“It’s All About Visual Culture,” Says Columbia’s Comics Librarian

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Everyone pretty much agrees at this point that comics and graphic novels are a legitimate art form. College and university libraries, however, have been slow to absorb such works into their collections-or, as some librarians would point out, there’s not really a standard way to integrate them.

Karen Green
Karen Green

One university librarian hasn’t had any trouble making the case or making it happen: Karen Green. She’s the Ancient & Medieval History and Religion Librarian at Columbia’s Butler Library. She’s also responsible for maintaining the Ancient and Medieval Studies and Papyrology, Epigraphy and Paleography Reading Rooms, and works at the Reference Desk. And she maintains the library’s comics collection.

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It’s not such a big reach, according to Green. As a doctoral student at Columbia studying medieval history, she moved over into the libraries in 1999, and has been there since. During the course of her academic work, she has been a scholar at a monastic library; created a digital version of the Orbis Latinus, a guide to Latin place names; organized a conference for the Columbia University Medieval Guild; and worked on the BBC’s “A History of Britain” series. Knowledge is universal, Green points out, and all the better if it’s in some visual form-a richer combined language than text alone.

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Plus I have an affinity for libraries and librarians. My mom is one, and I grew up surrounded by books and a penchant for collecting and borrowing/lending them. “Being a librarian is the BEST job. You get smarter, and get to help other people get smarter, too-and for this they pay you! How great is that?” This quote gives you some sense of Green in person. She’s vivacious, full of love for books, and brilliant. She gave me a tour of the Butler Library and showed me through her impressive graphic novel and comics collection.

You’re a trained medievalist, and since 2005, you’ve been building Columbia’s graphic novel collection at the Butler Library. This must raise some eyebrows, in a “which one of these doesn’t belong with the others?” sort of way.

It’s true that I get a lot of “why would a medievalist read comics?” questions from people, and I tend to answer with two words: “visual culture.” When you think of most medieval artworks, they tell a story in a sequence of images: from the Bayeux tapestry to manuscript illuminations to stained glass windows to fresco cycles to sculptural programs. I actually wrote about it here.

You can even compare the banderoles in many illuminations, like in scenes of the Annunciation, as being like prototypical speech balloons.

Another commonality I like to point out is that the ephemera of the past-merchant receipts, broadsheets, woodcuts, etc–are now of extreme value and objects of study. Even if you look at comics as a disposable medium-and I would argue against that, but let’s leave that aside for now-I’d say that the ephemera of today are the scholarly research materials of tomorrow, and few in the present can state with any certainty what will be of interest in 100 or 500 or 1000 years.

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The Bayeux Tapestry: it’s definitely sequential art-in that it tells a story in a progression of images. What’s the role of text in the tapestry, and what was the place of verbal/oral storytelling at the time it was made?

bayeux-tap

Well, I am no expert in art history or in narrative traditions (my area was religious history), but I will say that not only does the Bayeux tapestry tell its story in a progression of images, but the towers and trees even serve to delimit the images into panels. It’s a magnificent piece of work.

As for the text, it mostly serves the same function as narrative captions do in comics, but it’s also akin to the identifying text one sees in late antique or medieval paintings and frescoes and tapestries, where the artist helpfully provides names and other identifying information for those who can read.

Since the more high-end of those works tended to end up in places that could afford them-wealthy churches or aristocratic homes-the odds were pretty good that someone would be literate enough to read them. As for the oral tradition of narrative, that never really fades in the middle ages, although it does continue in parallel with a growing written tradition, especially in the 12th century with the genre of courtly literature best exemplified by Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian legends (he’s the guy who creates Lancelot).

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Can you name some other Medieval objects-illuminated manuscripts, paintings or murals, religious artworks-that you think qualify as sequential art or hybrid visual-textual narratives?

Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Scenes from the Life of Saint Augustine, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In that column I link to above, I point to a wonderful painting of St Augustine at the Cloisters.

It’s not as obvious as the Bayeux tapestry, with its panel division, but not all comics use panels, either (take a look, for example, at Miriam Katin’s latest book, Letting It Go). But it tells a story about Augustine’s life.

The cartoonist Paul Karasik wrote a wonderful blog post about the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, with its fresco cycle of the Life of Christ, by Giotto, which he describes as “like walking into a comic strip.” This stuff is everywhere!

You did your graduate work at Columbia-specifically, your M.A. and M.Phil., both in Medieval History. Did you know at that time that you would be a librarian, or that you’d work there?

No, not at all! I arrived at Columbia convinced I was going to be a professor of medieval history. By the time I was studying for my orals, I had lost that drive, and after I passed them I still chose a dissertation topic and began my research, but became convinced that this wasn’t what I wanted to do. I did want to stay in academia, though, which I found very convivial.

So I started doing informational interviews with various administrative entities on campus, and a friend of mine suggested I apply for a supervisor job in Butler Library. I did, and I got it, and it was just a couple of months in that I realized that librarianship combined everything I loved about academia (books, research, intellectual ferment) and excluded everything I disliked (unstructured hours, publish or perish, a never-ending grind until tenure). So I decided to go to library school, with the sole goal of becoming eligible to apply for the job I have now. It worked out really well!

How many comics and graphic novels are currently in your collection at Columbia? How many titles do you typically add per year?

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Hmmm. How many DO I add per year? I’ve never thought about it! More and more, I can tell you that: both because I have more money every year and because there’s so much more content being published. When I started in 2005, there were about 3 graphic novels in the collection. Today, there are over 3,400. I began with an annual budget of about $4,000, and that has more than tripled. So the growth is considerable.

Was it tough to sell Columbia on the idea of a comics/graphic novel collection? Have you encountered resistance? And how do students react to (and use) the collection?

I am always so pleased and proud to be able to say it wasn’t a tough sell at all. (I write in-depth about the process in this column.) The administration was very open to the idea, and has been nothing but supportive ever since. No resistance within the libraries. Some faculty have expressed worry that there is a zero-sum game being played with the funds I use for Ancient and Medieval History and those for comics, but the money comes from two completely different sources, so there’s no conflict of interest.

One of the nicest things about the collection is how often, when I go up to where it’s located in the stacks, I find students or faculty browsing, reading, lingering. We see fewer and fewer patrons hanging out in the stacks these days (in part, I think, because electronic discovery has become so effortless and rewarding), but I almost always find people in my graphic novels area.

Brandon Graham's King City.
Brandon Graham’s King City.

And, while a lot of the titles are most likely being read for entertainment purposes (which, I’ll wager, can be said about most of the prose fiction as well), I’m seeing students writing senior theses and masters essays on topics that involve comics, I’m seeing faculty teaching with comics (our Narrative Medicine program likes to assign graphic novel illness narratives, such as Frederik Peeters’ Blue Pills, or Harvey Pekar’s and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year), and I’m seeing arts classes using the collection as reference and inspiration.

What comics/graphic novels are you reading now, and which ones would you recommend to our readers?

I just finished reading one relatively new and one fairly old: Brandon Graham‘s King City, and Milt Gross’ He Done Her Wrong. I have a pile of others to read, too-I once heard attending MIT described as trying to drink from a fire-hose, and I feel a little like that trying to keep up with everything that’s coming out, or that I missed. In my on-deck circle currently are Bryan and Mary Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Zeina Abirached’s A Game of Swallows, and Miriam Katin’s Letting It Go.

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I’m going to be at MoCCA Art Fest, and then I will be faced with an entirely new onslaught of comics-y goodness. I can’t wait, but I’m also wondering when I will find all the time!