Collection Spotlight: The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University

Beginning today, the GSC Blog will be home to spotlights on comics collections in libraries around the world. We hope to create a repository cataloging the various collections that would be useful to comics scholars across the spectrum, but especially for graduate students. If you know of a library collection that we should be in contact with, please reach out to us at

We start this series with a look into the massive collection at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University. We spoke with Associate Curator and Assistant Professor Caitlin McGurk about the collection there!

How large is the comic collection at OSU? The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (BICLM) houses the world’s largest collection of materials related to cartoons and comics, including original art, books, magazines, journals, comic books, archival materials, and newspaper comic strip pages and clippings. Our current holdings are:

Original art: 300,000
Comic strip clippings and tearsheets: 2.5 million
Books + Serial titles: 105,000
Comic Books + Mini Comics: 50,000
Archive boxes and archival material: 8,000

When did OSU begin collecting comics? How did it happen?

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum was established in 1977 in two converted classrooms in the Journalism Building with the founding gift of artwork and papers of alumnus Milton Caniff. Its collections of original art and manuscripts have been built primarily through gifts-in-kind. The library has had several former names over the past 40+ years: Milton Caniff Reading Room, (1977); Library for Communication and Graphic Arts; Cartoon, Graphic, and Photographic Arts Research Library; Cartoon Research Library; Cartoon Library and Museum; and finally in September 2009 we became the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. Caniff (Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon) had donated in multiple installments his entire collection to OSU: 696 cubic feet of original art, correspondence, research files, photographs, memorabilia, merchandise, realia, awards, audio/visual material and scrapbooks. Although there was no structure for collecting such materials from cartoonists, and few (if any) institutions in America were, Caniff was a proud OSU graduate and felt compelled to leave his legacy material with his beloved Alma mater. Lucy Caswell had worked in the journalism library and was hired to catalog the Caniff collection.  Caswell recognized how precious these materials were and saw that they were under-appreciated in academic institutions and museums at large.   She set out to establish an appropriate home for the collecting and preservation of cartoon art, and nearly 40 years later this altruistic goal has grown into the largest collection of cartoons and comics in the world.

Are there specific categories of comics and graphic novels that this collection specializes in? Can you talk about one or two noteworthy parts of the collection or archival materials?

We strive to represent collections by women cartoonists and industry professionals, an area that I feel we always getting stronger in. In recent years we also created this Guide To Multicultural Resources highlighting the work in our collection by artists who are African American, Latino American, and Asian American. We hope to add a section for Indigenous cartoonists as well. I would say the most popular collections we have here overall would be the Calvin & Hobbes collection of original art (nearly every single original page from the comics), the Will Eisner Collection which includes vast manuscript materials, and the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art Collection. That last collection was amassed by a man named Bill Blackbeard and contains millions of comic strip clippings that libraries across the United States were discarding and replacing with microfilm. In many instances, the pieces in that collection are the only examples of the work in existence.

How does the library typically acquire its comics?

Our collection is almost entirely donation-based, and has largely come to us from artists, family members of artists, or collectors. Our Collection Donation Review Committee meets to make decisions about any individual item or collection we are offered. We consider the research value of the work as well as the costs of preserving, storing, and making it available. In general, our purchasing funds are used for published materials, often bought in support of classes or exhibitions. Original cartoon art is purchased very selectively. The vast majority of our holdings of original cartoon art has been acquired as gifts-in-kind, and this is expected to continue.

What are some of the projects scholars have conducted using the collection as a resource? What are some of the courses that have been taught using the collection as a resource?

Our collection is used by scholars from a vast variety of disciplines, including folks who travel to the Billy Ireland from out of the country for months at a time to conduct research. Examples of research conducted at the Billy Ireland can occasionally be seen featured on our blog, including a post from Dr. Daniel Worden about his research into the oil industry and it’s overlap with comics, or this interview with Professor Nhora Serano about her research into comics and immigration. BICLM’s holdings have inspired and contributed to countless books, articles, exhibitions and more.

BICLM curators work with up to 60 classes per year, both from Ohio State as well as outside – since we are a land grant institution, part of our mission is to serve the public, so we welcome classes regularly from other universities, public schools, etc. Since there is no cartooning or comics department at Ohio State, we do not have a strict tie to a specific department to work with. For this reason, we do our best to connect with any and all departments, and regularly serve students from Jewish Studies, History, Art, Art Education, English, ESL, Early Childhood Education, Political Science, Pop Culture Studies, History, Psychology, Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies… you name it! We pride ourselves in connecting with a wide reach of disciplines who want to come learn about their subject matter through the lens of comics and cartoon art.

How have students at OSU benefited from the collection?

Students at Ohio State benefit from BICLM’s free exhibits, access to our collection for their own research (or fun!), and our regular free programming for which we bring in artists from around the world. We often host open house events for students highlighting aspects of our collection such as manga or LGBTQ comics, and we also employ Ohio State students.

What are the available options for accessing the collection? Are there any efforts being made to digitize the collection?

Anyone can access our collections in our Lucy Shelton Caswell Reading Room during open hours (9am-5pm Mon-Fri), or selections from our collection in our current exhibits (open 1-5pm, Tues-Sun). Our website offers a wide variety of resources, including a robust digital image database with tens-of-thousands of images, our many collection-specific finding-aids, our Guide to Multicultural Resources, databases dedicated to books and art, and more. Since our collection has over 3 million pieces in it, we are not able to digitize every piece, but records for all items can be found across our databases.

Are there any current or upcoming events that you’d like to advertise?

We are working on programming for 2020 that will celebrate our exhibit “Ladies First: A Century of Women’s Innovations in Comics and Cartoon Art” including a major symposium on Women, Gender, and Bande Dessinée on February 28th and 29th, 2020 for which we will have many international scholars presenting on their work.

The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum Contact Information:
Address: 1813 N. High St., Columbus OH 43210
Phone: 614-292-0538

We hope you take the time to check out the collection at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum online and in person!

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