The Merits of Dewey-ing your GNs

Cataloging comics is difficult. I know, I’ve made that comment a few times before, but it’s true. They don’t fit into the many standards that catalogers like; it’s not a novel, not a pictorial work, not really an illustrated text…it’s somewhere in between all of that. And, while I’ve explored some ways to make cataloging comics a little easier, classifying comics can still feel like the first time your Adamantium claws emerged from your knuckle. Many librarians feel stifled by the norms of cataloging all graphic novels as a genre term or in the dreaded 741.5 or what I like to refer to as the pit of comic despair.

Melvil Dewey
Public Domain

While I might dislike 741.5 a lot, it’s helpful if you understand a little of the history of Dewey Classification for some context. I found a discussion paper by OCLC from 2014 which quickly summarizes how 745.1 came to be and why it is perceived to be so restrictive.

The DDC 741.5 is for cartoons, caricatures, comics and graphic novels all together in one call number. It’s squished in between drawing techniques and graphic design and illustrations. The hierarchy is as follows:

700 Arts and Recreation

740 Drawing, decoration, design

741 Drawing

741.5 Cartoons, caricatures, comics and graphic novels

The reason that single-frame caricatures to three-frame newspaper comic strips and graphic novels are all together is because there is no good place to break the call number continuum. You can subdivide by the country of the artist or writer which was chosen over the original language because there are many graphic novels which do not have any words. This brings concerns about the collaborative nature of comics as many authors and artist come from different countries.

The notes in 741.5 follow the same rules for literature, the 800s, when it comes to looking at content and deciding whether to classify it in the subject area or literature. If a work uses the correct names, had no invented characters, and does not distort facts for artistic effect , it can be classified in the subject area. When a work includes conversations, feelings, and thoughts or speaks to the state of mind of the characters, it is classified under 741.5. In the discussion paper, it is mentioned that it is important to take into account images and text when deciding to put a graphic novel in the subject heading or 741.5. This is why Art Spiderman’s Spiegelman’s Maus would be classified in 745.1 because, while the account is a factual memoir, the people were not cats and mice.

Trinity graphic novel coverSo, libraries are given the opportunity to classify some graphic novels, like Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bombs by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (623.45119) in the appropriate subject area, yet many do not, opting to keep all graphic novels together in a genre classification scheme (like GN FETT for example). There are some reasons why a library may opt to keep fiction and non-fiction graphic novels in the same classification scheme. The line between some historically inspired graphic novels and straight non-fiction graphic novels can be difficult to separate. Some may be inclined to put The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Syndey Padua in non-fiction, but because of the narrative nature of the storytelling, it would more likely be in fiction. Another reason libraries do no separate out non-fiction graphic novels is shelving needs. Do you interfile non-fiction graphic novels in the general non-fiction collection or do you create a non-fiction graphic novel collection? As libraries continue to take on new roles, like being makerspaces, community event centers, and providers of social services, shelf space for physical collection can be a premium commodity making it difficult to segment space for a new collection.

Persepolis CoverPersonally, I am an advocate for Dewey-ing non-fiction graphic novel collections. There are so many well researched, high quality non-fiction graphic novels being created right now that you can create a sizeable non-fiction graphic novel collection. Memoirs have especially taken off after the success of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and have become routine additions to graphic novel collections. Another recent trend is to convert original non-fiction books into graphic novels like A People’s History of American Empire by Howard Zinn based on his book A People’s History of the United States and The Torture Report and The 9/11 Report, graphic novelizations of government reports by Sid Jacobsen, Jane Mayer, and Ernie Colon. If you give these graphic novels the same Dewey Number as the original editions, it will be easy to create collocation for these items. Even if you create a separate non-fiction graphic novel collection, assigning the same Dewey Numbers will create an ease for patrons and staff.

Dewey-ing out graphic novels also gives prestige and legitimacy to graphic novels. I know it seems like comic books have become ubiquitous in modern society, but there are many who still scoff at their merits as literature and art. There is something interesting about the Dewey Decimal System as a gate keeper that gives credence to an item, that it has gone through a vetting process to ensure it’s an accepted part of human knowledge. One of my favorite phrases as a cataloger is that you’ve got to make graphic novels an option. If someone who is an avid non-fiction reader searches a library’s catalog for a specific topic and, because you’ve Dewed your graphic novel collection, picks a graphic novel, isn’t that a good thing? A good way to provide access to something they may not otherwise consider. These graphic novels are well researched and thought out and can be of great for people interested in a specific topic.

Finally, Dewey-ing your collection can be a powerful collection development too. While every ILS provides different reports, think of what you could learn comparing the circulation and browsing of non-fiction graphic novels versus their standard book edition. You can see what types of non-fiction graphic novels your patrons are interested in. Many non-fiction graphic novels are published by smaller presses as well, so it can give you an indication of if your patrons want books from larger publishers or smaller presses.

It is important to consistently evaluate cataloging practices to see if they are best serving your patrons and library functions. Get feedback from front line staff and patrons themselves about ways to improve access to your collections. I know from experience that re-classifying entire collections are time consuming, but talk to your ILS provider and system administrator to see if there are any shortcuts which could make the process easier.

Do you Dewey your graphic novels? Why or why not? Let me know on Twitter @librnwithissues

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