My Experience: Reading comics is making me a better librarian

Photograph of seven comic books laid out on top of one another. From bottom to top, they are Faith, Rat Queens, Lumberjanes, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Wonder Woman, and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Some of my favorite comic books, including Squirrel Girl, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Lumberjanes.

This blog post was written by Liz Settoducato, a first-year graduate student in the University of Michigan School of Information.

I’m currently finishing up my first year as a University Library Associate, where I provide reference service and instruction at the Hatcher and Shapiro libraries and work on public services initiatives.  As part of this position, I’ve had opportunities to become involved with a variety of projects and areas within the library. Working with librarian Dave Carter on the comics and graphic novels collection has helped me connect my love of comics with my professional education.

I didn’t come into this position expecting to work with comics, but I’ve found that reading and engaging with comics is giving me the skills and experience I need to be a better librarian. Here’s how:

Stewarding an unconventional collection

Information stewardship (the intentional, sustainable management of resources) is at the core of librarianship. However, the relationship between comics and libraries has a complicated history that didn’t always include stewardship. For a long time, libraries and librarians (especially those in universities) didn’t see value in collecting comics and graphic novels, so they weren’t prepared to steward these collections when donations came in. As a result, different libraries have developed their own ways of handling these materials. Comics and graphic novels at U-M can be found in a variety of places and formats, so it is extra important that librarians take steps to make sure users can find and access what they need. As a reader of comics, I can better anticipate some of the challenges that come with using, maintaining, and promoting this kind of collection. As someone who is also far from an expert on comics, I’m thinking about what it takes to be a good comics librarian and how I can meaningfully apply my skills to comics-related work, and work with other interdisciplinary materials.

Connecting with the library and its users

The comics projects I work on have helped me understand the different systems and processes needed to sustain a collection.  In helping reclassify comics with new call numbers, I learned about the role of cataloging in helping library users find what they are looking for. Coming up with purchasing recommendations to expand our works by Eastern European artists taught me about the resources and processes that go into collection development. Part of supporting the research aspect of this collection has involved adding content to our online research guides in order to make browsing more intuitive for users. I’ve also been learning about the outreach work that goes into book display curation, blogging, and conference/event planning. Comics have the potential to be used in so many different ways, and I love that I’m getting to experience and support many of them.

Teaching with comics

This semester I had the opportunity to observe Dave teach a lesson on comics for an intermediate French class. I found it really interesting to see how the students engaged with and talked about the texts, as well as which styles of comics and graphic novels were most conducive to reader comprehension when French was not the students’ native language. This inspired me to create a workshop for my Disability Arts and Culture class, which had both graduate and undergraduate students in several fields. I used the frameworks of comics theorist Scott McCloud and some of the observation and description methods we had already been using in class to facilitate reading and discussion activities, and it ended up working out very well. As I continue developing my skills as an instructor, I hope to continue incorporating comics and different ways of reading them into my teaching.

Exploring  interdisciplinary research

As I’ve been reading more comics, I’ve also been reading more comics scholarship. One of the things I love most about comics and graphic novels scholarship is that it is so interdisciplinary. This is also part of what draws me to librarianship--I can learn about many different subject areas and use that general knowledge to form new connections. Comics studies has established itself as a discipline, but the work within it draws on the methodologies and work of other fields. Exposure to this kind of scholarship informs both my professional practice helping researchers and my own contributions to the scholarly record. I have published and presented research that looks at comics from a variety of academic perspectives, including women’s studies, fandom studies, history, library science, and disability studies. Everything I learn from my work at the library inspires me to keep making these connections.

My interest in comics started out as a personal one: as a full-time student, I’ve often had trouble making time to read for fun during the school year, and comics became the perfect solution to that problem. Reading comics was something that felt manageable to do for self-care, but I found that expanding my knowledge of comics has helped me feel more confident about working with these materials in the library too. The more I learn about new titles and creators, the better equipped I am to handle questions like “What should I read next?” and develop a shared vocabulary I can use in collaboration with other comics enthusiasts. Collection development, instruction, outreach, research support, and scholarship are central to the role of an academic librarian, and I have been able to engage with all of these areas through my work with comics and graphic novels.