Legion of Librarians – Part One

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Welcome to the first installment of Legion of Librarians. Every month, MLS student Glen Benedict will be interviewing library professionals about their use of graphic novels in collection development, education, and other programs. This week, Glen is speaking with Michael Lavin, the Business/Management Librarian at UB. In addition to serving as the selector for Business and liaison to the School of Management, Mr. Lavin is also the selector for materials for the Lockwood Library’s graphic novels collection.

Glen Benedict: What is the selection process like for graphic novels at an academic library, such as UB?

Michael Lavin: Well, it’s a pretty small budget, so I can only buy about 60 titles a year. [laughs] So that’s very difficult to make those kind of choices. The idea behind the collection is two-fold. The primary purpose of it is to support – as everything here in an academic library – to support the curriculum and research at the university. A secondary use of the collection is, of course, recreational, which is probably its heaviest use. So, in terms of what to buy, I buy things that faculty and instructors request and need for their courses. Beyond that, I try to buy a balanced collection. I look at award-winning books and the annual recommended lists that show up in the library journals, and try to get some selection of those. I try to have a balance of materials: a balance of different publishers, different genres. Science-fiction, supernatural, action-adventure, realistic, and that kind of thing. But, you know, with only being able to buy 60, it’s kind of hit-or-miss. You do the best you can.

GB: You mentioned faculty requests. Have there been any requests you didn’t expect? Either a department you didn’t expect or a work that you didn’t expect?

ML: Not so much. What’s being taught is the standard works, the ones that are up there in the pantheon…

GB: Watchmen and Maus, those kind of books?

ML: Exactly right. A lot of those. And there are some instructors who do superheroes. There’s an undergraduate English class that I’m going to be speaking to later on this month, and that’s more of an introduction. But it’s mostly pretty basic titles.

GB: Do you do any purchasing for material about graphic novels, like Marvel Comics: The Untold Story?

ML: I don’t do any of the purchasing for any of the books about graphic novels. Those are purchased by the English Literature librarian, so when I see something that looks good, I’ll recommend it to her. We’ve got a reasonably good collection of those kind of works.

GB: I had noticed while browsing the catalog that there’s several books just on developing a graphic novel collection in a library.

ML: Yeah, and those would be purchased by the Library Science librarian. There have been a lot of books published, especially in the last 10 years about the whole idea of graphic novels in libraries or using graphic novels in the classroom, and we’ve got a good collection of those.

GB: As you’ve been developing the collection, are there any that are favorites of yours that you are excited to give a bigger spotlight?

ML: Sure, there are, but I’d rather not mention any. The idea as a selector is you try not to let your personal tastes intrude on that, but clearly they do. [laughs] Interestingly, a lot of the titles that I personally like – it turns out that I’m getting a lot of requests for from students. A lot of DC’s Vertigo line is popular with readers. [Vertigo is an imprint of DC Comics that publishes comics that appeal to more adult readers. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Bill Willingham’s Fables are two popular Vertigo titles. -Glen]

I will say that one area that I don’t buy a lot of – in fact, almost none of – is manga. And largely the reason for that is an issue that’s problematic with a lot of this whole format – not just manga but any kind of graphic novel – is you end up with these gigantic series. If I can only buy 60 titles a year, I can’t buy a 50-title manga series. If someone requests a title, I can maybe get the first one. And those are mostly recreational reading, it’s not in support of classroom activities. Another point to consider for the recreational material is the public libraries. There’s been a pretty aggressive graphic novel building collection campaign for many years now. We encourage students to request items through interlibrary loan. Actually, graphic novel interlibrary loan activity is pretty robust. In fact, a lot of our use here is other libraries requesting our books for their patrons.

Having said that, my sense of the lay of the land for academic libraries is that here in western New York, it’s pretty good. Canisius has an excellent graphic novel collection; Niagara has a medium-size collection; Buff State has a smaller collection – the academic libraries in the region have picked up on the fact that this is something that people are paying attention to, and we ought to be buying. The interlibrary loan activity reflects some of that as well. What’s interesting to me is that when you look at the library literature, there’s been a number of articles where they’ve surveyed the collection of leading ARL libraries, and the sense of it is kinda disappointing. Across the US, at least as of a couple years ago, libraries aren’t aggressively buying. There’s really only a handful of libraries that are buying tremendous numbers of them, and it tends to be libraries that have a lot of money.

GB: What advice would you give to library students with an interest in graphic novels who are considering a career in academic librarianship?

ML: Clearly, what you’re collecting will be a reflection of the mission of your institution and the needs of your clientele. Graphic novels are acceptable and accepted in libraries. It’s been interesting to see that progression take place. I got involved with them in a library perspective in the late 1990s. Judith Robinson, now since retired, was a good friend of mine and knew that I was interested in comics and graphic novels. She began incorporating that into her young adult literature course, a few years before it was on the radar screens of the library world. So we were talking about it one day, and we noticed that there was a dearth of reference material for library students to look at that would help them learn about this stuff. I said, “Well, maybe we could put up a little webpage.” So in support of that course, I worked with one of our web designers, and we came up with some content where we discussed why it’s appropriate for libraries to buy these things and talk about the different publishers and types. That site became – and I’m not exaggerating here – the most trafficked pages on the UB Libraries website. What was happening was that librarians from all over were trying to find out about this, and as a result they found our website. As a result of that, I was invited to speak at conferences and so forth. There’s no question about it, the absolute defining moment for graphic novels in libraries took place in the summer of 2002 at the annual ALA conference. They did a day-long preconference on graphic novels in libraries. I was invited to be a speaker, and I was thrilled just to be a part of that. It was just a wonderful day. They had money to pay people, so they brought in some of the most amazing speakers – Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, Art Spiegelman, all of these library gods were there, and they were all saying how libraries are wonderful. Everyone in the audience was going “ooooh, aaaahhhh.” [laughs] Everyone involved in graphic novels in libraries recognizes that was the key moment. After that summer, the idea of graphic novels in libraries became widely accepted. It was just a huge sea change.

There’s no question that public libraries were the first to take that big step. Then school libraries, that was a little slower, but they followed on. There are very legitimate concerns in schools – there is some material that is not appropriate for school-age kids, so librarians need to look at this stuff very carefully before putting them on the shelves. It’s very interesting that academic libraries were the last; you’d almost think that they would be the first! That being said, there has always been research-level, archival collections in selected academic libraries, where people have donated massive collection. There’s probably about 50 of those type of collections around the country. You can go to a nice website that lists a lot of them. But those were for research purposes, you couldn’t borrow them and just read them. They tended to be individual comic books, not graphic novels. Aside from those, academic libraries weren’t buying them for their regular collection. Little-by-little, that is happening now, but if we’re to believe these surveys that are happening in the literature, it’s still not really widespread.

It’s always fun to incorporate your personal interests into your work, and that’s one of the nice things about academic librarianship, you can determine your areas of research. It’s been nice that I’ve been able to do this in the tail-end of my career. Most of my publishing, and research, and speaking over the years has been the field of business librarianship. It’s been very gratifying to incorporate graphic novels into my work life. When people ask me about the kinds of librarianship, especially students who are trying to figure things out, I always say a couple things about academic librarianship. If you love teaching, this is the place to be. If you like that freedom to carve out your own niche and figure out what’s important to you and what you want to do your research in, nobody’s going to say to you, “that’s not an appropriate area for you to be researching or studying,” because that’s kind of antithetical to what academia’s all about. That’s very gratifying and enjoyable.

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