When I started as a high school librarian our collection had only a handful of graphic novels and no comics or manga. After doing some initial needs assessments I determined this was a format for which there is much demand amongst teens, and from my degree program I knew that these formats were not only popular with teens but also excellent resources for serving many literacy and language learning needs. All of this led me to the quick determination that I’d need to prioritize the development of a graphic novel collection for our high school (comics and manga would come later, I started with graphic novels mostly because they were the only format I was familiar with at the time.)
Anyone who has been in library world (and probably ELA world) for any length of time likely knows about the elitism and snobbery that is often directed at scorning the so-called “lack of literary merit” of graphic novels/manga/comics. The defense of these formats (which should be unnecessary, people need to get over this whole “some books are better/more important than other books thing, honestly) is a whole can of worms that I am deciding not to make the focus of this post. I want to focus this post about my journey of learning how to develop and organize a comics/manga/graphic novel collection and share some of the tips I’ve stumbled upon. I don’t want to spend this time trying to convince literacy snobs that “yes graphic novels count as reading.” If you still don’t think that comics/manga/graphic novels “count as real reading” there is plenty of research available out there to help educate you on the topic, and I do highly recommend you approach that research with an open mind and a willingness to reconsider that “printed words on a page” may not be the single best or only possible definition of the concept of “reading” or “literacy.” If, however, you’re already on board with the reality that comics/manga/graphic novels are as valuable and stimulating as any other information or story-sharing format, I hope you’ll enjoy seeing how I approached and tackled this collection development journey!
When I started trying to develop a graphics collection I really had no idea where to start, and boy did I make a hash of it (hindsight is 20/20). But that’s okay because you gotta start somewhere, right? I had never in my life read a graphic novel/comic/manga, and when I started trying to read them I found it very difficult. My brain was too used to standard prose style narratives, and having to figure out which order to read panels in and having to pay as close attention to the imagery as the worlds in order to identify what was happening was confusing to me! Even now that I’ve had more practice I remain pretty impressed with how quick and flexible my graphics-readers’ brains must be to be able to be comfortable in that format. I never get sick of hearing my graphics-readers chatting with each other about the graphics books they’ve been reading. They talk about the quality and engagement of the story, of course, but they also analyze and discuss the art style and often debate whether other art styles might have fit the story tone better or worse. There is so much depth to their reading experiences, which I think are often missed entirely by educators and librarians who fail to understand the value of this format of story-telling.
The basic terminology
When I started developing these collections I was about as new to the formats as its possible to be, and I didn’t really yet understand the difference between graphic novel, comics, or manga. Over time I’ve tried to dive in and gain a better understanding, and I thought it might be helpful to my readers if I provided basic definitions for some common terms. Here are my own personal definitions based on my current understandings:
- Graphic Novel – a full story (beginning, middle, end) told through a mixture of text and imagery. While these may be part of a series they never-the-less function like prose novels in being a full story published at one time.
- Comics – a story published first episodically/serially and then often later bound together. While comics are told through mixture of text and imagery, like graphic novels, they are not published in their entirety all at once, but rather are published in a “serial”(i think of it as episodes) style which often features a run of many episodes that together create a full “story arc.” Once each of these “episodes” are published separately and the arc is complete they are often later bound and published together as well.
- Manga – this is the term for a Japanese style of comics/graphic novels. When we see manga in the U.S. it has usually had the words translated into English but the imagery and art style usually remains the same as it is published in Japan, meaning that the story reads from right-to-left. Be sure to say it reads “right-to-left” rather than referring to it as being “backwards.” The term “backwards” carries negative connotations that we don’t want to perpetuate.
- Anime – anime is the term used for Japanese style animation, while Manga is a term used for the comic/graphic novel literature format. They are not the same but there is much crossover because you will often find anime-show versions of manga stories. This is important for librarians to know because anime shows are very popular with many young people and anytime an anime show that is based on a manga comes out it tends to drive up demand for that manga. I rely on my anime-watching students to give me a heads-up when a manga related anime show is about to launch on one of the streaming sites because then I know I should probably consider buying copies/more copies of that manga. There’s always more requests for a manga series at our library when a related anime is about to come out.
The Issues with Having Graphics, Comics, & Manga mixed together in a single section
Initially I started this collection development goal by creating one new section which I called the “graphic novel” section. I was using “graphic novels” as a catch-all term and was putting everything there mixed together. Graphic novels, comics, and manga. I created our first attempt at a “graphics” section during my 2nd year and then for the next 2 years or so I puzzled over the low circulation this section was getting. I knew from other librarians and from the online librarian community that most school library’s graphic novel collections were wildly popular and circulated very highly. I thought it was strange that the section wasn’t getting much circulation at our school and figured that I must be doing something wrong. I did some more needs assessments and discussion with our students and found that one of the issues was with the organization strategy I’d tried in having the different formats mixed together. This wasn’t effective for us, I eventually discovered, because the audiences for each format weren’t necessarily the same. Students who want comics aren’t necessarily looking for/interested in graphic novels, students wanting manga weren’t necessarily interested in comics or graphic novels. And yet they needed to sift through the entire collection of graphic novels just to find the small amount of manga or comics mixed in.
Also problematic was the fact that graphic novels, manga, and comics all kind of have their own (very different from each other) standard sizes. This disparity of sizes caused a bit of visual chaos on the shelves, (which never makes for a great browsing experience or great accessibility) with the comic books in particular often getting lost amongst all the thicker books. It also turned out that my own lack of knowledge of these formats was leading to bias issues in my purchasing. Because I was so unknowledgeable about comics and manga, in particular, I was mostly only purchasing graphic novels and was not putting as much development effort into adding manga and comics. I realized that not only would I need to dive into some serious PD and research into the formats so I could become more familiar and comfortable with them in order to develop those collections more effectively, I also realized that re-thinking the organization was probably necessary too.
The good news is that since I started expanding and shifting how I approach the graphics collection development, our circulation of these sections has started to soar! Last year graphics made up at least 20% of our total circulations for the year compared to previous years when graphics only comprised about 5% of our total circulations!
Organizing the “Graphics” Sections
When it was one big section
There is a lot of discussion and different opinions about how to organize graphics collections. Some libraries keep them in the general nonfiction collection under the “745” dewey category while others pull the section out of nonfiction as its own separate section. Others often choose to integrate the graphics into the fiction collection. There’s no single “right way” or “wrong way” to organize your collection. You’ll determine, through needs assessments and observation, which strategy works best for your library’s layout and community’s browsing needs. I’ve always opted to have graphics as their own separate section rather than having them integrated into the fiction or nonfiction sections. Partly that has to do with our shelf layouts and the shelving options available to me, but a bigger part has to do with my belief that chunking the collection up helps make it more efficiently accessible to the community. For these reasons I’ve always had the graphics in their own section, but I originally had them all mixed together as a single section. I used the call # “GN + Author Last Name” for all 3 “graphics” formats: graphic novels, manga, and comics.
Organizing the Graphic Novels
At this point I now had manga in its own section, and graphic novels and comic books together in their mixed section. I still organize them in standard author ABC order, though I have lately begun to consider the idea of POSSIBLY genre-fying them. At this point I’ve genrefied so much of the library that I’m legitimately having trouble finding more colors to use for the spine label stickers lol. So I’m not sure yet if I’m ready to add more genres, but I have feeling pulled in that direction as I still think our graphic novels don’t get as much circulation as they could. That might be a project I tackle next year, we will see! At the moment I do have graphic novels split a tiny bit because nonfiction graphic novels are grouped together in the section, and graphic novel “classics” adaptations are grouped together too, but the rest of the graphic novels are in standard author ABC order for now.
Splitting Manga to its Own Section
When I realized that the single mixed together section was not working as well as I’d have liked, I decided to initially split it into two sections (which would be shelved separately but still right near each other). I opted at that time to keep graphic novels and comics together under the “GN” call # and to move manga books to their own section. I used the call # “Manga + Series Name” for them. This move ended up being great because it helped the manga readers more efficiently find the options available for them, and it also helped me see how pitifully under-developed my manga section was at the time. This greater level of visibility really helped drive and focus my collection development efforts. I was able to pretty quickly build this section up once it was separate from the “graphics” section. I decided to organize manga in alphabetical order according to the series name, instead of by the creator. This was mostly because I noticed that my students rarely knew or referenced the creator name when looking for their books, they pretty much exclusively were referring to it, and looking for it, by the series name. I like to organize the library resources in ways that work best for our students, whenever possible, so ordering these by series name just seemed to make the most sense. I like to keep the series bundled together with a nice series description “shelf talker” next to each series, as this helps make browsing easier on the students, and creating the shelf talkers helped me become familiar with each series too. I tape each series description onto the side of old magazine holders and I use acrylic shelf dividers to keep those standing up straight on the shelves.
You can re-use my manga series descriptions if you want. Here is the template link.
Where to start with building a manga collection
Manga can be overwhelming to develop at first, especially for those of us who are new to the format. In particular many of us struggle to know which series are relevant for which grade levels. I’m not going to pretend to be anything close to an expert here but I CAN direct you to some of the experts whose wisdom and guidance I relied on throughout my manga collection development journey.
- Manga Librarian, Ashley Hawkins, school librarian. Website has TONS of very, VERY helpful advice, purchase lists, recommendations, etc.
- Manga in Libraries, Jillian Rudes, school librarian. Website has TONS of very helpful webinars, lists, tips, workshops, etc.
- The Graphic Library, Sara Smith, school librarian. Website has TONS of super excellent lists, terminology assistance, reviews, and more.
Splitting Comic Books into Their Own Section
After splitting manga into its own section, I spent two years putting a lot of focus on building up that collection. The circulation has soared and I’ve been so happy about the results (and about the students very positive response to the collection.) This year I decided to take the next step and follow up by splitting the comic books out of the “graphics” section into their own section. I knew we didn’t have enough comics yet to make for an appealing or successful collection, and I knew the few we did have were getting overlooked while squeezed amongst the graphic novels. I found the comic book collection development to be quite overwhelming, a bit like falling down a rabbit hole at first, but eventually I got the hang of it. In an upcoming blog post I’ll share all the details about my experience building up a comic book collection from scratch!
I just started working in a high school library this year and have also noticed low circulation in the graphic novel section (that is also mixed with manga and comics!) This topic was very timely for my library. Thank you and I look forward to part 2!
You’re very welcome!