The American Library Association’s 2023 Annual Conference, which was held in Chicago this past June, was a chance for library workers to connect, collaborate, and commiserate. While librarianship as a whole continues to deal with unprecedented bans and challenges to books, programs, and even displays celebrating the joys of reading, it was heartening to spend time with like-minded folks from across the country, sharing our concerns, goals, and hopes for the future.

One of several key emerging areas of focus continued to be comics librarianship. While that is my biased perspective as the in-house librarian for LibraryPass and Comics Plus, and (now past) president of ALA’s Graphic Novel and Comics Round Table (GNCRT), the presence of all things comics could not be denied.

More than 70 publishers in attendance boasted at least one graphic novel in their otherwise prose-heavy catalogs, and lines for signings with comics creators wound through the aisles throughout the conference, rivaling those at consumer conventions like San Diego Comic-Con and NY Comic Con. ALA’s social media presence and programming space was jam-packed with comics representation, and ticketed events like the Magical Comics Tea were sold out long before the Conference began.

The takeaway for library folks as summer fades and Fall programs kick in? Whether you’re a seasoned “comics librarian,” or recently fell in love with acclaimed titles like Swim Team, comics and manga should be among the most important media in your collections — physical and digital.

1) Bans and challenges remain a critical concern for all library workers. 

While book banning efforts continue to explode in frequency, newer challenges are emerging to library operations targeting programs, library meeting room reservations, and themed displays. This is all relevant to comics as they remain among the most challenged material overall.

According to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in 2022 there were 261 reported comics-specific challenges. Graphic novels remain easy targets for a variety of reasons, which has led comics librarians to step in and lead efforts towards defining best practices for proactively preventing bans and challenges. GNCRT recently appointed a formal committee in response to these challenges, and their advice and resources remain relevant to any type of library content and program dispute.

2) Library access to comics remains contentious. 

Single issue comics (floppies) are fragile and, despite patron demand, are hardly worth the cost of cataloging before they physically fall apart after circulating a few times. Comics cataloging best practices are still an evolving topic in library circles, and collection developers remain frustrated both with having so many retail outlets they cannot work directly with, and the lack of professional review resources

 For these reasons, interest in digital access continues to grow, though many library workers continue to have questions about which vendors and lending models are best for their community’s needs and materials budgets.

3) The demand for manga continues to grow. 

Readers’ thirst for manga remains unquenched while library workers struggle to keep up with meeting demand for popular series that have dozens of volumes available. This, coupled with the broad range of manga beyond the best-sellers, makes an even stronger case for affordable access to digital comics and manga, particularly when single-use licenses make building a diversified collection prohibitively expensive.

Shameless plug! This is absolutely the case with Comics Plus, which offers readers unlimited, simultaneous access to thousands of comics and manga..

4) Comics publishers are also scrambling to keep up with reader demand. 

From traditional book publishers dipping a cautious toe into the comics world, established Western comics publishers adding manga (and manga-inspired) titles to their own catalogs, and manga publishers expanding their own catalogs exponentially — the market has developed a voracious appetite for growth. It also means managing a diverse comics collection is becoming more challenging, and more expensive.

This is yet another argument for expanding access to digital content, especially with vendors that offer titles from a wide range of library-friendly comics and manga publishers.

5) The right comics-specific resources can be valuable.

Library workers love the idea of supplemental reading and teaching guides, and additional resources specifically for comics can help justify their use in library programming and curriculum alignment. While comics publishers and creators are becoming increasingly aware of this opportunity, several questions remain about which resources are most useful:

  • Which titles should have supplemental resources?
  • Should all resources have curriculum connections, or can casual independent reading and book club resources also be valuable?
  • Do supplemental resources help sway a library’s decision to add a title to their collections, or select it for program inclusion?
  • If so, what can these resources offer that a library worker or educator isn’t already equipped to provide?

Large publishers such as Penguin Random House and Scholastic have long offered a range of useful resources for many of their comics, while most traditional comics publishers are just starting to recognize the opportunity to enhance their value to libraries. Vendors can also assist by offering easily accessible repositories of comics-specific resources, such as the one from Comics Plus, but until the library profession and comics industry can reach a consensus on these open questions, the true value of supplemental comics resources will vary.

Read All The Comics!

Overall, the ALA 2023 Annual Conference was an incredibly inspiring experience from the perspective of comics library workers in a renaissance of publishers and indie creators understanding what “library friendly” really means.

Comics are hot, especially manga, but comics content challenges are also on the rise, while access and affordability issues persist. Digital access to comics and manga is a viable option, but only when publishers and creators believe in the full value of the library market and make their titles available in multiple formats, at affordable prices. There is a lot of work to be done, but no librarian is alone in their efforts, and the monetary payoff is worth it for vendors and publishers if they remain focused on reaching and engaging new readers at every possible opportunity.

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Moni Barrette is Director, Collection Development & Publisher Relations for LibraryPass, and Past-President for American Library Association’s Graphic Novel & Comics Round Table. As a former public library manager, Moni won the California Library Association PRExcellence Award (2018 & 2019) for library events aimed at underserved adult library users, and has proven success using comics to increase library circulation. She is a frequent panelist at San Diego and New York Comic Con, San Diego Comic Fest and Wonder-Con, hosting industry networking events and providing instruction to educators and librarians.