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Banned, burned, and now rebuilding: Comics collections in libraries

Comics is both a medium—although some would say it’s an art form—as well as the texts produced in that medium. Publication formats and production modes differ: for instance, comics can be short-form or long-form, serialized or stand-alone, single panel or sequential panels, and released as hardcovers, trade paperbacks, floppies, ‘zines, or in various digital formats. Superheroes as a comics genre may get the most attention, especially given the high profile films and televisions shows such as Wonder Woman (2017 film), Luke Cage (2016 –  series), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015 film), but comics is more than superheroes. Creators use comics to tell tales of horror (e.g. Harrow County), romance (e.g. Fresh Romance), slice of life (e.g. Aya), and fantasy (e.g. Monstress), as well as share factual information about notable people (e.g. Strange Fruit, Vol. 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History), science and medicine (e.g. Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atom Bomb), social and political conditions (e.g. Zahra’s Paradise), and more. Some comics even reimagine works of literature (e.g. Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred).

Libraries and academic institutions have been slow to embrace comics in their collections and classrooms. Although there are outliers, US libraries only began to get serious about collecting comics in the late-1990s with most of the sustained interest and growth happening in the past decade. At the American Library Association’s 2017 Annual Meeting in Chicago, a full day of programming was held on comics and the exhibition hall even included an artists’ alley, where attendees could meet a couple of dozen cartoonists: this sort of intensive attention to comics in library settings was unimaginable even ten years ago. A quick and dirty search of doctoral dissertations in which the word “comics” appears in the abstract gives evidence to increasing academic attention: since 2000, nearly 1400 dissertations were published, which is roughly equal to the number published between 1930 and 1999 (and most of those were published in the 1980s and 90s).

A chief reason for this delayed interest in comics among US librarians is a long-held prejudice against the medium. For instance, in the early 1900s as newspaper comic strips began to be syndicated and reach wider audiences, many librarians chose to remove the comics pages from newspapers to keep the library more quiet and orderly, as well as to protect young readers their “poor drawings, worse colors and bad morals.” Those sentiments continued and grew, peaking in the 1950s with psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which lambasted comics for their purported degradation of young people’s mental hygiene, and the introduction of the Comics Code Authority, an industry content regulation group which came into being because of fears that the US government might regulate comics following 1954 Senate hearings. These actions, among many others, helped encourage long-standing opinions that comics of all kinds were juvenile and immoral texts that did merit collection.

As I noted, librarians and educators are beginning to change their perceptions of comics and embracing them as tools and texts for pleasure reading, student learning, and academic inquiry. Some of my own scholarship and teaching has been in at least a small way instrumental in these changes. For instance, since 2011, I have taught a regular course on reader’s advisory for comics in my role as a faculty member of the iSchool at University of Illinois. Similarly, in 2012, I published research that noted falsifications and discrepancies in Fredric Wertham’s research that calls into question his belief that comics reading is harmful. I have the pleasure of speaking on comics history and the role of comics in libraries throughout the US—including at events like NASIG 2017 and an American Library Association-sponsored talk at New York Comic Con—and helping librarians and educators understand the importance and legitimacy of comics in the lives of readers.

To help you learn more about what’s happening with regard to libraries, academic institutions, and comics, I’ve put together some links to library collections and scholarly groups for you to explore. These sources are only a beginning. Comics are an important part of our US cultural heritage and there are rich traditions of comics and cartooning around the world, from France to Japan to Argentina to India. Comics belongs to all of us and deserves space in our collections and classrooms.

  • Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum (Ohio State University), This collection, which had its genesis in the 1970s, is now the world’s largest collection of comics and related materials. It is especially strong in newspaper comics, both printed pages and original artwork. It also serves as a repository for cartooning-related manuscript collections such as Milton Caniff, Walt Kelly, and Bill Watterson.
  • Browne Popular Culture Library (Bowling Green University), Although comics are a key focus here (they have one of the largest collections in the US), this library also includes comics-adjacent materials like trading cards and story papers.
  • Butler Library (Columbia University), In the past decade, librarian Karen Green has built this comics collection from nothing. In addition to more than 10,000 circulating graphic novels and comics in more than a dozen languages, Butler Library holds a growing number of comics-related archival collections including alternative comics publisher Kitchen Sink Press and cartoonist Howard Cruse.
  • Comic Arts Collection (Michigan State University), Librarian Randall Scott has helped build and maintain the collection here since the 1970s. It is now more than 200,000 items strong, with particularly strong holdings in US comic books and growing collections of international comic books.
  • Comics Studies Society is a recently founded international scholarly society with more than 500 members. With Ohio State University Press, it publishes the quarterly journal INKS and will hold its first conference in August 2018.
  • Duke University Libraries is home to the Edwin and Terry Murray Comic Book Collection with more than 60,000 volumes and its corollary Fanzine Collection, which contains more than 1,000 items.
  • Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy (University of California – Riverside Library), The strength of this collection is fanzines, which are not all comics-related but many would be of interest to comics scholars. In addition, there are thousands of issues of pulp magazines and comics.
  • Government Comics Collection (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Librarian Richard Graham curates a digital repository of more than 200 comics produced between the early 20th century and today for federal and state governments and similar bodies. Topics include monetary policy, racism, and the fishing industry.
  • Graphic Medicine explores how comics can engage healthcare. Its website provides reviews and news. Since 2010, there has been an annual Graphic Medicine conference as well.
  • International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF) is a long-running independent scholarly conference held annually and dedicated to all forms of comics art.
  • Library of Congress has several comics-related collections including the Small Press Expo (SPX) Collection, the Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartooning that features original art from creators such as Edwina Drumm and Winsor McCay, and the Comic Book Collection that contains more than 120,000 comics, many obtained via copyright deposit.
  • PS Magazine, the Preventive Maintenance Monthly (Virginia Commonwealth University), Will Eisner, a leading US cartoonist, helmed this magazine—a US Army publication—from 1951 through 1972. Each issue features several pages of a continuity comic titled, “Joe’s Dope Sheet,” that engaged with military history, vehicle maintenance, and other issues.  You can view more than 200 complete issues here.
  • Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels (Alexander Street Press), This engaging digital resource combines scans of difficult to find underground and non-mainstream comics with historic contextual materials such as interviews and news clippings. It also includes The Comics Journal, a longtime print journal that provided criticism, history, and more.

Featured image credit: Photo by emiliefarrisphotos. CC via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Steven Brown

    After I get my collection catalogued and appraised, I’d like to donate it to a university. It’s over fourteen thousand books, covering the entire span of comics history plus over five hundred books (many signed) about the comics. And I read them all. Plus a museum quality collection of collectibles and original art and limited editions. Plus over four hundred comics related sheet music! Wish I had more people with whom to share.

    At age 62, if I stopped everything and tried to re-read my collection, I’d die of old age first. Time to pass the torch.

    Perhaps, before I do so, I’d love to teach a course, lecture at a “con”, or do a museum exhibition.

  2. Martha Cornog

    I’d like to point out that Oxford University Press, the host organization for this blog article, itself publishes outstanding graphic novels that marry compelling stories with scholarly underpinnings. Examples include Inhuman Traffick: The International Struggle Against the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and Mendoza the Jew: Boxing, Manliness, and Nationalism.

  3. Chad Faulkner

    Steven Brown. The Billy Ireland @ OSU. Simply amazing.

  4. warden

    Something more up to date would be probably one of the new initiatives, like Paperity http://paperity.org/ where you can find lots of open access resources.

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