March 2013 Site of the Month

primo banner

March 2013 Site of the Month

Sundown at the Library

Author: Matt Upson, Emporia State University

Artist: Mike Hall, Independence Kansas Public Library and Atomic Raygun Comics

Institution: Coffeyville Community College

Interviewer: Genevieve Williams

Tutorial Description (provided by the author): This comic was designed to provide a basic introduction to library skills and services at Coffeyville Community College (KS). This work is based on the continued research by the authors on comic-based library instruction and the use of narrative and humor in instruction. A brief overview of the library layout and services is couched within a narrative involving local history and supernatural events. The narrative is followed by more in-depth tutorials highlighting the catalog, search skills, call numbers, special collections, interlibrary loan, journals/databases, and source evaluation.

Q: I understand you’ve created guides like these for a few different libraries.

A: Mike: Yes, that’s true. Coffeyville Community College signed on fairly early. I think they were the third or fourth book that we did.

Q: Did you know if Coffeyville had a basic library guide prior to your comic? And how did you get the idea to use comics for this kind of resource?

A: Mike: They did not have a basic guide. And the idea actually started when Matt and I were at McPherson College. I was Matt’s assistant, and he was the director. He was actually the only full-time librarian at the college. The amount of time we spent just teaching basic info lit skills to a student population that had not grown up interacting with a library in the same way that we had took us away from other things we needed to be doing. We couldn’t do anything to take that library forward; we were too busy trying to play catch-up. We were looking for creative ways to teach those basic info lit skills, and our initial plan was to do a series of short films that we could host on a website. We just didn’t have the budget to do them the way we wanted to do them, since we knew we were going to be huge perfectionists. It occurred to us to do a comic instead, and it should have occurred to us sooner because I’ve been working off and on in comics since the late 90s.

A: Matt: We’ve done four of these comic book guides so far. We released our first one, which was called Library of the Living Dead, in the spring of 2011, for McPherson College. The initial idea was to do a zombie-themed library tutorial video. Being a very small college of around 600 students with a nonexistent budget for pet projects, we pitched around some ideas and it struck us as obvious that we should do a comic, because Mike has had quite a few years of experience in the comics industry.

Since then these projects have kind of popped up. There’s a public library in Connecticut that we did one for, for their teen services department, and then we did a promotional guide for a library science program, and we did this project for Coffeyville Community College. Marty Evensvold, the library director at Coffeyville, initiated that. He contacted Mike and they struck up a conversation and generated some ideas about what to do. I don’t think they had an existing guide, and Coffeyville Community College, and all the community colleges in Kansas as well as McPherson College and some of those other small colleges, have pretty low enrollment and not a ton of funding. I think Marty is the only full-time staff member; he might be the only non-student staff at that library. He doesn’t have a lot of time to produce that kind of instruction, those kinds of tutorials. In fact, I think he’s shouldered an assessment role at the community college as well. So he outsourced the creation of this project to Mike and me.

The way that we work fluctuates across each project—we take on different roles each time. Mike is the only illustrator—I don’t have that talent—so Mike does all the artwork for the comics. But for the original comic I came up with some of the story components, Mike did a lot of the scripting of the story, then I wrote the tutorials at the end. For the Coffeyville cowboy comic, I wrote the script for the comic and Mike wrote the tutorials at the end. So we kind of switched writing roles. We work really well together, even though I’m now at a different institution than Mike.

Q: How did you hit on the idea of presenting this material as a comic book in the first place? You talked a little bit about that, but what was it about the medium that appealed to you for presenting this kind of information?

A: Mike: It’s one of those things where the research is just now starting to catch up with something I’ve known for years, and that’s that comics are an excellent instructional tool. There were a number of instructional comics created for the U.S. military, created for corporations, and also created for schools from the 50s all the way up to the 80s, and then this form just kind of died off. People stopped producing instructional comics. But it was something that stuck with me, so once we had the initial idea, the model was already there in my head because of the research that was going on and my own recollections of how effective the form really was in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing with it.

A: Matt: When you think of video tutorials, because nearly every library is doing video tutorials now—I think they’re great!—what comics can do is let the reader control the pace.

Also, a comic can be a physical artifact as well as a digital file. What we found with our first project was that when we produced these physical comics, the students really rallied around that. We had a release party that they enjoyed, with hard copies of the comic, and we had a lot of students in the library for this party—flipping through a library resource! I’ve never made a handout for a one-shot session, and had students sitting around reading it while eating pizza, laughing and enjoying themselves. Seeing them interact with library instruction in a new way was really neat. We haven’t necessarily been able to see that at Coffeyville, because it was outsourced, and we kind of left it up to Marty to decide if he wants to make hard copies or if he just wants to deal with the PDF version on their website. Mike handles production aspects, so if Marty wants to do that he would contact Mike about getting a print run done.

Q: Have you thought about turning one of your comics into something that could be more interactive? Obviously a full animation is a time consuming process, but maybe something like a mobile or interactive comic?

A: Matt: Yeah, I’ve thought about comic reading apps that you can get. With Comixology, which is one that I use pretty frequently, you have the option to post the entire page on your screen, and then as you swipe through, it will zoom in to the various panels on that page, in detail. I thought that would be a neat idea. I think it would be a better presentation, because right now we just have these PDFs that you scroll through. I don’t think that is necessarily the most user-friendly option. But, since we’re doing these on the cheap, it’s what’s most cost effective. It’s not like we’re putting up something that’s not ready to be viewed online, it’s just not as efficient as it could be. The next step, I would say, would be a digital comic that could be swiped through panel by panel, and potentially even—I work with another librarian who has asked if we could make these more accessible to users with disabilities—adding sound and other aspects. We’ve thought about that as an option for the future, if we could get some more funding behind it and had someone who wanted to do the project.

Mike and I have a proposal out for a large-scale research strategies/research skills/information skills comic that would be 100 or 150 pages, and could essentially serve as a textbook in an information literacy course, be used for one-shot sessions, or just be on the Ready Reference shelf as a digital resource. We’ve got a proposal out with an academic press, and they’re considering it—I don’t want to count my chickens, but everything’s been really positive so far. Dr. Jeremy Short at the University of Oklahoma has published a management textbook as a comic book. He’s had some success with that, and has a paper coming out on his research findings dealing with retention and recall and learning with these comics. So, maybe academia is poised to wade into this facet of learning. The press we’re talking to is willing to consider it, and I hope they’re willing to take the extra step and move forward with it. We’re about halfway through our first draft and if it moves forward, then potentially some of these detailed digital features might come into play.

Q: How did you choose the Dalton Gang as a story for the Coffeyville comic?

A: Mike: Every one of these comics that we do is customized. The client isn’t just paying for general instruction, but for something that connects with their students or patrons. So I do a lot of research, in terms of making sure it looks like their library, any particular architectural features get incorporated into the artwork, stuff like that. Given that Coffeyville is where the Dalton Gang met their grisly demise, we knew from the outset that we had to incorporate that. I ended up going on a walking tour of the downtown, to take some pictures and actually see the surviving locations where the gunfight had taken place. We knew that connecting the comic to that interesting chapter in their own history was going to be part of what set their book apart from everyone else’s.

A: Matt: We like to add some piece of local lore or history, something that a student could potentially connect with. I scanned through some documents and online materials about Coffeyville’s history, and the Dalton Gang shootout at the bank seemed like an obvious reference point. The actual shootout did occur, but that entire romance is completely made up—we just threw that in our comic as a plot device. But it has that context of local history as the driving force behind the plot. If you look at all the other books we’ve done, it’s really the same kind of model: something puts students in danger, then the librarian comes in and, thanks to information literacy and library skills, the librarian saves the day, educates the students, and the students become independent. That’s the same model we followed for this Coffeyville comic. I just think it adds that point of reference for students and community members, gives them a point of pride, lets them see that this resource is unique and tailor-made; it’s not something generic. It’s not existing modules just thrown together in a package; it’s directed specifically to them.

Q: Marty doesn’t really have a grappling hook, does he?

A: Matt: I don’t think he does! We throw in ridiculous things, because if you look at the actual instructional content of the comic part, it’s relatively low compared to the sheer ridiculousness of it. But I think there’s some ratio you have to find when mixing instruction with ridiculousness. You shouldn’t trick students, but I think they have a right to expect that education should be enjoyable and engaging. “Entertaining” might not be the right word, but it definitely can be entertaining.

Q: Would you be willing to talk a little bit more about how the collaborative process works? Especially now that the two of you aren’t working in the same place anymore?

A: Mike: It’s kind of fluid, because it’s a little different each time. For the first comic, Matt took a more active role in the more formalized instruction that we put in the back of the book, and I wrote and drew the comic myself with a little input from him on the story. And then once he was comfortable with the format, he started taking a more active role in the story, and by the time we got around to doing the Coffeyville one, our roles were almost reversed, because I wrote the back matter and drew the story, and he scripted the story. Then there are others where the roles are again reversed, a couple that I’m working on without him, one that he’s doing the lead writing role on—about the only thing we don’t trade off is the drawing, because Matt would be the first to admit that he can’t draw. But other than that, everything else is very flexible. It’s a question of who has the vision for that particular job, that person just goes, and the other person provides whatever support or collaborative role is useful in that particular instance.

A: Matt: It has differed across the multiple guides. Typically we’ll bounce some ideas off each other, then whoever’s writing the actual script for the comic will go ahead and write that out.

When I wrote the Coffeyville guide, I think I wrote it over two days. I had some historical notes, just to get the details right. I’ll write the script kind of like a movie, and break it down by panel, and describe each panel to a certain extent, in terms of what I envision from that panel, kind of like a movie shot. Like, with the shots at the bank in the Coffeyville guide, I would give Mike some sort of reference, in that case an image of the bank online that I gave him a link to. Then I’ll do the dialogue for each panel. I did that over a couple of days and then sent it to Mike. I really depend on Mike’s design eye; he really knows what will work and what won’t, and how the images and narrative will flow through the page. I trust him so much that I basically give him leeway to do whatever he wants to make that story work, and he can rework my words; he understands if there’s a gag that I’m going for that he doesn’t need to tweak, but needs to do some tweaking around it. He’s really good at adjusting things without cutting the meat out of the content.

It’s really collaborative; Mike’s a great communicator. Once he gets started illustrating, he’ll keep me up to speed, show me layouts and the finished product as he does the pages. I should note that Mike doesn’t color these. We have a guy named Dustin Evans who Mike has known for a while out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dustin has colored all of our comics, and he does a fantastic job. When I saw those pages from the 1800s in Coffeyville…they’re beautiful, all sepia-toned. I love everything that he and Mike have done. They work together outside of these comics as well; they have their own series that they’re working on. They collaborate really efficiently as well.

Q: What kinds of major challenges come up? Were there any with this particular project?

A: Mike: With Coffeyville, there really weren’t any huge challenges to overcome. It’s not very far from where I live, so it was easy for me to get over there and go on a walking tour. Matt and I both know the director over there, so if I had questions or needed another photograph or something, I could just call him and get it. Coffeyville did not pose a lot of challenges, other than that there were a couple of bits of the architecture of their building that pushed my drawing skills. Other than that, they really weren’t one of the harder jobs we’ve done.

Q: I imagine it would be easier if it was someplace nearby, so it’s feasible to go see the place.

A: Mike: One of the things I ask clients to do if it’s not a library I can visit, or at least not frequently, is to have them do a video walkthrough. I’ll say, just take a flip phone and walk through this place, pretend that I’m a patron and you’re giving me a tour. I want to see how it flows from location to location. That way I have some way to glue together the reference pictures I’ll have them shoot. If I can get there myself I’ll shoot my own reference pictures, because it’s a lot easier for me to put the whole thing into a perspective grid and work out how figures are going to interact if I’ve actually been there.

Q: Did you base the librarian in the Coffeyville comic on a real person, or did you make him up?

A: Mike: The very first book we ever did, I actually drew Matt as the librarian. But since then, we’ve just made them up. It was one of those things where if there was any real mistake we made on that first book, it was that by putting him in there we made sure that that book was permanently associated with our time at that library. That can be a bad thing, you know—that can’t be fun for the next person to follow, it’s not them, they can do the best job in the world but they still don’t get to be the cool person in the comic book. We haven’t done that since. I drew one for Emporia State University where I made my wife one of the main characters, but she doesn’t teach at Emporia.

Q: When you’re creating comics, do you hand draw all of the art, use drawing software, or some combination?

A: Mike: I use digital tools to support what are basically old-school techniques. I still draw everything by hand. I will occasionally lay out my perspectives digitally, but for the most part I do things the way people have been drawing comics for as long as people have been drawing comics! With pencil, and then with pen and ink on two-ply Bristol board that I then scan into the computer and clean up digitally. I do all the lettering electronically, all the coloring is done digitally, and then all the prepress for actually taking the book to publication is done digitally. But as far as actual drawing, I don’t use any of the various software suites out there; I prefer a much more hands-on approach to the art. Once it’s finished, then I start adding digital flourishes.

Q: Pedagogically, obviously you want to balance the story and the instruction. How did you decide what content to include, and what research tools to focus on?

A: Matt: Part of that is determined by the client. Within the comic itself, I like to envision it as an introduction to services. Nothing in depth, because I think we take for granted how much students know about the library. I think we just assume that they know that there are books there, and they can be checked out. Most undergrads that I’ve worked with don’t necessarily know what Interlibrary Loan is, or about databases and how to access those. So it was more about letting them know that certain things existed, and that it was okay to ask about them. And with the instructional components in the back, it was about providing the details, all that stuff we introduced in the comic.

A: Mike: The client helps direct that somewhat, because they usually have a wish list of what they want students to be aware of—in fact, that’s where the conversation tends to start, what they wish people were aware of, but aren’t. That sometimes gives us our frame of reference to start, right there. As far as balancing the amount of educational information in the front of the comic, we try to remember that we always have that back matter that can include the actual walkthrough of how to put together a research plan, or of how to construct a database search. We’ve got that stuff in the back. We don’t really have to worry about the step-by-step instruction in the main comic; really what we’re doing in that front matter is an attitudinal adjustment. It’s preparing the student to be receptive to that kind of information, just by giving them a context in which it’s found useful. And that context is almost always ludicrous - ghost cowboys or zombies or something like that. It demystifies things somewhat, makes things a little less intimidating. I think it was Will Eisner who first posited these two instructional models, the technical and the attitudinal. Look at the comics themselves as the attitudinal model, the back matter as the technical model: they work together.

Q: You get the students to where they’re receptive, and then they can start really learning.

A: Mike: Right. We did one comic where the librarian has to fight off some zombies with a flamethrower, and it turns out if he goes to the 600s of the library collection he can figure out how to build a flamethrower from there—that was really about as sophisticated as the instruction got on that page. But as far as how to create a database search or a catalog query, that we were much more specific about in the back matter.

Q: Like, “Here’s more information about those things we were talking about.”

A: Matt: Right, right. And as a physical artifact, we thought it was more likely that they would keep and refer back to a comic than a handout. Because if you’re given a generic piece of paper, it’s going to end up in the trash or in your backpack or at the dorm. Something that’s bright and colorful, and shaped a little differently than a normal sheet of office paper, it might be more likely for the student to hang onto, and come back to.

Q: You can probably answer this more easily with some of your previous projects, but what about promotion and distribution? It sounds like with the earlier projects you did a fair amount of promotion to get the word out.

A: Matt: It’s kind of an odd coincidence. We created that first zombie comic and released it at the end of March 2011. Almost immediately, I took a position at Emporia State as their MLS director. Then we made that promotional comic for the program, and released it in June 2012, right before ALA. And then I became a faculty member at ESU’s libraries. So I’ve shifted positions with these comics, and I haven’t really had a chance to see how they’ve been implemented. I get to see the release and how students immediately react, but we haven’t had any chance for assessment. If we get this book published, we can definitely see how students interact with it and assess learning.

With the zombie guide at McPherson, we hyped it up, put a teaser on Facebook with the cover, which is just a couple of zombies wandering in front of the façade of the library. That, I think, got students kind of wondering what this is, because they recognized the image of the library and there were zombies in front of it. So that got the campus community thinking and wondering about what was coming up. Then when we announced it, we had a Facebook challenge to get students to “like” our page. At the end of a week or ten days, we took all of the “likes” and randomly selected two of those students to be featured in the comic. It’s a campus of about 600 students, and in ten days we got maybe fifty “likes”. Which isn’t that big a number, but relative to the number of students on campus I think it was pretty good.

Once we had physical copies of the comic, which came a month or two after the digital version, we had that release party, with pizza. We gave away some of the original artwork that Mike has, through a drawing. By that point, when we got the physical copies, I think we had had over a million downloads of the digital comic, and to see the students react to that, sort of, “What are you talking about, this is a library guide, and there’s a million people that have looked at it?” Again, I think that gave them a point of pride associated with the library. I also threw a tiny image of the cover into a Word document and added some text and a QR code to download the comic. We posted that around campus to generate awareness. But it was all on the cheap, we didn’t have any money at all. We got a small grant to help pay for the printing of the hard copies, and then Mike just worked on the job, for essentially a lot less than he gets paid to do work for hire. We just wanted to see it done: we had this idea and wanted to see how it would work, and how cheaply we could do it, as well as we could. We had a fun time doing it. That’s why we keep doing it: these things are really fun to do, and as someone who cannot draw to save his life, I really like seeing the ideas that I come up with come to life through Mike’s art. It’s really rewarding to see that.

Q: I can see where, especially with the color quality, it would make a nice printed handout. But there would be some cost associated with that.

A: Mike: Yeah, it’s not free. And the thing with any promotional material in a library is that it doesn’t net a return in the traditional sense that we measure returns. When a publisher prints a comic book, they can measure their return in the sense of, “It cost us X amount to print this; we sold it for Y.” The library doesn’t get to sell it. The return on it is a more informed and more effective patron, and it’s hard to put a number on that. You have to be comfortable with the idea that you’re not going to see a return on the money; you’re going to see a return in the sense of, “my patrons will have a better idea of what they’re doing, and I won’t be spending as much time answering basic questions, and I can spend my time handling more advanced questions with a smaller staff.” If you want to look at monetary reward, there it is, right there.

Q: You mentioned that you haven’t really been able to assess how these guides have worked over the long term. But if you could, how would you go about assessing their effectiveness as a learning resource?

A: Matt: First of all, I have compiled some questions I would like to ask students regarding engagement. That’s my first interest: are they more willing to work with a comic than with a traditional text or a handout? And then, as far as assessing learning, we’re just going to have to do a traditional pre- and post-test. Librarians at Kansas Wesleyan University, which is another small university near McPherson, and Kansas State University’s satellite campus worked on their own comic. They did some assessment. I don’t recall their results, but there was a Library Journal article on them, Heidi Blackburn and Kate Wise. They found that there was an increase in engagement levels, and learning—I don’t remember to what degree.

I think we’ll have to try something larger scale and really think it out; honestly, I haven’t spent the time thinking about it because I’ve been writing this other one. Once I’m finished with that, I think I can focus on writing an instrument to assess a particular resource. I’ve written up a survey on engagement, and I want to ask the McPherson students what they think about the McPherson guide, and the Coffeyville students what they think about the Coffeyville guide. Just to see if they’re interacting with it in the way we wanted them to. And if not, that can potentially fuel adaptations or style changes. But I haven’t had a chance to really sit down and think about how we can assess the learning. I’ve been in contact with Dr. Jeremy Short at OU about his comic and hopefully we’ll be able to build off of what he’s done.

A: Mike: It’s a hard thing to quantify. I think a more effective tool might be to ask someone how many times they’ve used the book to walk them through a process. But not every book is designed to do that. With the Coffeyville book in particular, you could certainly ask if that book helped them navigate the spine labels in their collection, because they have a lot of delineation between the things they have shelved using the various spine labels and we did a visual guide for that in the back matter. So there are some areas where you can just ask people directly: did this help you? But I don’t know that you could do that across the board. That kind of methodology isn’t really my field of expertise, so I’m not sure how one could devise a more effective test. In a class you could find out what they know, have them use the resource, and then find out how much better they were afterwards. With just a regular patron population, I’m not sure how you’d do it. I look forward to someone figuring it out.

Q: If a library out there decides it wants to create a learning resource like this, what would you advise?

A: Matt: I really liked doing these projects in house. I don’t want to speak for the people that we worked for as contractors, but Marty was easy because he handed the reins over to us and gave us a lot of freedom. I think we gave the people we worked with in Connecticut what they wanted, but there were a lot of e-mails back and forth, and a lot of stop and start, because they had their vision, and it’s tough to be flexible when you’re making the product, your client wants something a certain way, and you don’t necessarily know how to express that.

My advice to any library that would want to do this is, if you can, do it in house, on the cheap. We took Mike’s talent, something he enjoyed, and built it from that. It doesn’t have to be a comic. If someone has video editing skills, give them the opportunity to run with their strength. If we’d done a video I don’t think it would have been as successful and as fun as this comic, because we went with what Mike was good at. If you want to do a comic guide and you don’t have anyone on your staff with artistic talent, you could do a “photo comic.”

A: Mike: You need a team that can do it. Like, with the Coffeyville comic, there were some rewrites that went on, right in the middle of that book, while I was still drawing it. And it was just a question of, hey, there’s a much more efficient way we can do this, and we can change the structure of this part toward the end. But you need a team that can pull that sort of thing off, that can realize in the midst of a project that what worked in the script is not necessarily singing on the page, and that we need to figure out a better way to do what we set out to do on page seven. You need a team that can pull that off, and do so seamlessly without feeling like they’ve changed direction. And that involves a whole group of skill sets, because not only do you need capable librarians, you need capable people who know how to make comics. That’s a difficult combination to find.

Q: There’s even that setting in Photoshop where you take a photograph and give it a comic-art effect.

A: Matt: Even in PowerPoint, you can throw together a comic-book narrative. It might not have that comic look, but you can tell a story. I think that’s what it’s about. In our information literacy classes at Emporia this spring, we’re using an assignment at the end of the semester that requires the students to make a photo comic on an iPad, with an app called Comic Life. The idea is that the students just work on the iPad: they can take the photos, edit within the app, and create a PDF, all on the iPad. Because it’s an information literacy and technology course, and we want students to become more comfortable with technologies, with iPads and with using apps for editing, the idea is to let them tell their own story and share their experiences through this comic, their successes and frustrations with the research process in a more creative way than just doing a straightforward text narrative. We’re presenting at LOEX this spring on that topic, and hopefully this will give us some good products to work with, because it’s the first time we’re doing it.

I think there’s potential for students and libraries to tell their story. You know, we talk about that in strategic planning meetings. How do we get our story out to the campus and the community? How do we increase our relevance? We do that through telling our story. I think comics are a great medium for delivering that story, whether they’re illustrated or photos. You don’t have to be the most artistic person to create one of these.

March 2013 PRIMO Site of the Month