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The Art of Classifying Graphic Novels

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While reviewing research and perspectives on introducing graphic novels to the K-12 classroom, I noticed that questions of classification, categorization, and definition appear frequently in comics scholarship and teacher testimony alike. As graphic novels filter into classrooms, meeting varying degrees of resistance, it may be useful for teachers to investigate how artists, writers, and librarians define and organize them. This post takes a look at how graphic novels are classified and resist classification by teachers and librarians.

In order to learn from or teach with comics, one must first be able to find them. As I noted previously, the diversity of graphic novels means that while there's bound to be something for everyone, it's not always easy to match the right person with the right book. Understanding how bookstores and libraries organize graphic novels may help teachers and students find new titles and follow themes, styles, and authors they like.

Library cataloging systems reveal how various types of works are defined and interrelated, and graphic novels resist classification in this arena too. In "Where Is the Justice... League?: Graphic Novel Cataloging and Classification," a new paper in the Serials Review, William T. B. Fee illuminates how difficult it is to organize different kinds of comics in libraries. Here he distinguishes between graphic novels and trade collections (for example a DC Comics or Marvel superhero franchise), explaining some typical challenges for librarians:

A graphic novel, like Maus or Persephone, is a one shot item, or at most a novel spread over several volumes only with more pictures and less text. The cataloging on these, which often have only a single person on both art and text, is like the cataloging and classification on the latest Jackie Collins novel or a New York Times bestseller. It is one and done with maybe a mention of awards or movies adapted from the volume. A trade collection, on the other hand, is a new format reprint of a collection of formerly somewhat independent items that are tied into a long run of an ongoing publication. They are serials, midway between the floppy monthly comic book and the monographic series. Put another way, they are like a microfilmed or digitized reformatting of a journal. One has to catalog the "thing in hand" while also being sure to tie together to the larger bibliographic web of connections and the serial nature of the original.

How graphic novels are cataloged, shelved, and linked to each other affects how readers find, read, and learn from them. After all, library catalogs are the original book-discovery systems. Fee's paper offers technical guidance worth reviewing for school librarians and teachers interested in future teaching with graphic novels, advice that may help educators better locate graphic novels in public and academic libraries and generate leads on titles that fit well with an existing curriculum.

A technical services specialist in an academic library may approach classification quite differently from the owner of a comics shop. For teachers using graphic novels, consulting a range of opinions from those who classify comics is a key first step to informed curriculum decisions. In my next post, we'll see how knowing more about the creative process can also influence the way graphic novels are taught.

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