Graphic attraction – graphic novels in libraries

Graphic novels have become increasingly popular with readers of all ages. Alison Lee looks at the benefits, uses and implications for the library of developing a graphic novel collection. 

The graphic novel – literature or comic?

According to Wil Eisner – a pioneer in the field – a graphic novel is 'sequential art, the arrangement of pictures or words or images to narrate a story or dramatise an idea' (Eisner 1985 p 5). But we can also define the graphic novel as a complete story. Unlike a comic, it is published and bound in book form with quality paper (Ireland 2004 p 1).

It is important to think of the graphic novel as a format, not a genre (Brenner 24/02/2004). People tend to view them as a genre and this is why they may dismiss them as being the same as comics. With the proper promotion, this misconception can be addressed.

Librarians also need to be aware that graphic novels are literature. To quote Brenner again, 'Processing the images and the text of a graphic novel together create a unique kind of literacy, and should not be considered any less than traditional reading.' (Brenner, 24/02/2004).

Types of graphic novels

There are two main sections in this format. These can be roughly defined as 'manga' and what I will refer to as 'non-manga'.

Manga roughly translated means 'comic book' in Japanese and it has broad popular appeal for both children and adults. It has a very specific style, much like Anime (animation) films. There are two main genres: Shoujo (girl's manga) and Shounen (boy's manga). They read from right to left, both on the individual pages and for the book as a whole. They also have a distinctive 'look' about them.

Non-manga in this context refers to the Western style of graphic novel, which includes the traditional superhero stories, the adaptations (from books, film or television), human interest stories and non-fiction titles. Superhero stories include titles such as Spiderman, Superman, X-Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Human interest stories would include titles such as One Bad Rat, a tale about a runaway girl, while non-fiction encompasses historical tales such as Maus by Art Spiegleman.

The value of the graphic novel for libraries

Children and young adults who are constantly surrounded by visual stimuli – movies, television, electronic billboards, magazines, computers, palm pilots, video games etc – have learned to associate images with storytelling. They have learned to follow and understand a story visually rather than textually and visual clues provide them with the framework for interpretation (Ireland 2004 p 1). It is easy to see why graphic novels have become increasingly popular over the last 10 years or so.

Embarking on and developing a graphic novel collection will increase the number of readers using the library and will also have an effect on readers' attitudes toward the library. Many libraries that I surveyed for this presentation found that allowing readers to be involved in the acquisition process of graphic novels helped promote the collection to those readers. Following on from this, through word of mouth, the overall loans of these materials increased. This process could even be formalised by having a committee set up that includes readers interested in the format to assist in the recommendation of titles.

Public libraries need to respond to the demands of readers because they are publicly funded. By allowing readers to take an active role in the development of the library's collection, you can be more assured of the popularity of the material.

Graphic novels as part of the curriculum

Graphic novels and comics have been criticised for corrupting youth, among other things. As the writers of The Secret Origin of Good Readers: A resource book explain, these types of publications have been accused of 'promoting violence, reinforcing stereotypical gender roles and under-representing or misrepresenting minorities' (Hill 2003 p 1). However, titles in these formats have developed and explored new subjects that encompass social issues such as homelessness, child abuse, domestic violence and even environmental damage. Ddue to the changing focus of comics and graphic novels, it is now recognised that they can be useful tools for discussion and education (Hill 2003 p 1).

There are many different ways that graphic novels can be engaged with as part of the curriculum. The Secret Origin of Good Readers contains many ideas, which cover Art, English as a Second Language, Language Arts, Maths, Science and Social Sciences. This resource book can be downloaded for free from the Night Flight website,

Many graphic novels are adaptations of classic or well-known books and can provide a gateway to these books for reluctant readers. By reading the graphic novel by Peter Kuper of Metamorphosis, the reader may be more willing to attempt the original through curiosity or a desire to deepen their experience with the book. Likewise, a reader who has only ever watched the Lord of the Rings on DVD might try the graphic novel version of The Hobbit before reading the trilogy.

Graphic novels can also be used as the basis for discussion of difficult or controversial political, economic or social issues. Maus, by Art Spiegelman, has been used extensively to discuss issues surrounding the Holocaust. In the book, the author recreates the holocaust story using cats as ?Nazisoldiers,whileJewishNazi soldiers, while Jewish people are depicted as mice.

The book Pedro and me concerns the story of an AIDdS educator who took part in a television program in the United States and met a cartoonist who told the story of his experience of the disease.

Joe Kubert's harrowing story, Fax from Sarajevo, deals with a family's battle to escape the war in Yugoslavia. Aside from the graphical story, photographs of the real protagonists are included as well as information about the photographer who died during the war at the age of 24. This provides immediacy with the story by depicting real-live action with illustrations. Along similar lines, Joe Sacco approached the subject of the Bosnian war with his story, Safe Area Gorazde: The war in Eastern Bosnia 1992–1995.

Approaching subjects like this using a graphic medium may allow more difficult issues to be broached without diminishing their significance. They can be more accessible to readers who may have already been exposed to the subject through more traditional fictional stories.

Benefits of the graphic novel

According to The secret origin of good readers, graphic novels:

  • develop an increased interest in reading generally
  • increase literacy
  • develop language skills (wide and varied vocabulary)
  • create interest in a variety of different genres
  • simulate creativity
  • develop art appreciation
  • develop the ability to discuss art and writing
  • increase the understanding of visual literacy (gaining meaning from images)
  • improve understanding of pop culture and other media.

Cataloguing graphic novels

It seems there is no clear consensus on where to put graphic novels in the library collection. Do they belong together under a Graphic Novel fiction classification? Or should they be placed according to the non-fiction subject headings when they deal with such issues as historical events. Must you separate the collection and have a junior graphic novel and a senior graphic novel collection or just have a different loan category for more adult titles?

You may choose to shelve the collection in the Young Adult section of the library, either integrated into the collection or with a separate shelf location and location code. By doing this, you may alienate other readers (adults or younger readers) who would like to access the titles. A better approach may be to have a general Graphic Novel section, where adequate shelving can be provided to publicise the collection.

There is an argument that readers who are not drawn to the graphic novel might not investigate such a section. Yet, if you integrate these books into the normal fiction section of your library, the books may be overlooked. Much of their appeal comes from their attractive covers and the name association with television, movie or comic book characters. It seems better to have a set area for graphic novels where the majority of titles face outwards in order to capture the reader's attention. Popular titles would include those such as Batman, X-Men, The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Spiderman and the manga titles Evangelion, Astro Boy and so on. After initially looking at these titles, readers may then browse through other titles in the collection that may not be so familiar.

In order to attract the more reluctant readers, you may choose to put this display near the music or magazine collections in the library or near the computer terminals to encourage potential readers to look at the titles while waiting for their turn.

Managing access to graphic novels

One of the biggest issues when it comes to graphic novels is that of explicit material. Certain genres such as horror, the supernatural, crime and punishment, satire and dark humour will be identified as being more likely to cause upset among readers or their parents/guardians, due to their content (Gorman 8/1/2002).

In terms of dealing with the loaning of potentially inappropriate material, it is probably more advantageous to keep the collection together and simply enable different borrowing privileges for different borrowers. At the cataloguing stage, books with sexual content, coarse language or extreme violence may be deemed suitable only for older readers – based on the criteria already in place in the library for fiction titles. This would then prohibit material deemed inappropriate in relation to sexual or violent themes from being taken out by younger readers.

This of course would not prohibit younger readers from browsing the collection. One strategy to control this could be to split the collection:

  • Junior Graphic Novel section – include an allocated area for the more junior titles and label them as such.
  • Young Adult/Adult Graphic Novel section – clearly posted with a language/sexual content warning (as music is now labelled).

One exception to this might be the inclusion of non-English titles in your collection. Many manga titles are in Japanese and you may want to shelve these with the other language collections if you need to cater for other languages in your library.

Collection development policy guidelines

Collection development policy guidelines can assist librarians in dealing with explicit material. At the Emanuel School, the staff were confronted with this problem after purchasing the first set of graphic novels that included titles by the author Clive Barker. The library already had copies of books by this author – both the Weaveworld and the Books of Blood series – which contain explicit language and sexual references. However, the inclusion of the graphic novels of this author was deemed inappropriate for our school library because the sexual content and violence were presented in picture formats, thus impacting in a different way. It is interesting to note that books such as Vernon God Little are considered acceptable, but graphic novels on similar topics may not be, simply because the content is not just text but also includes images. Censoring such material depends on many variables including audience, location, cultural and religious considerations and so on. The golden rule is always to understand what you are ordering.

With particular reference to manga titles, again, it is extremely important to view the collection. Browsing a collection of manga will confront you with graphic images of violence and sexuality and, in some cases, mild pornographic material. Titles such as Fair Skinned Beauty, Hot Tales or Immoral Angel all have warnings indicating that they contain extreme sexual situations. You will find these titles in the same catalogue or collection as you will Astro Boy. So be alert.

Whatever guidelines you already have in place for the selection of material should be applied to graphic novels, but with extra care. You cannot assume that the publisher guidelines will align with your own criteria. Some of the mainstream publishers, such as Marvel Comics, will have imprints that produce more edgy or controversial titles, so you will need to be careful when selecting material from these publishers. This is why it is so important to look at the titles in order to learn about the various types of publications and increase your awareness of the different genres within the graphic novel format.

Sourcing graphic novels

There are many sites that give recommendations and reviews of graphic novels. Links to these are available on my website,

Again, a warning – if you are not familiar with the graphic novel, I would recommend that you start by sourcing bookstores or other suppliers where you can physically look at the titles for content. Seek out contacts familiar with graphic novels to facilitate easy access to upcoming releases based on set criteria for your school. This will make the process of selection much easier and more efficient.

Graphic attraction – promotional ideas

Graphic novels are a visual medium and so the display structure for them must be attractive, engaging, memorable and eye-catching. Along with any warnings you might want to have or section dividers between controversial material and other titles, you might want to include quotes or blurbs from articles that focus on the positives of including graphic novels in the library collection (Gorman 2002 p 2).

A helpful article published in inCite magazine at the end of 2003 – titled 'Graphic experiment pays dividends' by Robin Tonks (Library Manager, Singleton Council) – talks about methods for promoting the collection.

  • Purchase posters from Southern Scene, – the Get graphic @ your library – created by the American Library Association. Search for 'posters' to find relevant information.
  • Make sure you have shelving that enables a significant proportion of the collection to 'face out' – the eye-catching graphics are selling points in themselves.
  • Promote your 'graphic library' through radio spots/interviews or local media releases.
  • Take selected titles to tutorial groups and/or present at the school assembly.
  • Publish lists of new titles in your school magazine or newsletter.
  • Speak to the English department about promoting the titles in their lessons – particularly when it relates to curriculum (eg visual literacy).


The graphic novel can be a useful addition to any library, both for educational purposes and for enjoyment. We have talked about their uses within the curriculum for schools. In public libraries, they can be used as a focal point to encourage readers who may not use the library to explore it more fully.

There are many ways to go about planning, collecting, organising and promoting your collection. As librarians, we must attempt to redress the mistaken assumption that these are simple texts and not as worthwhile because of their structure. Rather, we should encourage readers to explore them as an exciting and accessible way of reading and understanding.

Allison Lee
Teacher librarian
Emanuel School, Randwick, NSW

This paper was originally presented at ALIA 2004 conference, Challenging ideas.

Reprinted with permission from the author and ALIA.


Brenner, R 2004, Interview with Robin Brenner [Internet, 24th February], San Francisco, available at

Eisner, W 1985, Comics and sequential art (expanded edition), Poorhouse Press, Tamarack, FL.

Gorman, Michele 2002, 'What teens want – thirty graphic novels you can't live without', School Library Journal, 8 January, Reed Business Information, New York.

Hill, Robyn A (ed) 2003, The secret origin of good readers: a resource book[Internet], Night Flight Comics, Utah, available at [accessed 15 May 2004]

Ireland, Kerry 2004, 'Build it and they will come: graphic novels for your collection', School Libraries in Canada, vol 23, no 3, pp 1–4.

Quarterly Brochure, April 2004, Sealight Books, available at [accessed 1 May 2004]

Sourcing graphic novels

Books Kinokuniya (International),
Devoted section to manga and graphic novels. You can contact your local comics and graphic novel specialist.

Sealight Books, or Email:
Australian company dedicated to providing graphic novels for educational and public libraries. Brochures are available online with title reviews and recommended audience notes. Includes recommendations lists.

Comic Kingdom,
Australian based suppliers. See the section titled BOOKS/TPBS/GNS to find the catalogue list for graphic novels.

Comic book and graphic novel convention information in Australia.

Australian bookstore – keeps small collections of graphic novel titles.

Sourcing titles – new and popular reviews etc

Night Flight,
Download a free copy of the book The secret origin of good readers, which is a handy guide for librarians about the world of graphic novels.

Linking for Learning,
Australian based site created by Camilla Elliott (Head Teacher librarian/Network Resource Manager/St Joseph's College Victoria).

No Flying, No Tights,
Graphic novel reviews divided into Teens and Adults and a section for younger children. Join GNLIB listserv to be updated on news in the area.

The Librarian's Guide to Anime and Manga,
Anime usually refers to animation made in Japan on video or television or in comic book format. Manga can be roughly translated to mean 'comic book'. See this site for ways to explore this area of the graphic novel.

Recommended Graphic Novels for Public Libraries,
Selected and annotated by Steve Raiteri, a well-known writer with a regular column in the US-based Library Journal.

School Library Journal,
Perform a search for graphic novels to find free articles with links to other resources (US-based site).

Listserv, GNLIB–L–Subscribe@Topica.Com
Become better informed about the graphic novel industry and graphic novel issues in libraries.

Books about graphic novels

For a list of useful books, try this site:
Includes sections dedicated to:

  • Top 10 Graphic Novels
  • Graphic Novels for Young Children
  • Graphic Novels for Teens and Adults
  • Adult Content.

Whitlark, J 1988, Illuminated fantasy: from Blake's vision to recent graphic fiction, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Rutherford, NJ.

Crawford, Philip Charles 2003, Graphic Novels 101: selecting and using graphic novels to promote literacy for children and young adults – a resource guide for school librarians and educators, Hi Willow Research and Publishing. ISBN: 0931510910

Sabin, Roger 1996, Comics, comix and graphic novels: a history of comic art, Phaidon, London.

Eisner, Will 1966, Graphic storytelling,Poorhouse Press, Tamarac, FL.