Collection Spotlight: Michigan State University Libraries

Today we are continuing our spotlight on collections of comics in University libraries that are commonly used for research in comics studies. This time we are focusing on the collections at Michigan State University with the Head of Special Collections, Leslie Van Veen McRoberts.

How large is the comic collection at MSU?

350,000 volumes | 300,000 American works, 50,000 international works.

Additionally, the collection features over 1,000 books of collected newspaper comic strips, and several thousand books and periodicals about comics.

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

The collection at Michigan State began with English professor Russel B. Nye, who in the mid-1960s pioneered Popular Culture Theory. Nye was one of the founders of the Popular Culture Association, which blurred traditional ways of thinking, providing value to mass media such as comic books, television, and music.

Nye’s original donation to the MSU Libraries Special Collections of approximately 8,000 comics in 1969 began what is now the most comprehensive collection of comic books in the world.

Is there specific categories of comics and graphic novels that this collection specializes in?

Our collection is vast in content and context, but our growth is centered around North American produced comics; however, recently we have branched outward to international comics. Specifically, we acquire bound or hand-produced first-run comics, but that is not to say we would not acquire multiple editions of a specific comic. The small idiosyncratic parts of each book make them unique. Our collection is comprehensive, and tells the story of comics and comic art, from Archie and Jug Head to Batman and beyond.

Can you talk about one or two noteworthy parts of the collection or archival materials?

Honestly, it is hard to select one or two pieces, traditionally I lean to the original Randolph Töpffer comics from the 1840s, but what I think are some of the most unique items in our collection are the student contributions. MSU Associate Professor, Ryan Claydor, teaches Comic Art Studio courses which provides students with an avenue to not only fulfill their own creative forces but provides guidance on how to navigate the publishing world; the course is a mix of art and literature. Because of these students, we now have unique hand colored, hand silkscreened, embossed one of a kind comic art items that have become the cornerstone of future comic authors and artists.

How does the library typically acquire its comics?

The MSU Libraries Special Collections Comic Art collection is acquired through a variety of means. Each year we purchase several comics for our collection, but we also have long-standing relationships with publishers and book dealers who are keenly aware as to what and why we collect. Comics are also acquired through the generosity of donors and estate gifts from patrons who have known and loved our collection so much so that they want to add their own books to the shelves as a part of their legacy.

What are some of the projects scholars have conducted using the collection as a resource?

Annually, we see a variety of scholars who seek many different types of comics; one scholar that comes to mind is a Ph. D candidate who has a specific research focus on the production of comic books, their collective history, and how long-term comic books have developed and transformed over the course of the 20th century.

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

Courses at MSU vary between semester; currently, we have an English professor who is utilizing a vast scope of black comics as a research component of his English 342 course, Studies in Popular Literature. Students in this course have utilized a selection of comics to write a research paper on their choice of topic/character around the scope of Black Comics and Afrofuturism. Some of the titles and their creators utilized by this course include Ajala: a series of adventures by Robert Garrett and N. Steven Harris, Matty’s Rocket by Tim Fielder, and Jaycen Wise by Uraeus. In addition to a research paper, students created a zine around a specific character with a comparison to four other characters to explore theme, character and setting in comics. Students had the opportunity to share their zines with the public at a November showcase held at the MSU Museum.

How have students at MSU benefited from the collection?

All students and scholars benefit from this collection because of its comprehensive holdings. Students not only use the collection for class but may request and come to our reading room to read and enjoy the latest comic that they otherwise may not have access to. Students are welcome to request comics to be purchased for additions to our collection and we do acquire what they suggest. Everyone who is curious about comics benefits from the comic art collection.

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

Currently the collection may be accessed through the MSU Libraries public access catalog. Each of the individual comics are cataloged by item, this includes any additional copies of the comic. Along with the catalog, our bibliographer has created an additional index of all the comics housed in MSU Special Collections, that page can be accessed using this link” http://comics.lib.msu.edu/index.htm.

Currently, there are no plans to digitize the collection. Unfortunately, copyright limitations do not allow us to digitize the collection, or portions thereof. Should scholars find themselves needing portions of comics, they are able to request scans of original comics through inter library loan.

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

Since 2008, the MSU Libraries has hosted the MSU Comics Forum, a two-day event that discusses everything comics. Free and open to the public, the Forum features panel sessions of artists and authors as well as tours of the MSU Comics collection. The upcoming event will be held on February 21 and 22, 2020, and will feature graphic novelist Emil Ferris, as well as comics author and San Francisco State University professor, Nico Sousanis. For more information, visit: http://www.comicsforum.msu.edu/about/

[You can also read the GSC’s interview with MSU Comics Forum co-organizer Zack Kruse here!]

For the Summer of 2020, MSU Libraries Special Collections is offering travel research grants, which of course includes scholars of comics. All are welcome to apply. Applications are due January 30, 2020. For more information, visit: https://lib.msu.edu/spc/research/travel-grants/

MSU Special Collections Information:
Address: 366 West Circle Drive, East Lansing, Michigan 48824 USA
Email: SPC@msu.edu

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