(The above cartoon is from the group’s homepage and is by Ben Harvey and Anthony Armstrong)
I live in Toronto and it’s becoming a great city for events related to comics, especially those that are part of the growing alternative scene. This past Saturday, I went to the community centre at 519 Church St. to sit in on the opening of the Canada Comics Open Library. While I was there, some of the collection was put on display and comics creators were talking about cartooning as part of a discussion panel. Workshops were planned for later.
I met the founder, Rotem Anna Diamant, and sent her some questions about the initiative.
Koom Kankesan: Please tell us about the mandate of your library and how you got started.
Rotem Anna Diamant: We are trying to create an inclusive community comics space and library in order to help make comics more accessible to all and support existing comics communities. We believe comics are a unique and powerful medium for telling stories.
We are a group of librarians, cartoonists, makers, and readers, who are trying to spread the love of comics. We officially launched our website in mid-October. CCOL was founded by me in the springtime of 2018. So far, we are completely volunteer-run, but we have launched our crowdfunding campaign in order to hire an administrative staff member, rent a physical location, and work towards sustainable library services.
KK: How do you see yourselves as different from other collections of comics and the public library?
RAD: We want to supplement existing comics collections and the public library. Because we are independent and use open source library software (which we plan to share), we are able to experiment with how comics can be organized differently from standard library classification systems that can be very limiting. We use comics-specific subjects for our collection— such as autobiography, biography, everyday fiction, speculative fiction, historical fiction, and more. Within each subject, we use stickers to show intersectionality, including comics by BIPOC creators, queer comics, and comics that touch on mental health, physical health, and disability. We also use a comprehensive tagging system. We are always looking for ways to improve our classification system, physical cataloguing, and digital presence. We want everyone to be able to look up at our shelves and see themselves represented.
We use the word “open” in our name, because we want to address and incorporate feedback and suggestions from the community, on everything from cataloguing language, to event planning, collection development, and other issues concerning accessibility in comics. As evident in the services and resources at The Toronto Public Library, libraries are a lot more than just circulating books. We want our library to be a safe and welcoming space that belongs to the community, a place where people can feel comfortable hanging out and reading, working on comics and art, speaking with other people interested in comics and the comic arts, and participating in workshops and other events.
KK: What has the response been like so far from your clientele?
RAD: Regarding our mandate for accessibility and what we have managed to accomplish so far, we have had incredibly positive feedback. Cartoonists have been submitting their information to our Canadian Cartoonists Database, emailing us encouragement, and people have expressed excitement for how our catalogue addresses lack of accessibility in comics.
We have ambitious goals. We have already accomplished a lot, and we so hope to be able to showcase what we can do with proper funding. At our recent launch event, we hosted a day-long pop up library with over 500 comics, and it was heartwarming to see people show up, browse the collection, and feel comfortable enough to sit down with a comic for a few hours.
We have had many statements of support from academics, artists, retail comics store owners, members of the comics community in Toronto, and librarians (public and academic). A project like this, especially when fully realized, will benefit the comics community by growing new readerships and supporting existing diverse communities.
KK: Please tell us about how your collection is structured. How many books do you currently have and what are you focusing on?
RAD: We currently have 521 comics in our collections, and more donations coming in that need to be catalogued! Although we rely in part on donations, we also have a prioritized list of comics to purchase that include works made by marginalized creators. We welcome comics from all subjects, whether they are about superheroes or horror, personal experiences or biography, or speculative worlds and beyond. Our priority is to ensure that across all subjects, wherever possible, we include stories made by marginalized creators in order to work towards inclusive representation in comics.
We see comics as a medium not a genre, so we have applied some literary cataloguing to comics and organize our comics by their main literary content such as autobiography, everyday fiction, and so on. We sticker comics for their intersectional representation instead of segregating them, to showcases the diversity of the medium. If you look at our collection, you will see these stickers in every single category. It is important for us to structure the library in a way that showcases the comics form as a medium not a genre, and to highlight the diversity of the medium itself. While we focus on Canadian comics for acquisition, we catalogue diverse comics from all over the world. Right now to address both Trans rights and Indigenous Reconciliation, we are on a focused mission to improve the representation of Indigenous and Trans comics in the catalogue.
KK: Tell us about your crowd funding campaign.
RAD: We want to make our comics collection publicly accessible, and we need your help to be able to work with and support creators and offer a cozy and vibrant space. We are hoping to raise 85,000 in order to rent and operate a physical location in Toronto; $60,000 will go towards direct operating for 12 months, including rent + utilities + acquisitions + library supplies; $20,000+ towards fair pay for full-time administrative staff member; and $5,000 fair honorariums for artists and guests + workshop and event supplies.
We also have rewards for donations, including library memberships, t-shirts, tote bags, bookmarks, and more. It was important to us to make pay-it-forward memberships part of the rewards tiers as well. In order to work towards sustainability of the project, we charge an annual membership fee of $5. Our membership price will always be affordable for all — we have a pay it forward model for free membership so those who cannot afford the membership are never turned away. We are currently unable to offer a circulating collection, but this is something we are keeping in mind for the future if resources allow.
You can find our campaign here.
KK: What other challenges do you foresee for the library?
RAD: There is a lot we have been able to accomplish without outside funding, such as: growing our library catalogue to over 500 comics, building an online platform (including resources such as our Canadian Cartoonists Database), and holding our first pop up library, workshops, and comics panel, but it has been difficult— we could do a lot more if we did have proper funding!
Because we are a new and volunteer-run non-profit organization, we’ve encountered several challenges this year:
Grants: We are in the process of applying to several project grants. Unfortunately, since we are new, we don’t have the financial or social history required to qualify for any operating grants. Sadly, there are very few grants for non-profits that are not charities (and we are not a charity).
Rent: We want to be as accessible as possible, which means that our venues and partnerships with spaces are limited (since unfortunately there are only a handful of accessible low-cost/free event venues in the city that work with nonprofits)— This is why we’d like to be able to rent an accessible space all on our own, and we need your help to do it! Rent in Toronto is high and will costs us apx. $60,000 per year just to rent and maintain a space, with some additional costs for initial development of the space.
(infographic by Ben Harvey)
KK: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
RAD: If this project sounds like something you would like to support, we would be thrilled if you would help spread the word on social media, re-tweet us, share your thoughts, and share events and pages from the website! Share our crowdfunding page! If you want to do more and volunteer your time to the campaign, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know your interest. Visit our website volunteer page for more information!
We also welcome comic donations! We have partnered with the Toronto Zine Library as our drop off location until we secure our physical library location. Please see our donation page on our website for more information and guidelines.