It might be tucked away on the third floor of the Lillian H Smith Children's library branch of TPL, but the Merril Collection is not for kids. Of the 75,000 items in the science fiction, fantasy and horror collection, about 1,700 are graphic novels. In order to keep an archive, the collection doesn't circulate -- known in the library business as a closed stack -- but the librarians are happy to take you through it.
Before I meet Lorna Toolis in person, I already like her. The SF-loving, Tank Girl-quoting librarian has been the caretaker of the Merril Collection for almost 30 years. Sitting at her desk in her office, which is camouflaged behind a faux-steel bolted door reminiscent of a steampunk spaceship, I ask her what she likes best about her job. "I like the books, I like the people, I like everything about it," she tells me.
To say Toolis is a subject expert would be an understatement; she has the precision of a collector and the enthusiasm of a fan. She co-edited Tesseracts 4, an anthology of Canadian speculative fiction writing, with her husband Michael Skeet. She's been collecting fantasy and SF graphic novels for the Merril Collection – mainstream titles are the domain of TCAF at the Toronto Reference Library – since the early 90s, and a lot has changed since then. It's not just art students and superhero fans anymore.
"Now we have masters and PhD students working on their theses who need research material," she explains. At first, they were looking at racism or sexism in graphic novels, and now the topics have moved more broadly into popular culture, or into more esoteric areas such as panel design. She's also introduced a restaurant designer to HR Giger ("I will never eat at that restaurant!") and provided an industrial designer with all the Batman he needed to design some running shoes.
"We get ten times the requests for Batman than for any other superhero," Toolis adds. "It's that dark brooding zeitgeist, I suppose."
She guides me through the staff offices – she operates 40 hours a week including "a lot of events" with "four and a half staff...In 2010 we did 23 events. It was too many. We almost died." – into the stacks, where the graphic novels are front and centre. She pulls out a first edition Flash Gordon, and a hardcover of Phil Foglio's HUGO-winning Girl Genius, first published as a web comic.
Toolis is always conscious of the shifting formats common in these genres – for example The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was first a radio play, then a series of records, then a book, then a TV series, a video game, and a movie. "For researchers the question is, if you change the form, are you changing the subtext, which is important because pop culture is all about subtext," she says, urging me to take a photo of the Terry Pratchett because "the TV show is coming out soon, and people are anticipating it."
To support those various avenues of inquiry, the collection also includes critical material that pertains to graphic novel research, from a top-notch pulp collection to beautiful editions of French illustrator Moebius to rare copies of the Toronto Star's weekend science fiction supplement from the 1950s and 1960s.
One format Merrill doesn't include is video games, because, as Toolis explains, "we are interested, but the technology hasn't stabilized.
Inspired by our discussion about how format changes influence subtext, I'm going to revisit some of my favourite graphic novels that have been made into movies, and see how they compare. Stay tuned.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Carey Toane is a librarian, journalist and poet. Her first collection of poems, The Crystal Palace, was published in 2011 by Mansfield Press. She lives in Toronto, where she is currently working on a collection of poems inspired by and dedicated to Twin Peaks. She is on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/careygrrl
You can contact Carey throughout the month of May at firstname.lastname@example.org