Friday, June 9, 2017

Your greatest (free) untapped resource: a practical guide to using public libraries (and librarians)

If you write and draw picture books, you likely have a bookshelf or two full of your go-to resources. You may even have a pile of books that you haven’t read yet. What you may not know is that you have another source of books that belongs to you and to your entire community—your public library—and chances are, you’ve probably only scratched the surface of what’s available. You don’t need to be an academic or a researcher to access research books and special collections; illustrators, authors, and casual readers are welcome. And it’s all free. It can be an intimidating system to navigate, so I spoke with some librarians to get some practical information on their amazing collections and how kidlit creators can utilize it all.

The author of this article poking through a favorite from the Free Library of Philadelphia
Despite having worked in and with libraries for the past 10 years, my relationship is pretty casual; I go in, browse around, get what I need, and generally want to be left alone by the staff. I sort of treat a library like a store. My local library is the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library, and I swing through it on my way home to browse the new books shelf, grab any holds, and poke around the carefully-curated displays that line the tops of shelves in the children’s department. SFPL has a great collection, I can almost always find what I’m looking for within their system, and it’s particularly exciting to to see books by people who go to SCBWI conferences (not to mention folks who also write for this blog).
But by treating libraries as places to scuttle in and out of with your holds (by treating it like a store), you’re missing one of the best resources in the library: the people who work there. Librarians, particularly at the branch level, are invested in knowing their community really well, and purchasing books that reflect and enrich it (for example, the Mission Library has a large spanish-language collection).

 Beyond being embedded in their communities, librarians are trained in helping patrons to access information. One of the librarians at the Mission branch helped me to find heavily-illustrated middle grade books featuring non-white protagonists. I had done a cursory google search combined with some amazon recommendations, but talking with her was a distinctly different experience: she gave me some recommendations based on what she knew was popular, we looked through some books together and talked about comics, and I walked away that day with American Born Chinese.

Finding resources for kidlit inspiration shouldn’t end in the children’s department. I spoke with Alina Josan at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central library Art Department about what they have available (so much amazing stuff), and who can access it (anyone). Like the curated book displays at the Mission library, Josan has curated a number of exhibits around items in the collection that she’s excited about and wants to share. For example, the show I saw when I visited over Memorial Day weekend was called The Art of Comics. It was amazing, with a number of books I had only heard of before and never seen.

photo from the Free Library blog piece on the Art of Comics
The label for each of these pieces includes the item’s call number. That means that once the exhibit comes down in two weeks, you can hold them in your hand, sketch from them, take photos, and more. You don’t need a library card to look at these materials. You don’t even need to be a Philadelphia resident, you can be visiting from Tucson, you just need to show an ID.

There are also special collections dedicated to children’s literature, ephemera and printed books, one of which is also at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and you, as a writer or illustrator, or a casual reader, can access any of these things. The Children’s Literature Research Collection (CLRC) is one of the largest research collections dedicated to children’s literature in a public library at 80,000-90,000 volumes, with both rare or out-of-print materials as well as artist materials.

from the dummy for RUFUS by Tomi Ungerer

from the dummy for CRICTOR by Tomi Ungerer

Christopher Brown is the Special Collections Curator at CLRC, and he mentioned that everyone is welcome to use the collection. When you meet with Brown, you are getting the individualized attention from a specialist; an expert who is enthusiastic to share the collection with you, a collection that includes dummies from Tomi Ungerer, William Steig, and Lloyd Alexander; art from Katherine Milhous, N.C. Wyeth, and Virginia Lee Burton (like every single scrap from LIFE STORY); the entire collection of children’s book week posters, and a growing collection of items from folks making picture books now, including Angela Dominguez, Isabel Roxas, Greg Pizzoli, Zach Ohora, Lauren Castillo, and more.

from MARIA HAD A LITTLE LLAMA, Angela Dominguez (2015)
Know that you have to set up an appointment (call or email), and they’ll do their best to accommodate and welcome you. You can't just show up like you can in the Art department, particularly now because their materials are held in offsite storage while the building is going through renovations. You don’t need a library card (again just an ID). Brown said that mostly people use the collection to find inspiration, or to see how something was made, and when they have questions about an individual piece (e.g., “was this made with gouache?”) they typically have a direct line of contact to the creator of the estate directly to get answers.

drawings from MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS by Robert Lawson

Another reason to call or email and ask for materials, rather than search the Free Library’s catalog online, is that only around 50% of the CLRC is digitally catalogued. The catalog was originally archived through a physical card catalog, and with so many materials and a small department, the staff is in a very long game of catch-up. So if you want to get a sense for what they have, you have to ask.

Asking for help can be intimidating at a place like the FLP, particularly if you’re coming from the stance of “I’m just a humble doodler, I’m not a researcher with the backing of an academic institution.” You’re wrong, anyone can access this stuff. Personally, I have a hard time approaching anyone at a desk (I can barely talk to people on the phone), and with the FLP you literally enter a marble atrium, ascend a marble staircase, and enter a huge room with some people sitting behind a large officious desk. All of these librarians I talked to reassured me that all writers and illustrators need to just ask. The librarian is there because they know their stuff, and they want to help you find resources. A good place to start is by telling them what you like and what you’re looking to see (I mentioned that I was really into Kuniyoshi and stories of yokai, and Josan pointed me to their early edition collection of Hokusai’s manga):

Many larger urban libraries contain some other not-often seen gems, like the circulating picture collections at the FLP and NYPL. Imagine google image search, before the era of the internet. There are dozens of file cabinets full of tear-sheets, brochures, and other ephemera, and it’s categorized by subject. You can actually check these out too if you have a card:

from the circulating picture collection, FLP

would never have found these otherwise

Your library card can also get you free passes to museums. A couple of weeks ago I used my card to get a pass to see the Roz Chast show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (which was so good), and before that I used it to get into the Pacific Pinball Museum (highly recommended also). I also use my card to get e-books, audiobooks, and movies. 

 If you know there’s a book you really want to look at, but your library doesn’t have it in their collection, talk to your librarian about a service called interlibrary loan to request the book be sent to your library from another institution. For this you need a library card. Another option if your library doesn’t have a certain book is to make a request that the library purchases that book. 

 I do so much research online through google and social media because it’s convenient. These platforms are a useful vehicle for inspiration because other people whose tastes you share and like are now accessible; you can see what they’re working on, what materials they use, and what they’re inspired by. But I wonder if there’s a creative downside to using social media and the internet as your primary and singular source of visual inspiration, a sort of creative inbreeding that might be happening when you look at the same source materials that a lot of other people are also looking at. Searching for and finding materials in person, looking at items that aren’t archived on the internet, yields much richer results. It’s a different experience when you look through a stack of books for inspiration and talk to someone about what you’re finding exciting, versus doing some google image searches or taking screenshots of other people’s posts. 

OHO! A book that can be read left to right and upside down by the Whistler brothers (1946)

 Beyond the personal creative gain in using libraries, there is a larger political reason why you should use them: turnstile clicks count. The more these special collections and resources are used, the more libraries can advocate for their existence. In the latest FY 2018 budget proposal, President Trump has called for the elimination of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the main source of federal support for libraries and museums in the United States. While most books aren’t purchased with federal funding, IMLS funds things like promoting access to resources, improving library services, encouraging resource sharing between libraries, and promoting librarianship amongst people of color in the communities they grew up in. This elimination reflects a stance that books, libraries, and the specialization that they offer are not important and not worth preserving. You can prove them wrong by getting a library card, using your library, and getting your friends to use it too. 

 I can’t encourage people enough to use libraries for inspiration, particularly special collections. I personally am so accustomed to paying for resources and materials in person -- going to a museum, seeing a show, that I often forget that many things are available to us for free. Buying books, period, is expensive, nevermind rare or out-of-print books, and when you purchase books or use something like google for inspiration, you’re not getting the help of someone who knows how to find materials, or has come across something amazing in their collection that they’re dying to share with someone.

K-Fai Steele writes and draws, and she lives in San Francisco. She has worked for the Free Library of Philadelphia, and now works with a bunch of libraries (and museums) through the National Writing Project. You can see more of her drawings on Instagram.


  1. I loved your article!! I don't know what I would have done growing up without my local library! I like to support them now by donating my books to their books sales which is one way they are funded. And if you live where there is a smaller branch, usually they are part of the larger county system and you can have a book sent over to your branch from any of the others. It is amazing that this resource still exists completely free to the public!

    1. I know, what did we do to deserve libraries?