Every year, The Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Md brings together a community of alternative comic creators and independent publishers. With a significant history of collecting comics, it made sense for the Library of Congress’ Serial and Government Publications Division and the Prints & Photographs Division to partner with SPX to build a collection documenting alternative comics and comics culture. In the last three years, this collection has been developing and growing.
While the collection itself is quite fun (what’s not to like about comics), it is also a compelling example of the way that web archiving can complement and fit into work developing a special collection. To that end, I am excited to talk with Megan Halsband, Reference Librarian with the Library of Congress Serial and Government Publications Division and one of the key staff working on this collection as part of our Content Matters interview series.
Trevor: First off, when people think Library of Congress I doubt “comics” is one of the first things that comes to mind. Could you tell us a bit about the history of the Library’s comics collection, the extent of the collections and what parts of the Library of Congress are involved in working with comics?
Megan: I think you’re right – the comics collection is not necessarily one of the things that people associate with the Library of Congress – but hopefully we’re working on changing that! The Library’s primary comics collections are two-fold – first there are the published comics held by the Serial & Government Publications Division, which appeared in newspapers/periodicals and later in comic books, as well as the original art, which is held by the Prints & Photographs Division.
The Comic Book Collection here in Serials is probably the largest publicly available collection in the country, with over 7,000 titles and more than 125,000 issues. People wonder why our section at the Library is responsible for the comic books – and it’s because most comic books are published serially. Housing the comic collection in Serials also makes sense, as we are also responsible for the newspaper collections (which include comics). The majority of our comic books come through the US Copyright Office via copyright deposit, and we’ve been receiving comic books this way since the 1930’s/1940’s.
The Library tries to have complete sets of all the issues of major comic titles but we don’t necessarily have every issue of every comic ever published (I know what you’re thinking and no, we don’t have an original Action Comics No. 1 – maybe someday someone will donate it to us!). The other main section of the Library that works with comic materials is Prints & Photographs – though Rare Book & Special Collections and the area studies reading rooms probably also have materials that would be considered ‘comics.’
Trevor: How did the idea for the SPX collection come about? What was important about going out to this event as a place to build out part of the collection? Further, in scoping the project, what about it suggested that it would also be useful/necessary to use web archiving to complement the collection?
Megan: The executive director of SPX, Warren Bernard, has been working in the Prints & Photographs Division as a volunteer for a long time, and the collection was established in 2011 after an Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Library and SPX. I think Warren really was a major driving force behind this agreement, but the curators in both Serials and Prints & Photographs realized that our collections didn’t include materials from this particular community of creators and publishers in the way that it should.
Given that SPX is a local event with an international reputation and awards program (SPX awards the Ignatz) and the fact that we know staff at SPX, I think it made sense for the Library to have an ‘official’ agreement that serves as an acquisition tool for material that we wouldn’t probably otherwise obtain. Actually going to SPX every year gives us the opportunity to meet with the artists, see what they’re working on and pick up material that is often only available at the show – in particular mini-comics or other free things.
Something important to note is that the SPX Collection – the published works, the original art, everything – is all donated to the Library. This is huge for us – we wouldn’t be able to collect the depth and breadth of material (or possibly any material at all) from SPX otherwise. As far as including online content for the collection, the Library’s Comics and Cartoons Collection Policy Statement (PDF) specifically states that the Library will collect online/webcomics, as well as award-winning comics. The SPX Collection, with its web archiving component, specifically supports both of these goals.
Trevor: What kinds of sites were selected for the web archive portion of the collection? In this case, I would be interested in hearing a bit about the criteria in general and also about some specific examples. What is it about these sites that is significant? What kinds of documentation might we lose if we didn’t have these materials in the collection?
Megan: Initially the SPX webarchive (as I refer to it – though its official name is Small Press Expo and Comic Art Collection) was extremely selective – only the SPX website itself and the annual winner of the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Online Comic were captured. The staff wanted to see how hard it would be to capture websites with lots of image files (of various types). Turns out it works just fine (if there’s not paywall/subscriber login credentials required) – so we expanded the collection to include all the Ignatz nominees in the Outstanding Online Comic category as well.
Some of these sites, such as Perry Bible Fellowship and American Elf, are long-running online comics who’s creators have been awarded Eisner, Harvey and Ignatz awards. There’s a great deal of content on these websites that isn’t published or available elsewhere – and I think that this is one of the major reasons for collecting this type of material. Sometimes the website might have initial drafts or ideas that later are published, sometimes the online content is not directly related to published materials, but for in-depth research on an artist or publication, often this type of related content is extremely useful.
Trevor: You have been working with SPX to build this collection for a few years now. Could you give us an overview of what the collection consists of at this point? Further, I would be curious to know a bit about how the idea of the collection is playing out in practice. Are you getting the kinds of materials you expected? Are there any valuable lessons learned along the way that you could share? If anyone wants access to the collection how would they go about that?
Megan: At this moment in time, the SPX Collection materials that are here in Serials include acquisitions from 2011-2013, plus two special collections that were donated to us, the Dean Haspiel Mini-Comics Collection and the Heidi MacDonald Mini-Comics Collection. I would say that the collection has close to 2,000 items (we don’t have an exact count since we’re still cataloging everything) as well as twelve websites in the web archive. We have a wonderful volunteer who has been working on cataloging items from the collection, and so far there are over 550 records available in the Library’s online catalog.
Personally, I didn’t have any real expectations of what kinds of materials we would be getting – I think that definitely we are getting a good selection of mini-comics, but it seems like there are more graphic novels that I anticipated. One of the fun things about this collection are the new and exciting things that you end up finding at the show – like an unexpected tiny comic that comes with its own magnifying glass or an oversize newsprint series.
The process of collecting has definitely gotten easier over the years. For example, the Head of the Newspaper Section, Georgia Higley, and I just received the items that were submitted in consideration for the 2014 Ignatz Awards. We’ll be able to prep permission forms/paperwork in advance of the show for the materials we’re keeping from this material, and it will help us cut down on potential duplication. This is definitely a valuable lesson learned! We’ve also come up with a strategy for visiting the tables at the show – there are 287 tables this year – so we divide up the ballroom between four of us (Georgia and I, as well as two curators from Prints & Photographs – Sara Duke and Martha Kennedy) to make it manageable.
We also try to identify items that we know we want to ask for in advance of the show – such as ongoing serial titles or debut items listed on the SPX website – to maximize our time when we’re actually there. Someone wanting to access the collection would come to the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room to request the comic books and mini-comics. Any original art or posters from the show would be served in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room. As I mentioned – there is still a portion of this collection that is unprocessed – and may not be immediately accessible.
Trevor: Stepping back from the specifics of the collection, what about this do you think stands for a general example of how web archiving can complement the development of special collections?
Megan: One of the true strengths of the Library of Congress is that our collections often include not only the published version, but also the ephemeral material related to the published item/creator, all in one place. From my point of view, collecting webcomics gives the Library the opportunity to collect some of this ‘ephemera’ related to comics collections and only serves to enhance what we are preserving for future research. And as I mentioned earlier, some of the content on the websites provides context, as well as material for comparison, to the physical collection materials that we have, which is ideal from a research perspective.
Trevor: Is there anything else with web archiving and comics on the horizon for your team? Given that web comics are such significant part of digital culture I’m curious to know if this is something you are exploring. If so, is there anything you can tell us about that?
Megan: We recently began another web archive collection to collect additional webcomics beyond those nominated for Ignatz Awards – think Dinosaur Comics and XKCD. It’s very new (and obviously not available for research use yet) – but I am really excited about adding materials to this collection. There are a lot of webcomics out there – and I’m glad that the Library will now be able to say we have a selection of this type of content in our collection! I’m also thinking about proposing another archive to capture comics literature and criticism on the web – stay tuned!