One of the biggest advantages of including graphic novels in your library is the medium’s appeal to a demographic that traditionally shuns the library: young males.
Whether it’s because they are genuinely reluctant readers of one type or another, or simply because they have been mis-socialized to believe that reading is not “cool” or “manly,” young males read in vastly smaller numbers than their female contemporaries. This lack of interest has a direct impact on reading ability: In one study, males in grade 10 were found “proficient” at reading only 31.6% of the time, compared to 36.0% for females. Only 28.5% of males were assessed as “advanced” readers (which, logically, would be those more likely to use a library), as compared to a whopping 36.0% for females.¹
In the never-ending attempt to attract more and more patrons, young males have become something of a “white whale,” difficult to interest in the library’s collection.
But with a blend of stylistic action, familiar characters, and dynamic stories, comic books draw in young males, who are more willing to engage with a comic than a traditional book or novel. The graphic novel serves as a gateway to further reading. Once your recalcitrant young male picks up and enjoys a comic book, he will start down the path of reading, eventually graduating to other types of books like science fiction, fantasy, and — eventually — literary classics. In the past, some librarians have shied away from including graphic novels in their collections due to a prevailing misconception that comics are “easy” to read because they use pictures. The idea is that comics appeal to the lowest common denominator and do not promote healthy reading habits, much less interest boys reluctant to read. However, what critics fail to realize is that reading a comic book requires some of the same higher-level thinking skills required to read traditional books, as well as other thinking skills that are not exercised in reading plain text.
Additionally, the vocabulary in a majority of comics and graphic novels is often more difficult than words found in traditional texts at the reader’s particular reading level. But because the reader is fully engaged with the comic’s story, instead of simply passing over unfamiliar text, he actively seeks out its meaning either through visual clues in the art or the context of the narration and dialogue.
In fact, it is because comics utilize art with text that they help build interest. Being able to use visual cues when confronted with difficult text not only improves the patron’s ability to read, but also builds up his confidence as a reader.
The goal with any kind of reading program is transform young people into better readers. Comic books are another means to that end. Once you introduce comics and graphic novels into your collection, you will see noticeable increases in circulation and interest, especially among your young males. In fact, as far back as 1981, Dorrell and Carroll performed a study in which the mere presence of comic books in a collection increased library use 82%, with a 30% increase in the circulation of non-comic book material.²
Comic books are an opportunity for you to grow your patron base and attract and entertain a difficult demographic. Use them to their utmost!
¹ Source: Maryland State Assessment Reading Results 2004, Maryland State Department of Education
² Dorrell, L., and E. Carroll. 1981. “Spider-Man at the library.” School Library Journal 27: 17–19.