Making Graphic History

Graphic History Database flyerGood resources for finding subject-specific graphic novels are few and far between, but two librarians from the University of Iowa are trying to rectify that with the Graphic History Database. Created by American History Librarian Janalyn Moss and Electronic Resources Librarian Lisa Martincik, the database "aims to make graphic novels about historical topics more easily identifiable, promoting the circulation of included titles in libraries across the country thus expanding readership." Currently in the initial stages, the database is planned as an authoritative, annotated resource which is searchable by several fields, including creator, genre, historical and geographic settings.

BookShelf spoke with Moss and Martincik about the project.

Could you briefly introduce yourselves?
Hi, I'm Janalyn Moss, American History Librarian at the University of Iowa Libraries. According to my nametag I'm an Information Ninja. And as an Information Ninja I provide research assistance with stealth, speed, and precision.

Hi, I'm Lisa Martincik, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Iowa Libraries. I also select graphic novels for our collection and am commonly consulted by staff on pop culture and geek issues.

Together, we fight crime.

What made you decide to put this together?

Janalyn worked with a playwright on an assignment using a chapter from Howard Zinn's A People's History of American Empire graphic novel. As a result, she started looking into adding more graphic novels to the Libraries' history collection and encountered difficulty finding resources on the kinds of materials she sought.

In 2011 the University hosted the (rockin') Comics, Creativity and Culture symposium which not only highlighted faculty interest and involvement with graphic novels but also allowed Lisa to publicize the Libraries' collection.

Last year when Janalyn saw the annual American Library Association (ALA) Carnegie-Whitney Grant announcement, a comics-related project felt like a natural and timely fit that would address a growing need locally and beyond. Both of us had seen evidence of educational and scholarly interest in using these materials in an academic setting.

Who is in charge of cataloging the books?

The University of Iowa Libraries has a Cataloging-Metadata department; they handle all of the cataloging for us.

Are the graphic novels part of the University Library collection?

Many of the graphic novels included in the database are part of our circulating collection. Others we may acquire for review through our InterLibrary Loan service or from personal collections.

The goal of the project is not to build a master collection (although we would love to do that) but to collect the information about these works in one, searchable, place.

How did the University respond to the idea?

The Libraries' administration is excited to be a part this endeavor and they have been very supportive.

How do you choose the books?

In terms of content we're limiting ourselves to available/in-print graphic novels dealing with historical settings, events, or people.

Process-wise, we of course check the Previews catalog every month while looking for other non-historical comics for our collection (and for Lisa's personal monthly buying habits). We also attended BookExpo and the ALA conference and let publishers know we'd be very interested in getting a heads-up on this kind of material for inclusion in the database. The usual places also apply: email lists, news sites, and the subject lists that librarians use all the time for collection management. In the future we hope to reach out for suggestions from faculty, scholars, and other interested parties.

How have you acquired the graphic novels?

We usually purchase new comic books one of two ways: through our Acquisitions department, who find the most appropriate source, or from Daydreams Comics here in Iowa City. We're always happy when we can do business with Daydreams and are proud to have an LCS of their caliber in our city.

As mentioned above, when we aren't buying comics for our collection we can usually borrow them via InterLibrary Loan or someone's private collection. We also occasionally receive donations, including from staff who are interested in helping with the project.

You've included historical fiction and alternative history in the books listed in the database. What was the reason for the inclusion of the fiction genres?

Fictionalized accounts of historical events are often a source of good information and of interest to researchers and educators, and are frequently considered more readable. As such they're a not-uncommon subgenre. Even in "historical" accounts it can be hard to escape fictionalized elements. Alternative histories can provide information and insight into factual events. They are great for sparking interest in historical topics.

We can't anticipate what users will look for or find useful. We would rather provide too many choices rather than too few.

Were you a graphic novel reader/fan before this? Are you now?

Lisa: Oh hellz yes. I've read comics from a young age and have been interested to follow the growth in their recognition as a format.

Janalyn: My fandom is relatively recent, within the last few years. It came about from the project with the playwright that was mentioned in response to a previous question.
At this point in time the database isn't live/public. We are still building and populating it. In the meantime check out our Graphic History information guide.

Graphic History is two-year project supported by a 2012 Carnegie-Whitney Grant from the American Library Association. We will continue updating after the grant period is complete.