience in mind. Libraries are willing to collect bakeware; why not webcomics?
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