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Patron Question #2: Why Was This Book Misfiled? (Or, The Comic Book Dilemma )

April 15, 2016

When I first said I would take patron questions, this was the first question I got. It’s from a friend who doesn’t live in my town. He said he went to his local library and found a copy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen in the children’s section. It’s well-known among comic book readers for its graphic content, and it’s one of the few comic book adaptations to receive an R rating. So what went wrong that it ended up in the children’s section?

This is a classic example of misfiling, and it happens all the time, especially with comic books. Here are a few reasons why misfiling occurs, and why some books aren’t where you expect:

1) Some books could be legitimately filed in multiple places.

Short story collections, plays, poems, capital-L literature–these all have numbers in the Dewey Decimal System under non-fiction even if they’re fiction. Shakespeare could be “F(iction) Shakespeare” or “822.33” in non-fiction.

Other times, a book has teen protagonists but some people don’t see it as a teen book. The Night Circus is a book I’ve seen filed as a teen or adult book. Given that the book has two adults as major characters along with the teens, I’d go for adult, but not everyone agrees with me. I’d also argue that the new Ernest Cline book, Armada, is definitely a Young Adult book, but I’ve only ever seen it filed in the adult section so far. Sometimes, it comes down to a simple judgment call: Where will this book circulate the best?

For example, Michael Chabon’s Summerland is a book I’ve seen filed at different libraries in the children’s section, the teen section, and the adult section. Crazy, right? But each library has a valid reason for doing so. Chabon primarily writes adult novels and not all novels with children as characters are for children. (See also: To Kill a Mockingbird.) But some are. However, if the language is more mature than your usual children’s book, it may end up in the teen section due to readability. I haven’t read it, so I can’t tell you what my opinion on this particular book is.

2) The people who do the ordering and the people who label the books are not always the same people. This sometimes results in misfiles for myriad reasons, all of which boil down to “human error.”

But really, I think what my friend is asking is, “Why do people assume comic books are kids’ books?”

3) Even library staff sometimes judge books by their covers.

There’s a long-standing belief that everything comic book-related must be for children, which I find strange. Comics started out for everyone. Everyone read them. There were family-friendly radio plays, television shows, and movies. But at some point, “family-friendly” became another phrase for “kids’ stuff,” and those not interested in the medium believed they’d grown up but comics hadn’t.

This is, of course, not true. Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for its original depiction of the Holocaust. Despite this, reviews on the work were annoyingly self-conscious, including comments like “Art Spiegelman doesn’t draw comics” and “Maus is not exactly a comic book, either; comics are for kids,” to which Dr. Joseph Witek, a professor of Humanities, responded, “[I]f Maus is not a comic book and if Art Spiegelman doesn’t draw comics, nothing is and no one ever has.”

The book in my friend’s question, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, was on Time magazine’s list of “the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.” It is a violent deconstruction of the genre, for adults only. And yet this book is the one that ended up in the children’s section. Why? Because it’s a comic book.

Not every person who works at a library reads every book that comes in. I’d go so far as to say not any one person who works at any library reads every book that comes in, although I could be wrong. Like anyone with a full work week, library staff has to decide what fits in their schedules. For some, it’s a favorite genre or two. For others, books don’t make the cut at all. (It’s true–not everyone who works at a library reads all the time!) When large orders come in, quick calls are made. And things gets misfiled. It happens a lot with comics because catalogers may look at comics and say, “Okay, a comic. Put it in the kids’ pile.” They’re not familiar with the medium. They stereotype. If a book has a half-naked man holding an overdressed woman in his arms, it’s probably a romance. If it’s a comic book, it’s probably for kids.

I’m not saying this is the right decision, but it’s one that gets made all the time. One of the things I’ll be doing soon is ordering more comics for the library, and I’ll have to make some decisions myself as to where a book should be put. It’s not always going to be easy. For example, when Ultimate Spider-Man began, many libraries put it in the Juvenile section. But as the series continued, the books proved themselves to be firmly in Young Adult territory. Should the earlier books be left in J or should the series be put in YA in its entirety? You could also call this The Harry Potter Problem. By the time the last book came out, Harry was YA and so were many of his readers. But patrons wanted the collection in one place. Harry mostly stayed in the J’s despite the increasingly dark subject matter. But not everywhere. Again, it was a judgment call on the part of the staff.

So that’s the “why,” but let’s not forget what comes next. The best thing a patron can do if they see a book has been misfiled is to let the staff know. I do it all the time. Sometimes the staff agrees with me, sometimes they don’t. In a case like Watchmen, it’s thankfully cut and dried, and in the best interests of the patrons to help get that misfile remedied.

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