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Graphic Novels As Cost Effective Collections

If you are looking for a fun intro to graphic novels in libraries this is not it. If you want an update about the most interesting and important titles on the market right now you are in the wrong place. If you want to see where graphic novels as a collection investment intersects with circulation to get real ammunition that will help you advocate for graphics in the library with boards of trustees and directors, this it the paper for you. If you are a director wondering about how to bump up circulation on the cheap, read on.

At the heart of this study is the concept of the cost/circ ratio. This measure is the result of work with graphic novels so admittedly there may be a scholarly bias in place. At the heart of it, though, this measure is an attempt to see the value/usage/weight carried by materials in circulation. It is a reflection of the return on investment of segments of the collection. There are very real concerns here that this could be turned against other materials and that instead of being a celebration of the incredible success of one class of books it would be used as a mallet against low turnover materials. This study should be seen as an argument for graphic novels in collections and as a tool to balance all parts of a collection, even the stuff that only goes out once a decade.

This research began as a consideration of manga circulation. These materials are incredibly popular in the collection at Queens Library's Central Library Teen Room. The first study which was tried was an attempt to track circulation of a number of manga series as a rough measurement of the popularity of the collection. Over the space of fifteen weeks - roughly four months - I tracked circulation on 25 series. In each of the series chosen at random I reviewed the number of books checked out in each week. I then compared this number to the total number of books in the series and came up with a percentage of total books in circulation for each title. These results were then recorded and tracked.

On average, fully half of the books selected were checked out at any given time - 52% in fact. Various series' popularities waxed and waned, even over that short sample period, but most straddled the 40-60% line consistently. Outliers were more informative still, at least one series a week averaged 90-100% in circulation, which is certainly exciting to see in a public library. The fact that the low percentages stayed within 30% is of note as well. The least popular materials here still had a third out the door at any given time. Obviously, a larger data set is needed here before any real results can be suggested. Still, these numbers indicate that, at least during this period, we can point to clear statistical proof of the popularity and circulation merits of graphic novels in the collection.

The next set of statistics presented themselves during a major weeding effort. My division, quite sensibly, had been tasked with getting rid of ALL the deadwood. This included lots of books held together with tape, still able to be circulated in our street librarian eyes, but definitely past their prime, a rip here, glued together spine, missing corner on the cover, that kind of thing. We cleared all of this away and I was struck by how books were coming off the shelves still in fairly serviceable condition which had circulated 30, 40, 50 or more times in the few years they had been in the collection. Moreover, given that Queens has a three week checkout and that most of these books had been in the system for five years or less on average these books probably spent considerably more time in circulation than on the shelf right through to the point of withdrawal. These are simply very effective books.

I decided to look at the cost of the materials in order to justify collection development budgets for graphic novels. I found that, on average, graphic novels were relatively cheap. The inclusion of manga, hugely popular and typically less than ten bucks a pop through the major jobbers, brings the averages up even further. There were 395 graphic novels withdrawn in this sample set. Of these the average price was $11.10, which is just crazy cheap considering that they circulated, on average, 39 times for that investment. Dividing the cost of the books by the number of times they circulated gives a ratio of the approximate cost per circulation. Again, I challenge the reader that this not get turned into a metric that works against balanced collection development. In the case of these materials the average cost/circ ratio was $0.38. That is really squeezing value out of a book when you think about it. That is great value! Seriously! How can your trustees not be happy with that rate of return?

"Yeah so what?," you say, and you are right. I am taking as my sample set books which have been withdrawn based on worn condition, OF COURSE they are going to circulate a lot, that is why you are getting rid of them to begin with.

As a caveat here: I feel it is important to note that graphic novels are, by and large, quite well made and stand up well under heavy usage. Manga in particular are surprisingly durable. The binding glue is both strong and flexible and the paper just gets soft from repeat reading. They hold together great and have good legs in busy public libraries.

Returning to the subject at hand, as stated, although those numbers are interesting they are bound to be biased based on the high turnover and wear and tear on these materials.

In order to offer a more accurate, if still limited, picture I captured cost and circulation data on three test groups taken from the Queens Library Central Library YA Room. At the time this large YA collection had approximately 68,000 volumes, including both fiction and non-fiction, in a dedicated teen space. I took a random sampling of the books in the collection both fiction and non-fiction alike. I had pages who were not informed about the nature of the study go and grab graphic novels completely at random. Finally I chose a sample group made up of the very highest circulating materials. These were hand-picked titles like Harry Potter, Twilight, GED & SAT prep books - the stuff that gets asked for all the time.

Unfortunately, the sample sets were again painfully small.

Baseline - 108 Books

High Interest - 108 Books

Graphic Novels - 104

The numbers on these broke down as follows:

Group Cost Average Circulation Cost/Circ Ratio
Baseline $17.15 12

1.43

High Interest $12.14

23

0.52

Graphic Novels

$11.40 26 0.43

In this study a random sample of graphic novels - not the top earners, mind you, just a random sample of the form - tracked at better circulation-value-for-price than even a hand-picked high interest sample set. These numbers, while preliminary, indicate a remarkable rate of return for investment in these materials. If we look at the numbers here again, the cost/circ ratio of graphic novels is less than a third of the baseline group. This simple statement to trustees is enough to justify having some graphic novels in the library. That they are popular is a compelling argument, that they provide good value for budget dollars spent is a clincher. This value is supported by the cost/circ from the withdrawn books which, again, produced an even lower 0.38 cost/circ ratio (as opposed to the 0.43 from the comparative sample set).

Their larger contribution to the collection is part and parcel of this. Indeed, they can be used as a weapon when the specter of budget cuts and invasive weeding loom on your horizon. In simple terms, a rising tide lifts all boats. If we look to industries outside our field we can see many areas where this idea is used to very good effect. It is a well known precedent in publishing and in the film industry that a few block busters pay for a dozen risks. Having a Stephen King or Danielle Steele grinding out the dollars for you affords you the financial breathing room to sign new novelists and publish new works by authors who may have had a flat book previously. Likewise film studios have been spinning off art house fare for the indie scene for decades, and it's summer blockbuster schlock that pays the rent for the big studio little picture that becomes the darling of the festival circuit.

The fact of the matter is that many of these movies flop. For every breakout novelist a dozen fall flat. For every festival sweeper there are a score of festival sleepers. It is part and parcel of those industries and it works quite well for them. We can see some similar potential in our approach to circulation. As we drive forward and push circulation very often the first impulse is to weed aggressively, to cull out the deadwood. Unfortunately, some of this so-called deadwood can be very difficult to replace once you have gotten rid of it. Some of it does need to go, of course, but also some of the collection, even if it doesn't move, is stuff that belongs in the library, simple as that. Every library should have the classics, every library should have a large history section and a good selection of trade and technical instruction. Sure those things don't fly off the shelves but it is essential to our organization identity as libraries that we have them when people need them.

What if, instead of weeding, you do some seeding. Sure, get rid of those old almanacs but at the same time buy more copies of Naruto and Spiderman. Bringing circulation figures up across the board is simply the single most effective way of protecting and preserving ALL of your collection. Graphic novels can offer you a cheap and highly effective way of bumping your numbers up across the board. If you catalog them in the 741-741.5 section you may create a solid buffer for threatened non-fiction collections. If you tag them as YA, J, or Adult you can target spikes in readership and circulation turnover.

These findings and their potential application are exciting, but they remain based on a painfully small data set. Collaborators are needed who would be able to share circ. data to expand and strengthen this study. Even so, the numbers here speak volumes. Graphic novels are statistically relevant to collections and can act as a buffering agent to protect lower turnover materials and rapidly boost circulation in libraries under the gun.

Interested collaborators should contact: christian_zabriskie@yahoo.com