How a new Toronto library is trying to change the way we see comic books

TVO.org talks to Rotem Anna Diamant, president and founder of Canada Comics Open Library, about storytelling, underrepresented voices, and how cataloguing shapes what — and how — we read
By Chantal Braganza - Published on May 3, 2019

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When Rotem Anna Diamant was a child, her reading material of choice was comics: she’d take stacks of Archie and MAD magazines to the bath and become so absorbed in them that the pages got soaked. “I’d escape into them for hours and hours as a kid,” she says.

Her love of comics endured — but the list of titles expanded. She was drawn to graphic-novel memoirs by women and stories about everyday life that explored themes of feminism, history, and mental health.  “People talking about their struggles and telling personal, intimate stories that I could really relate with,” she says, “they helped me through a lot of really difficult time periods in my late teens and early 20s.”

Another thing that’s stayed the same, she says: the view that comics that don’t constitute serious literature. She and the volunteers at Canada Comics Open Library are aiming to change that. Incorporated in April of last year, the non-profit maintains an online catalogue that treats comics as a medium for storytelling instead of as a genre, categorizing titles by subject and highlighting cartoonists from underrepresented backgrounds.

In March, the non-profit group launched its first physical branch, at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. TVO.org spoke to Diamant about diversity in comics, how the library works, and the group’s plans for the future.

What is it like to explain the depth and variety of comics and graphic-novel publishing to people who think it’s just a children’s genre or all about superheroes?

Oftentimes, it’s hard for people to understand the scope of comics. I don’t think that’s the fault of anyone in particular: it’s just the way comics have been organized in bookstores and libraries. They’re often grouped together as an all-encompassing genre and not displayed as a medium for telling any story, basically.

Why do you think libraries and booksellers lump comics together instead of sorting them by subject?

It’s just misconceptions deeply embedded in historical systems that have not changed over the years. They might have captured how comics were understood by popular culture at one point, but they don’t represent the scope of narratives that are out there right now.

There are a lot of things that public librarians do to try to combat this — like creating subject displays and including comics in those displays and inviting cartoonists into the library. But the Library of Congress and the Dewey Decimal cataloguing systems that libraries use are very difficult to change, and often librarians don’t have the power to implement those changes.

How does the CCOL’s collection work differently?

What we try to do, using open-source software, is catalogue comics by subject.

Right now, there’s autobiography, biography, fiction, speculative fiction (i.e., science fiction), fantasy, superhero stories. We have non-fiction political comics. We have journalistic comics. We really try to showcase the scope of what’s out there because it’s dynamic, and comics are a really powerful way of telling and showcasing different narratives.

We also have a stickering system to showcase representation within the comics we have. Orange stickers represent comics created by Black, Indigenous and people of colour creators. We have rainbow stickers for queer comics, green stickers for mental health, and blue stickers for physical health and disability, and those are within every single subject area so that those narratives aren’t segregated from their broader subject.

In your experience, what stories tend to get prioritized or left out because of how comics are catalogued and sold now?

Generally, in the mainstream comics industry, most comics are made by white men. A lot of diverse comics are being made these days, but it has, overall, this low representation of marginalized creators in the mainstream industry. We have a small purchasing budget, so when we buy, we prioritize narratives made by marginalized creators. And then we also put out calls for those narratives as well, so people can donate. And, also, our cataloguing software allows us to add metadata, so we have keyword tagging for BIPOC creators, and that goes in-depth to specific tags for, say, specific Indigenous communities or languages. There are thousands of keywords.

Are there any other models out there that are trying to do something similar?

There are a few Indigenous initiatives out there to decolonize library systems, which are a very Eurocentric way of organizing information. There’s the Brian Deer Classification System for Indigenous libraries, for example, that’s used in a bunch of collections.

There are also zine libraries — there’s the OCAD U Zine Library and the Toronto Zine Library — and they’re catalogued differently just because they’re an incredibly hybrid medium for storytelling, the way comics are. So they don’t really fit into traditional cataloguing systems.

What plans do you have for the new library?

Right now, we’re mostly staffed with volunteers, and we’re open Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. We want to be a resource for both cartoonists and for people who have never read comics before, either because of lack of access or because they’ve never seen themselves represented in comics before.

We’re open to other drawing collectives, people who meet up and need a space to run workshops. We’re also working toward grants for an artist residency and payment for artists to run workshops.

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