Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Summer Getting Adults to Read Comics in the Library

Last year when I heard about the Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grant for Libraries, I decided I wanted to apply and try to do something more with my library's graphic novel collection. The trouble was, I didn't have any pet projects in the pipeline, no great idea that was only waiting for funding.

The truth is, the community I work in doesn't have a strong natural comics readership. Our graphic novels go out enough to warrant having them, but they don't fly off the shelves. I knew I wanted to give the collection a signal boost, not only to give it more press, but because I believe in the literary value of the format and I hate when it gets the shaft. As both a highly visual and linguistic adult, I consider both types of literacy to be precious, especially at a time when we are relying so much on digital interfaces to accomplish tasks.

Luckily there's an embarrassment of riches in the world of adult comics. That's something I wanted to share with the people in my community, both for their own edification and awareness, and to help connect them with other family members or friends who might be comics fans. And maybe, just maybe, I might convert a few of them into fans themselves.

So after generating some ideas with our teen librarian, we settled on a graphic novel themed summer reading program. For adults. Adults who likely have never even thought about picking up a comic before.

It's a little bit easier to sell a graphic novel summer reading program for kids or teens. The format is popular with those age groups, and parents might at least consider it an acceptable way to get kids who don't like reading prose involved in summer reading. The ol' "At least he/she is reading" rationale. Not so with adults. Most of our summer readers would be reading anyway, but our program engages them with a theme, they read new things, and they earn chances to win prizes.

The "reading new things" part was our way in. In our summer reading program, one of the most consistent pieces of feedback we get every single year is how much the participants like reading things they wouldn't have picked up if we hadn't recommended it. Our requirements for our program are pretty loose. We have book logs with space for six items, and only one has to go along with our theme. The rest can be anything they want, and they get raffle tickets for each item, plus bonus tickets and a completion prize if they fill the book log. In order to help our users choose that one theme book we make bookmarks listing recommended titles. The lists are pretty popular, even among readers who aren't participating in the program.

We decided that in addition to our usual summer reading plans, we would think of additional events that would help support the theme. The grant allowed a portion to be used for an event, and it made sense to invite graphic novel creators or even a comic art expert to speak at the library to help promote the value of the medium, and connect readers with writers and artists. We also planned to include movie screenings of films that were based on graphic novels. Much of the grant money would help bolster the adult portion of our graphic novel collection, which was unfortunately still missing a good deal of wonderful books and series that are considered essential.

I was really proud of what my co-worker and I had come up with. Maybe it wasn't the most innovative project, but we knew it could work for our community. Our users' open-mindedness during summer reading was an opportunity to try something different, and broaden their reading horizons more than ever before with a new type of reading experience.

Then... we didn't get the grant. Damn.

Luckily, my co-workers still wanted to go with my plan even without the grant. We couldn't book more expensive programs, and we'd have to update our collection out of our own budget, but it was do-able.

So we got to work on designing book logs, making bookmarks, buying more books and getting them processed, and booking speakers. My sister did an amazing job creating illustrated versions of our library founders, Thomas and Edith Ford, that we used not only on the cover of our book logs, but on our print and online promotional material, and on the tote bags we chose as book log completion prizes. My co-workers gave Thomas and Edith funny dialogue promoting the value of comics (and affirming that ol' Edith is a Batman fan, I knew I liked her for a reason).

Despite the Batman reference, we knew who our audience was and that we wouldn't get buy-in by suggesting they read superhero comics. Our users were much more interested in literary fiction, mystery, drama, memoirs, current events, and other non-fiction. This was another key part of making the summer reading program a success, knowing our audience and catering to their tastes.

After all of that planning, the only thing left was to let it fly and brace myself for whatever the reaction would be. Not that I thought people would be coming after me with torches and pitchforks. But I wanted it to be successful so badly that I knew if I got a lot of negative feedback, the summer would be miserable and I'd feel like I had failed. So I had to be realistic and set my definition of success at a reasonable level. I decided that I'd consider the whole project worth it if I got just one person to say, "I never read a graphic novel before this, and I liked it."

I know, it feels very "Lowered Expectations" to me too. But in a small library where most participants just go with the flow without much comment one way or another, knowing that one more person opened their mind to comics, would be trying out more graphic novels in our collection and watching for new ones-- that would make it worth it. That would balance out any negativity.

Now, post-summer reading, I can say that I saw even more of a success than I expected. It wasn't overwhelming, and I have not converted our entire summer reading group into comics fans. But I talked to several people who said, "I'd never read graphic novels before, I didn't even know there were comics for adults, and I really enjoyed it." I had conversations with people about how much more the images can bring to a story. I saw book logs where readers have gone beyond reading their one required graphic novel. I watched families bond over some of the comics we've put on display. I received wonderful reviews of graphic novels from members.

On the other hand, we also received some criticism. Not everyone liked the first book they chose, which is a shame, but inevitable. A couple of community members did not consider graphic novels to be acceptable literature for our reading program or the library. There were other participants who were neither here nor there about the choice, they tried it but probably won't pick a comic up again anytime soon. I'm okay with that. I know comics are not for everyone, just like romance and horror and science fiction and audiobooks are not for everyone. And I accept that a few people consider graphic novels lower literature. If they didn't, I wouldn't feel driven to promote them and increase awareness about their literary value.

But we did receive positive comments, and our programs went well. We had writer and artist Lucy Knisley talk about her book "Relish: My Life in the Kitchen," which was a recent Alex Award Winner. We didn't pack the room, but we got a normal sized attendance with a lot of engaged and curious people. Lucy was a fantastic speaker, and everyone loved it. We also had Jessica Campbell, formerly of Drawn & Quarterly and currently at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago speak about the art of comics, how the art and words work together, and the relation between comics, poetry and design. Our attendance for this lecture was much smaller, but it was still a great presentation that I'd recommend to anyone. The movies were not a big hit, but I don't know if it was the movies we showed, or the dates/times, or both. It's a programming mystery for another day.

Overall, I'm proud and happy that our experiment went well. There were a few critics, but I got good feedback from most of the people I talked to, and I feel great about improving our graphic novel collection and making some new speaker and comic book shop contacts that I can hopefully use again in the future.

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