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Convention Development: Creating A Mini-Con At The Library
By Mark Banaszak

Conventions have come to be an important part of the comics and pop culture worlds, offering attendees a chance to immerse themselves in their hobbies and passions. Featuring creators and other talent, art displays, costume contests, and more, the cons have become almost as important to the scenes as the comics, movies, and games that inspire them.

The popularity of these conventions has been steadily rising for the last few years. Attendance at several of the largest conventions has been growing, with Comic-Con International, New York Comic Con, Anime Expo, Otakon, and PAX recording higher turnouts in 2012 than in years previous. Cons provide fans a unique experience, but not everyone can afford to visit the major (or even minor) conventions – especially teens or younger children.

Librarian Kat Kan offers comic giveaways; photo courtesy Kat KanLibraries can capitalize on the excitement that conventions bring and at the same time utilize their graphic novel and anime collections in their programming by hosting their own mini-conventions. Taking the basic framework of a pop culture convention and scaling it down to fit within a library's structure and budget, a mini-con can not only offer teen and younger patrons a fun event to attend, but help foster their (and parents') interest in and support of the library.

For this article, BookShelf spoke with several librarians whose libraries have successfully held their own mini-conventions about their experiences putting on the events to help show how these can be a benefit. All of them reported that attendance grew each year they held their con, sometimes exponentially.  

While this article will focus mainly on comic/anime-themed events – because of the subject matter and because these appear to be the most popular – there are numerous themes and genres that can inspire cons. The Oklahoma City Downtown Library held a Steampunk 101 Mini-Con in September 2012, while the Austin Public Library held a series of mini-cons in conjunction with their 2012 summer reading program, including the RoboCon, FracnFairyCon (based around fractured fairy tales), and ApocaCon, which focused on apocalyptic/zombie fiction.

Having an overall theme for each con isn't necessary – and often the genre is good enough – but some have used themes to give each con its own unique style.

Kat Kan with the Black Terror; photo courtesy Kat KanAt their most recent Creative Con, the Bay County Public Library in Panama City, Florida, focused on comics and education, and brought in paid guests Chris Schweizer (creator of the Crogan's Adventures series) and Dr. Katie Monnin giving presentations. The Harford County Public Library's Aberdeen branch in Aberdeen, Maryland, highlighted American and Japanese style comics last year, while this year the focus was science fiction and fantasy.

Anime and comic conventions tend to have staple events which can help in designing an entertaining con for the library. Artist alleys (where comic creators show their work) and cosplay (where con-goers dress in often elaborate costumes based on their favorite characters) are ubiquitous at cons, and can be easily replicated for mini-cons. Another very popular event for artists is the art demonstration, where they give "how-to" lessons on drawing, inking, and other comic-making techniques.

Cons also offer the library a chance to show off their graphic novel collections. All of the libraries BookShelf spoke with created special displays with their graphic novels to highlight the cons, both before and during the events. One method was to collect their "how to draw" volumes together near the art demonstration and workshop tables.

Finding the talent to come in to the library can involve seem challenging, but there are several options for locating creators and other comic professionals (or even enthusiastic professionals-to-be). In a 2011 New York Comic Con panel Schweizer discussed how contacting comics creators for library events, saying that often the creators will be glad to be guests at events for the chance to interact with fans, and often for little or no payment.

When putting together their Mini-Comic Con, the Community Relations manager of the Harford County Public Library's Aberdeen branch sought out local authors and artists, and also used contacts she had previously made. For their 2011 event, they brought in John Gallagher, creator of the comic Buzzboy, who gave a presentation on comics and helped teens work on their own creations, and two members of the Philadelphia-based video game studio Dragon's Den, who talked about the gaming industry and gave a presentation on character creation. The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library were able to find artists by contacting comics publishers.

Gordon Rider creator Jon J. Murakami speaks with a patron; photo courtesy Hillary ChangHillary Chang, branch manager of the McCully-Moiliili Public Library in Honolulu, Hawaii, was able to bring in local comic makers through her connections in the scene (as well as approaching many others she didn’t know, which lead to other programs). The Library also brought in local arts group Pen & Ink Works, who offered demonstrations on making comics as well as evaluations of attendees' art.

There are a number of other ways to find artists for cons. The Comics Reporter web site offers a "Comics by Local Scene" directory, which lists comic creators, studios, and publishers by metropolitan area. Another source is the local comic convention's Artist Alley. Many local comic creators attend these shows, and will have their art on display making it easier to determine whose work may be appropriate for a particular library.

Cosplay is a large part of the convention scene that can easily be used as the basis for creating events. Since many attendees will be coming in costume anyway, offering them programs that tie into this will help build enthusiasm and encourage them to get involved.

There are numerous ways to hold the contests. As part of their Yomicon, the Austin Public Library held several cosplay events, including Cosplay Chess, a Cosplay Contest, Cosplay Skit Contest (in which teams performed short skits in character), and a Cosplay Walk-On Contest, which judges the best one-liner.

There are also several costume enthusiast groups who regularly attend comics/movie-themed events and who are often willing to make appearances whether for demonstrations or just to liven things up. These groups include the Star Wars-themed 501st Legion and Rebel Legion and numerous local Ghostbusters costume groups. 

Artists and authors aren't the only groups that can be brought in. For their latest Mana-Con, held in October 2012, the Manatee Central Library in Bradenton, Florida, offered martial arts demonstrations, kimono displays, and kanji demonstrations. The Medina County District Library in Medina, Ohio, offered a "make your own candy sushi" event.

Photo courtesy Hillary Chang

Movie and anime screenings are a cheap, easy, and entertaining way to come up with programming. Between the voluminous amount of anime available and the plethora of superhero movies released in the last few years, finding something to show should not present a problem.

The location of the con can be a determining factor when planning the con, and will naturally vary for each individual library. Some libraries hold the cons in special areas, such as community rooms or auditoriums, away from the main floor. Others incorporate certain areas of the collection, such as the Bay County Public Library, which holds their Creative Con in their Youth Services Department, or the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library in New York, which holds theirs throughout the building.

To offset any complaints, the Harford County Public Library posts notices throughout the building prior to the con notifying patrons of the event and the heightened noise.

Partner with local comics and games stores is a way for libraries to get help with programs and materials. Not only can these shops help with planning and running the events, but many can offer products for giveaways and contest prizes.

The McCully-Moliili Public Library received a number of items from their local comic shop to give out, including comics, graphic novels, buttons, and pens, while a local art supply store provided pen and pencil sets and blank comic book pages for patrons to use in art demonstrations.

Teen Mini Con 2011 Flyer; courtsey Suzie MuniakThe Harford County Public Library had a local gaming store run their games area, bringing in board and card games and hosting "how to" sessions. The Medina County District Library was able to get sponsorship from the local Ohayocon Anime Convention, which helped out with prize donations and staff for their Teen Con.

Partnering also offers low cost opportunities to promote the cons outside of the library. The Medina County District Library was able to advertise their Teen Con through the local Game Stop as well as hobby and card shops, while local comic shops who attended posted flyers for the Creative Con.

Creating promotional materials for the con also provides a way for attendees to get involved. For their Teen Con, the Medina County Public Library held an art contest for its teen patrons, with the winner's art to be displayed on the flyer.

As with most events, mini-cons do require a fair bit of planning. The further out a library can begin arranging the con, the better, but some are able to put things together two or three months ahead of time.

For libraries looking for new programming ideas, hosting a mini-convention can offer a fun way to give teens, kids, and even adults an exciting event. By offering the types of features of a comic or pop culture convention – but without the ticket fees and long lines – the library can take the enthusiasm the fans bring and create an experience that will benefit everyone.