The Day Comics Won
By David Serchay

Get GraphicJune 14th marks the tenth anniversary of one of the most important days in the relationship between graphic novels and libraries, the "Get Graphic @ Your Library" preconference put on by YALSA, the Young Adult division of the American Library Association, as part of ALA's 2002 Annual Conference. Held in Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, this all-day event was the best attended preconference that year with over 170 librarians coming to learn more about graphic novels and hear talks by Neil Gaiman (Sandman); Art Spiegelman (Maus); Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil), and Jeff Smith (Bone). The day also featured talks by librarians and a panel consisting of representatives from DC, Dark Horse, NBM, Image, and the now-defunct Crossgen and Tokyopop. The speakers also participated in an autograph session at the end.

According to preconference chair, Ohio librarian Mike Pawuk (who would later write Graphic Novels: A Genre Guide to Comic Books, Manga, and More) this event got its start thanks to YALSA's Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults Committee which the previous year had begun work on a list called "Graphic Novels: Superheroes and Beyond." While working on it, the group discussed presenting a graphic novel program at the 2002 annual conference, and Pawuk submitted a proposal. But instead of a simple program, the YALSA office decided to make it the theme for YALSA's 2002 preconference. In addition to that, "Get Graphic @ Your Library" was made the theme of that October's Teen Read Week.

Both the speakers and the attendees have spoken positively about the event. In his keynote speech at the 2003 Eisner Awards, Neil Gaiman said that "last summer….. a number of comics people were invited to talk to librarians. I was one of them. I went along expecting to be talking to the 250 comics fans who had grown up to be librarians, I couldn't have been more wrong: the librarians were getting pressures from their readers. The librarian knew that graphic novels – whatever they are – were popular and they wanted to know what they were. So they got [us] to tell them what we though they should know. And the libraries have started ordering the books." In a 2009 interview, Gaiman also recounted how after the event he told Art Spiegelman that "'everything's changed. This is not the world we were in last week'," since "it was suddenly the world in which we’d won. The battle to get comics taken seriously and to become part of the world had just been won at that moment."

Librarians also have also praised the event. Stephen Weiner, director of the Maynard (MA) Public Library and author of several book on graphic novels as well as a speaker at the preconference, found it to be a "proactive move by libraries" which "gave trade publishing houses for starting graphic novel imprints." He also feels that the preconference helped to legitimize graphic novels in libraries and "empowered librarians who wanted to start graphic novels." Ohio librarian Steve Raiteri, who at the time of the preconference was about to start a regular graphic novel review column for Library Journal came away from it "energized and enthusiastic about the idea of spreading the word about graphic novels to librarians," and with the feeling that he was "going to be helping along the first big wave of acceptance in my profession for something I'd loved all my life."

Many of those attending had very little knowledge of graphic novels. Author and librarian Edward Sullivan says that the preconference was one of the best that he ever attended made him "much more appreciative of the artistic and literary value of graphic novels" and gave him "greater awareness of the variety available." He adds that prior to preconference he mainly thought of graphic novels as "compilations of superhero and Simpsons comics" but afterwards he realized that graphic novels had the potential to appeal to a wide range of readers and as a result he reads much more graphic novels and is more aware and appreciative of their aesthetic values.

Susan Hill of the Broward County (FL) Library System attended since her branch, which had a joint use partnership with a high school media center, was preparing to launch a major graphic novel collection for their teen area and needed to educate herself and her staff quickly. She describes the experience and information derived from the event as "amazing" and that the scope and participation "informed a strong foundation for appreciation of the format" (not the genre, which she mentions was the day's mantra). Hill even has fond memories of the items given out to attendees, which included tote bags, toys, and many graphic novels. She was able to handle the new collection which became one of the foundations of a system-wide collection that now contains over 10,000 titles, most with multiple volumes.

In the 10 years since the YALSA Preconference graphic novels have greatly expanded into libraries. Graphic novel reviews appear regularly in library publications, and graphic novel programming is a part of library conferences and events. While the question was once "why should I have graphic novels in my library?" it is now "I need graphic novels, tell me more about them," and even that question is fading as more and more libraries embrace them. The preconference was a watershed moment and one whose importance continues.

In the 10 years since the Preconference there have been many notable events in relationship between libraries and graphic novels including:

•There has been a large amount of graphic novel programming at ALA, including all day events. A special graphic novel section has been set up in the exhibitors hall, with some publishers having booths similar to what they bring to comic conventions.  

•Graphic novel related programming has been included in other library conferences ranging from the national, to the state, to the local. Talks on the subject of graphic novels and libraries have occurred in libraries around the country as well and via webinars and phone conferences.

•In 2006, YALSA formed the "Great Graphic Novels For Teens List" committee, which reveals its lists at the yearly ALA midwinter conference.

•Several graphic novels creators have been given YALSA's Alex Award which honors adult books that appeal to teens.

•In 2007, Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese became the first graphic novel to win YALSA's  Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

•Brian Selznik's 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which has graphic novel elements, won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, one of ALA's biggest awards.

•In 2005 Kat Kan became the first of several librarians to be a judge for the Eisner awards.

•There have been several books published on the topic of graphic novels for libraries and media centers as well as books on comics and graphic novels written by librarians.

•Libraries have put on comic conventions and have had comic creators as speakers.

David S. Serchay is a youth services librarian with the Broward County (FL) Library System where, along with his other duties, he is on the graphic novel selection committee. He has lectured and written on the topic of graphic novels and libraries and is the author of two books from Neal-Schuman, The Librarian’s Guide to Graphic Novels for Children and Tweens and The Librarian’s Guide to Graphic Novels for Adults.