What is the one of the first things that you are taught in your elementary school library? The difference between fiction and non-fiction, that one is a story you make up in your mind, whereas the other is based on fact or real life events. It is an easy way for students to differentiate between the books they can read for fun and the books they need to write papers and learn facts. While most libraries have collections of fiction in genre/subject sections with genre call numbers, and non-fiction is in Dewey Decimal (DDC) and Library of Congress Classification (LCC), there is still room for fiction within non-fiction classification schemes. Such as the 800s for literature of all languages, and 741.5 for comic books, strips, etc. in DDC.
Non-fiction comics have had a resurgence in popularity recently, though they have a long history in the publishing. Generally, non-fiction comics can be broken down into three styles: biographies, historical/reporting, and instructional/educational.
Memoirs and auto/biographies, including Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Box Brown’s Is this guy for real?: The unbelievable Andy Kaufman and Andre the Giant: Life and Legend are prime examples of graphic biographies. This category varies as much as it does in the regular, monographic non-fiction collections. From stream of consciousness writing to an in-depth look at an individual’s life from birth to death, this is the most popular type on non-fiction graphic novel.
The second are journalistic and historical accounts. Graphic novelist Joe Sacco is extremely well known for his journalistic graphic novels including Footnotes in Gaza and Palestine, and if you haven’t checked out The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, an accordion folded scene of the famous World War I battle, I highly recommend looking at this amazing piece of artwork. Eric Shanower, known for his work on Nemo in Slumberland, writes and illustrates the beautiful Age of Bronze series about the Trojan War, and Jonathan Hennessey, Mike Smith, and Aaron McConnell’s The Comic Book Story of Beer: The World’s Favorite Beverage from 7000 BC to Today’s Craft Brewing Revolution show how meticulously researched a graphic novel can be. However, these graphic stories are often seen as not truly non-fiction because they are interpreted through images which are not primary sources.
Another type of non-fiction graphic novels are explanatory and instructional comics. Instructional comics had, historically, been made by the government for educational purposes. The University of Nebraska’s digital collections has a large number of digitized government comics which were often instructional in nature, such as How DDT spray keeps malaria away published in 1940. The Little Book of Knowledge series translated from the French and published by IDW covers topics like sharks, tattoos, and heavy metal music.
In LC libraries, you can shelve books with a graphic novel extender in the classification, so it is reasonable to have your non-fiction graphic novel collection interspersed with the rest of your non-fiction collection. With DDC, all comic books and strips are in the 741.5s, so many libraries create a genre collection for these items with a call number like GN, GRAPHIC, etc.
But what do we do with all these non-fiction graphic novels in DDC? Do we put them all in 741.5? Comic strips are typically shelved in 741.56 and contain titles like Garfield, Peanuts, and the Batman dailies starting in 1943, but what do we do with a graphic novel like Economix: How and Why our Economy Works, by Michael Goodwin and David Bach? Do you put it in 741.5 GO? GN GOOD? GN 330 GO? 330 GO?
These are difficult questions for any collection development, circulation, and cataloging librarian to tackle. What is the best way to ensure all readers, whether graphic novel fans or not, find the best books on the subjects they are interested in. Some may decided that it is a good idea to shelve all graphic novels in the same collection. But how to patrons differentiate between fiction and non-fiction? If you create a separate non-fiction graphic novel collection and classify by Dewey, how are you creating access for patrons who may not otherwise have any notion of learning from a graphic novel? Finally, if you interfile them with your regular non-fiction collection, does that vouch for the authenticity of the facts within the book?
When making decisions about where and how to shelve specific types of books, it is important to think about your patrons, access, and perception. Many large library systems, like the New York Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, and the Seattle Public Library shelve non-fiction graphic novels with their non fiction collection, illustrating a thoughtfulness in shelving decisions. Overall, I am in favor of shelving non-fiction graphic novels in the general non-fiction collection. It allows to compare the circulation of monographs vs. graphic novels in an educational mindset, reduces the number of locations needed for shelving (graphic novels AND non-fiction graphic novels), and separates two distinct genres and styles of graphic novels.