Children’s librarian and 2015 Summer Teen speaker Marissa Lieberman shares how she successfully organized East Orange (NJ) Public Library’s first Tosho-con—a conference dedicated to anime and geek culture for tweens, teens, and their families.
People always ask me what the most rewarding aspect of planning a library convention is, and I always respond in the same way: seeing and feeling the energy as your library is transformed into an epicenter of geek culture. On June 20, more than 400 people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities and a range of ages from across the tri-state area gathered at the East Orange Public Library (EOPL) in New Jersey, united by their love of anime, comics, and science fiction.
I became entranced by the world of anime and manga at the age of 12 and I love being able to share my passion with patrons by organizing events that bring them into the library, promote community, and encourage literacy, while offering a forum for fans. While working in my first library job, I had the opportunity to start a young adult anime club. It was with those amazing teens that I planned my first library anime convention in Nassau County, NY, running strong from 2010–12. Thanks to the support of EOPL’s administration and staff and the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received at the convention’s revival in New Jersey, Tosho-con (the name comes from, toshokan, the Japanese word for library) will continue as an annual event in East Orange.
Conventions like San Diego or New York Comic Con are fun, massive events, but not everyone can—or wants to—attend. Both cost and travel to large conventions can be prohibitive for many. With successful library-located alternatives popping up around the country, public libraries have proven to be sustainable and viable environments for conventions. Most importantly, patrons can participate in planning and running the event, and these activities provide unique leadership opportunities for tweens and teens.
Libraries are already tasked with providing resources and services their communities. Graphic novels and manga encourage literacy, and if there is a following for those formats, as evidenced by high circulation and messy stacks, creating an anime and comic convention is just another program that your library can provide.
My goal in hosting a convention has always been to create a safe space for fans to gather in an environment that mimics larger gathering with panels, crafts, cosplay contests, screenings, drawing workshops, special guests, and an artist alley.
Tosho-con takes about a year to prepare. At the EOPL, I worked with a committee of enthusiastic staff members spanning multiple departments and job titles, which added new perspectives and helped to get the entire library excited about our event. Members of our tween anime club also assisted in the planning, and they ran their own table at Tosho-con.
Tosho-con had 14 passive and active activities throughout the day, including a “Market Place” where vendors and artists sold artwork and merchandise. Programs including our “Doctor Who meetup,” “Comics 101,” “Tabletop Gaming,” “Paper Cosplay Contest” (think Project Runway), and a cosplay fashion show were planned and run in-house; others, such as our “Diversity in Comics” panel, a special effects make-up demonstration, a samurai sword performance, and an interactive program created by Pokemon voice actress Michele Knotz, were hosted by industry professionals.
As with any large-scale library program, there was a lot of planning. I like to think of that process as having two levels: micro and macro. On the micro level are the individual programs, designing and organizing them. Prep work is also included here. We created registration bags for attendees that included a badge, a raffle ticket, a free comic, and our program booklet. We decorated the library, and spent time wrapping the many raffle prizes. On the macro level, our committee considered how the programs should fit together in a way that made sense for our space. Marketing was also essential. Tosho-con has its own Facebook page, the event was posted to various convention websites, and our flyer was sent to the schools, local comic shops, city departments, and nearby public libraries.
Getting your library on board
I have been fortunate to work in libraries where I did not have to convince the administration of the value of library conventions, but I know that many people have to defend the importance of funding one. Here are some helpful tips:
- Be your own advocate: Staff will not get excited about the event, especially if they are not knowledgeable, unless you lead the way. Provide resources about comic cons, other library cons, anime, and manga and graphic novels, and if necessary, conduct a staff training workshop. Have an elevator pitch ready and waiting that concisely and enthusiastically explains what it is that you are doing, why it fits within the library’s mission, and why the event should be a necessary part of your library’s programming.
- Before you approach—research!: Before going to the library’s administration, put together a proposal that not only includes what comics, anime, and manga are, but an outline of how you plan to organize the event. Address what kind of budget will be needed, where the money will come from, where the money will go, and how the program will benefit the community. Make sure the event does not conflict with other events, and have at least some staff already on board with the project.
- Community involvement: Whether you are applying for grants or trying to stay afloat in a tough economy, community partnership is always a key element for success. Conventions are a good opportunity to reach out to schools, local stores, or city departments. EOPL teamed up with the city’s Arts Council. They inducted our original mascot contest winner as their first teen member and promoted Tosho-con in the arts community. Tosho-con also fell within our city’s vision statement of “urban excellence and [to] become a destination city.”
- Sponsorship: Look into getting donations for prizes to alleviate costs. Diamond Comic Distributors, Viz Media, and, of course, your local comic shops are all potential sponsors.
- Size doesn’t matter: Conventions can be modified to fit any budget and any size library. The most successful programs at Tosho-con in New York were organized by teen volunteers. Interactive, fandom-based programs, such as “What Grinds My Gears?” cost no money to run. Working with a small budget in the past and with an unexpectedly sizable one this year, I had to consider the best use of the money after running successful programs for much less.
One of my favorite moments of the convention was when a parent from our community thanked me for planning the event in East Orange. She said she was grateful that we created an accepting environment and had representation from industry professionals who helped model to African American children that they should feel comfortable cosplaying and can be a part of the comic industry.
Despite the hard work, library conventions are a rewarding experience, and I hope they continue to grow across the country.
Marissa Lieberman is a children’s librarian at the East Orange Public Library, NJ. She has worked at multiple libraries in the Nassau County, NY library system before relocating to New Jersey. She reviews books for School Library Journal, VOYA, and No Flying, No Tights. She is a contributor at Cosplay, Comics and Geek Culture in Libraries and has presented at New York Comic Con and other professional development events. Marissa will be presenting at SLJ’s 2015 SummerTeen on How to Run a Con at Your Library.
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