February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Eisner Grant-Winning Library Will Use Graphic Novels to Explore Community


Pictured from l. to r.: American Library Association’s membership specialist Tina Coleman, Bellmore (NY) Memorial Library’s Valerie Acklin, and Nancy Gropper and Carl Gropper from the Will Eisner Foundation.

Valerie Acklin, head of teen services at Bellmore (NY) Memorial Library (BML), decided to take the library’s mission of serving and uniting the community to the next level by providing a space to connect over a favorite pastime—reading graphic novels. Acklin is the recent recipient of the 2015 American Library Association (ALA) Will Eisner Graphic Novel Innovation Grant. Her vision is to use the grant to enhance the positive perception of the library while showcasing its role as an arbiter of living history—all via the comics format.

BML’s staff dedicated time and finances to develop the small graphic novel section, taking it from its original state as a bare-bones collection, quickly doubling its numbers and expanding it to include 775 titles. The collection is now prominently displayed between the adult and teen sections on the main floor.

Acklin and her team saw the collection’s potential as a means to raise awareness about what local libraries can offer the community. In conjunction with the free national campaign Geek the Library, BML hosted its first Comic Con/Geek Fest event last fall, featuring cosplay, panel discussions, artistic workshops, and programs that helped patrons immerse themselves in popular culture.

That successful event was a catalyst that put Acklin on the path toward applying for the grant, which “provides support to a library for the initiation of a graphic novel service, program or initiative,” according to a press release from the ALA. She was motivated in part by the funding the award provides: $2,000 to purchase graphic novels and $1,000 to host numerous graphic novel themed–programs. In addition, BML will receive titles from the Will Eisner Library (a graphic novel collection of the acclaimed writer and artist’s work and biographies about the beloved cartoonist), and copies of each title by this year’s Will Eisner Award-winning authors.

One planned initiative includes an intergenerational program, “Picture Yourself: Using Graphic Novels to Explore the People and Perceptions of Bellmore.” The goal is to use graphic novels to connect to a diverse audience, while also documenting life in the town. “Graphic novels are the ideal format to convey both a sense of place through visual representations, as well as communicate the impressions of the character in that place—therefore a perfect way to reflect a sense of self and a sense of the neighborhood community,” says Acklin.

Starting this fall, three librarian-led book clubs will aim to connect different segments of the local population using graphic novels as tools to better understand the dynamics of the community. The “Homepages” club, for teens through adults, will read books featuring characters that strongly identify with their home and community, such as Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” graphic novels (HarperCollins). Acklin hopes that as participants explore what makes Bellmore what it is, they will gather multiple perspectives of the town based on age, gender, nationality, and life experiences.

Bellmore (NY) Memorial Library's graphic novel collection.

Bellmore (NY) Memorial Library’s graphic novel collection.

The “House Blend” book club will hold meetings at the local Bellmore Bean coffeehouse. This group, for adults and young professionals, will explore graphic novels depicting the journey into adulthood and will consider how the community where one lives and works helps or hinders that process. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (HMH, 2006) is among the titles. “Community Matters,” also for adults, will focus on factors that create a sense of community and the similarities and differences that make communities around the world thrive and grow.

All the graphic novels discussed will be added to the library’s “Book Club in a Bag” program and made available to local non-library groups and the 54 libraries in the Nassau Library System consortium.

In addition, Acklin has invited local graphic novelists and Bellmore Historical Association members to take part in library discussions and help forge neighborhood connections. As the culminating project, patrons will reflect on their Bellmore experiences through comic-style depictions of a life-changing moment—a funny incident, a daily routine, or a vision of the future. “The fun begins” once members get comfortable using Pixton, a user-friendly online comic creation computer program, Acklin says. “After we compile everyone’s work, BML will publish an original graphic novel anthology based on local history and participants’ experiences.”

A closing “Picture Yourself” celebration hosted by BML will coincide with a month-long display of member-created art at the library and will also be part of the second annual Geek Fest. Attendees will receive a digital copy of the member-created comics anthology, and a physical copy will be added to the graphic novel collection.

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