Heralds of Change: Comic Books, Libraries, and Innovation


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Graphic novels in libraries have come a long way, moving from dark corners of the collection to becoming anchors of patron activity. Along the way, they've helped to shepherd whole new concepts of library service, ranging from video games to social media to DIY podcasts and video. Toby Greenwalt of Skokie Public Library demonstrates how comics have opened the door for innovation in libraries.

Presented at c2e2 on March 18th, 2011.

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  • Hi everyone, and welcome to C2E2!This session is called “Heralds of Change: Comic Books, Libraries, and Innovation.” If you’re looking for the costume contest, that’s not until later this afternoon. I am dressed as a librarian today, but that’s my regular getup, so I don’t think it’s eligible. I work at the Skokie Public Library, under the title of Virtual Services Coordinator. What that means essentially is that it’s my job to manage the public face of the library’s web presence – whether it’s on the website, through our social media channels, or through mobile devices. I’m not a coder, and I don’t really do any of the development stuff for the site. Rather, it’s my job to use technology to find new ways to engage the public, and make the online library more human.I also oversee the library’s graphic novel collections for both teens and adults. It’s a nice break from having to stare at a screen all day. But it has also given me some insights about how to introduce new ideas to staff and the public.But first, let’s talk about some of the items in the collection. These are a few of the more popular new titles by checkout last year:Batman: Battle for the Cowl, Wilson, Twilight, Ooku, Rin-NeEach of these items circulated at least 15 times in 2010. And most of them had been added to the shelves later in the year. Library WarsVietnamericaLynd Ward’s woodcut booksAs you can see, there’s not a lot these books share in common. Our readers have very diverse tastes. But it wasn’t always this way. The graphic novel collection used to occupy a tiny little corner at the end of the fiction colleciton.
  • This isn’t without its rewards, though.Here I can show how this fits into our overall circulation. Here I’ve separated out all of the “genres” - Romance, Mystery, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Chick Lit, and the still-kicking Western. As you can see graphic novels are doing respectably – a little over 6000 checkouts for the year. They’re about on par with SF/Fantasy, but still outweighed by the heavy hitters in the Romance and Mystery fields.But – this is only the adult graphic novels. Adult patrons tend to use the teen collection, and teens check out adult books as well. Let’s see what happens when you add those into the mix.
  • Here you can see graphic novels take an even larger chunk of our checkout activity. Comics are a huge part of our genre collection, and we get these checkouts with far less shelf space and a fraction of the budget of the other big genres. And yet people keep coming back. There’s a common belief among us library types that every book has its reader. It’s our job to encourage as much reading activity as possible first, and then start to provide nudges into other areas. Let them warm to the genre on their own terms, and then you can go wild. It’s a method that’s worked quite well for attracting reluctant readers in particular. I had my way, I’d just fill the collection with pulpy crime books.CriminalParkerThese titles certainly aren’t for everyone … at least not at first.
  • As the collection grows, I’ve been able to dedicate more space to graphic novels. Now the adult books sit out in the middle of the reading area, with plenty of light and seating for people to browse new books. It’s this kind of “blue sky” model that’s having some pretty dramatic reverberations throughout the pop-culture industry. Comic books now dominate the tentpole movie lineup. It’s not just superhero books – films like last year’s Tamara Drewe demonstrate inroads at the arthouse. The success of the Walking Dead shows that ongoing comic series and episodic TV are a perfect match. Bestselling authors like James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, and Patricia Briggs are putting their names on new graphic works. And events like this are allowing all aspects of popular culture – books, movies, games – to mash up and interact in whole new ways. There have been far worse times to be down with the funnybooks. What does all of this have to do with innovation, you ask? Here’s where I’d like to make my thesis statement: We can use the same process used to get readers hooked on comic books here to build interest in other library services. It’s all about creating a comfortable space for people to get comfortable with the new and different on their own terms. For the rest of the presentation, I’d like to provide some examples of how this model of gradual, sustained innovation that works for a graphic novel collection can also work across the board.
  • There is some research to support this model. Mizuko Ito and a team of researchers have compiled this report titled “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media.” We’re going to go into greater detail in just a minute, but the title provides a pretty elegant metaphor for the way people – not just teens – acclimate themselves to new ideas.There’s another similarity comics share with all this new technology stuff. “Reading” a comic works on a much different level than reading a traditional print book. In order to make connections between the artwork and the words, your brain has to make different connections than you would normally do when reading a traditional print book, or watching a story unfold on film. The world of new media works in much the same way – not only do we have to interpret and make connections between print, video, and audio, but we’re also encouraged to respond using a mix of the same media. For some more background on thisThe patterns are here. If nothing else, it should serve as a reminder:
  • All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. Now, let’s get a show of hands: who here works in a library?If this is you, I hope to provide some examples of how building a collection and building an audience share some notable similarities. Hopefully this can give you a solid base with which to try out new services of your own. If you’re not with a library, I hope I can demonstrate some of the ways libraries are working to embrace technology, build community, and foster a culture of innovation. Are you all with me? (You’re supposed to say “So Say We All.”) Let’s go!
  • Let’s start with Hanging Out. This is the first step outlined in the book. Now tell me: how many people do you see at your organization who are hanging out? Whether you’re a library, a retailer, a school, or another organization, sometimes people just need time to get comfortable with a space. At my library, we’re about 2 blocks from a junior high school, and the safe, social space we offer provides some much-needed decompression time for many young students. And it gives us the opportunity to encourage them to check out books and try out other services. Similarly, the comics industry goes out of its way to try to draw in new users. Ongoing series with decades of continuity can discourage people from wanting to dive in. That’s why you’re always seeing series titles offering new #1s, or loudly proclaiming that a book features a new storyline. That’s why we see so many series like Ultimate Spider-Man here – it’s an attempt to provide jumping-on points for curious readers. But sometimes all you need is a great story to entice readers. Take Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden, for example. This set of canine (and one grudging feline) paranormal investigators are invested with a stronger sense of emotion and character than many other titles. Thompson’s artwork also captures the animalistic behaviors of each creature, whether they’re digging holes or growling at danger. I’d also recommend G. Neri’s Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. We tend to get a lot of requests for grittier fiction, and this heartbreaking true-life story of gang violence in Chicago is a big draw for those who might shy away from the printed word. The book is a strong demonstration of how the medium can capture more serious issues, and provides me with an anchor with which to recommend other titles.
  • We try to employ similar tactics to showcase other aspects of our organization.National Gaming Day in November – similar to Free Comic Book Day in MayWe offer all types of games on this day – usually a video game tournament, along with a workshop on game design. But it’s the board games that seem to be the biggest draw – providing a welcome social space for families and children alike. Over 250 people attended our last open gaming program on National Gaming Day. This is the first step to introducing new ideas to your audience – just put the stuff out there and let them come to you. Ebook training – drop-in desk hours
  • Additionally, you can’t underestimate the value of the social space. As more and more of this social interaction takes place online, it’s imperative for organizations like libraries to adapt. Using the Facebook as a virtual hangout space – goal to build conversation, not page viewsAlso demonstrate what the library is capable of. Friday ReadsStump the LibrarianAgain, it’s a matter of creating the opportunity for people to discover something new on their own terms. The more you’re able to put yourself out there, the more likely people are to respond in kind.
  • Once people grow accustomed with a concept, there’s often an urge to start playing with the conventions. Comics are famous for this, frequently taking tried-and-true genre conventions and turning them on their ears. FablesStrange tales/Bizarro ComicsPlutoBut if you ask me, the title that’s doing this better than any other right now is The Unwritten, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. The series follows Tom Taylor, the son of Wilson Taylor, the reclusive author of a Harry Potter-esque series that has captured the hearts and minds of billions – one featuring a protagonist named Tommy Taylor. As Tom discovers he might be the Tommy from the books, an adventure unfolds as he uncovers a conspiracy that’s as old as story itself. This image comes from issue 17, which can be found in the bound volume 3 trade paperback. The issue takes on a “Choose Your Own Adventure” format following Lizzie Hexam, one of Tom’s companions in the story. As she races to locate Tom, we learn that she might be the same Lizzie Hexam from Charles Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend. It’s up to the reader to determine whether Lizzie stays in Tom’s world, or stays in her “real” one.It’s pretty heady stuff. But Carey keeps the tension ratcheted up, and there is no shortage of other literary characters weaving in and out of the narrative. Each issue ends up creating a new surprise.
  • Just like that, I try to surprise our patrons by doing what we do best – providing service at their point of need. This is all part of messing around – we want to create these opportunities for people to look at us in a new light.
  • The other aspect of messing around involves the willingness to experiment. No other technology is seeing more experimentation right now that what’s taking place on mobile devices. Libraries are now doing brisk business loaning out ebooks and downloadable audiobooks. We’re starting to offer comics as well, with a small selection of offerings from Marvel and Tokyopop. But having a mobile-friendly collection is just the beginning. I’ve been working to embrace other mobile tricks to help facilitate a sense of discovery for people who visit the library. Foursquare surprises in the collectionQR codes – “embedding” videos in the physical space.In doing this, I’m hoping to keep building on that sense of surprise, messing around with how our users see the library. It remains to be see how much of this takes root, but the costs of trying it out are so low that the risk is minimal.
  • And now we come to geeking out. Within the context of the book, this involves letting yourself become thoroughly immersed in the material – no matter how elaborate the projects are. In comics, this has led to some of the most artistically challenging and rewarding works in recent memory. Chris WareWednesday ComicsPhonogramSeth’s Dominion CityBut geeking out doesn’t have to be this high-concept. For comic fans and library users alike, the true power of geeking out comes when our users take the reins themselves, and start creating their own content.
  • And here’s where it comes full circle. Those casual events, like Free Comic Book Day and National Gaming Day have their geekier counterparts. In the comics world, it’s 24 Hour Comics Day (usually in October), and the upcoming Drawing Day taking place in May.We can also create our own events. Have you heard of StoryCorps? But there’s also a good chance our users are doing this stuff already. Breakdancers on YouTubeThis kid – in Salt Lake – Bubble Ball
  • If all of this stuff is going on already, why not capitalize on it? At my library, we’ve launched a digital media lab to help speed people on their way toward geeking out. YouMedia – spaces actually relate to this model. But here’s the thing: You don’t need an elaborate space or a bunch of high-end equipment to do this. There is tons of free software out there – iMovie, Windows Movie Maker already come standard with most computers. Programs like Gimp and Audacity offer free software counterparts to programs like Photoshop and GarageBand. And recording equipment has become cheaper and cheaper. This may represent our new role – first helping people to create their own stories, and then collecting locally generated content and preserving it for future generations.
  • In spite of all these innovations, comic books are still subject to a host of stereotypes. Who can name some of these?They’re for kids!They’re for nerds!They’re all superhero books!There’s probably a good chance that I’m preaching to the choir here. We all know that the field and its readership is far more diverse than the knee-jerk response. But this stereotype persists nonetheless.It’s the same thing with libraries: We learn new skills and expand our services all the time. Libraries are pretty much the only technology access point for a major portion of the populace. We help provide much needed community support, providing a gateway to a number of social services. And we’re one of the last true public social spaces open to everyone.And yet what’s the stereotype leveled against libraries?
  • That’s right – books! A recent survey conducted by OCLC revealed that 83% of teens age 14-17 think of books when they first think of the library. It’s great to have that kind of brand recognition. But just as comic books have broadened their scope, libraries are working hard to show how much more they have to offer. Like comic books, libraries are really more about story above everything else. That story could be contained within the pages of the latest bestseller. Or it could be the story of how a student got an A on their research paper. Or it’s the way in which someone used our resources to find a job. Or it’s the morning storytime children experience with their parents. We have the tools to facilitate all of this. It’s just a matter of making sure more people know about it.
  • Because the threats are out there. Libraries have traditionally been an easy target for budget cuts. As the recession persists, organizations are forced to reduce hours, lay off staff, and cut essential public services. As ebooks become more popular, publishers are taking steps to block libraries from doing what they’ve always done – lend their books. HarperCollins - 26 checkoutsThese rogues are out there, and we can only counteract them by getting more people to geek out about our spaces.
  • But I have to remain optimistic, like Captain Jack here. Because if there’s one think libraries are capable of, it’s helping people geek out. Whether it’s by getting them hooked on a new comic book series or by teaching them about video production, we have the skills to make ourselves a part of the story. As you can see, libraries are prepared to help people embrace change. It’s my hope that we can all geek out together.
  • Thank you. I want to hear your questions, but I’d also like to use our remaining time to geek out a bit about your favorite graphic novels. Let’s continue the conversation – You can find my blog here, or I’m always available on Twitter.
  • Heralds of Change: Comic Books, Libraries, and Innovation

    1. 1. Heralds of Change: <br />Comic books, libraries and innovation<br />Toby Greenwalt theanalogdivide.com<br />March 18th, 2011<br />
    2. 2.
    3. 3.
    4. 4.
    5. 5. Other helpful sources:<br />IMLS Report on Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century skills <br />Imls21stcenturyskills.org<br />Libraries and Transliteracy:<br />Librariesandtransliteracy.com<br />danahboyd’s blog:<br />Zephoria.org/thoughts<br />ALA Graphic Novel Interest Group<br />(Forthcoming)<br />
    6. 6. All of this has happened before…<br />…All of this will happen again.<br />
    7. 7. Hanging Out<br />
    8. 8. National Gaming Day<br />
    9. 9. Be Excellent in Public<br />
    10. 10. Messing Around<br />Messing Around<br />“The Unwritten,” #17<br />
    11. 11. Defy Expectations<br />
    12. 12. The New (Mobile) Frontier <br />
    13. 13. Geeking Out<br />Geeking out<br />Seth, “Dominion City”<br />
    14. 14. User-Generated Content<br />
    15. 15. DML Poster<br />Design Spaces<br />
    16. 16.
    17. 17.
    18. 18. The Rogues’ Gallery<br />
    19. 19. The 21st century is where everything changes.<br />--and the library is ready.<br />
    20. 20. Thank You!<br />Toby Greenwalt<br />theanalogdivide.com | @theanalogdivide<br />
    21. 21. Slide 1: Nasa<br />Slide 5, Book: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11889<br />Slide 8: http://www.flickr.com/photos/skokiepl/4110560568/<br />Slide 13, Dominion City: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Seth_Dominion_Models.jpg (CC)<br />Slide 14: http://www.24hourcomicsday.com, http://www.drawingday.org, http://www.skokiestories.org<br />Bubble Ball: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Bubble+Ball+iPhone+inventor+Utah+eighth+grader/4138522/story.html (Reuters)<br />Slide 16: SuperHero Heads by LikoNatera, http://likodemus.deviantart.com. Used with permission.<br />Slide 17: Cover of “The Flash #184,” Artwork by Brian Bolland, Desecrated by Toby Greenwalt.<br />Slide 18: Still from “Torchwood.” Captain Jack Likes to Stand on Buildings.<br />Images and references:<br />