University has largest Indian comics collection in North America

Portrait by Sonny An | The Daily Illini

By Stephanie Kim

Resting on the shelves in the basement of the Undergraduate Library is a collection unique to the country: the largest collection of Indian comics in North America.

“Nobody else in the country has a collection like this,” said Mara Thacker, librarian and professor in South Asian studies. “People might have started buying comics, but certainly not at the rate and volume we are.”

The collection, which is nearing a thousand pieces in volume, includes comics ranging from tales of South Asian religion and mythology to Western-influenced superhero plots. Some are printed in English while others are written in Hindi and Bengali scripts.

Thacker first came up with the idea of starting the collection in 2012, with the help of David Ward, reference services librarian at the UGL.

Ward asked whether she knew about any Indian comics to add to the UGL’s graphic novel collection. Since then, the collection became a collaborative project between the International and Area Studies Library and the UGL, which Thacker said also ties in with the overall goal of making University libraries more diverse for its patrons.

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“The uniqueness is one of the things we first thought about,” Ward said. “It’s an area that’s not being collected heavily elsewhere in the United States, which provides the opportunity to have this unique collection.”

At around the same time, Thacker attended a workshop for the Committee on South Asian Libraries and Documentation to discuss the specialization for each university involved. That’s when she realized nobody had collected comics from South Asia, she said.

“I really wanted an area that was manageable and wasn’t being done anywhere else and was personally interesting for me,” she added.

However, while students, faculty and community members can easily access these comics now, it took about a year and a half before the books were finally on the shelves. Thacker said building any collection is challenging — let alone one that consists of material that is “nearly impossible” to purchase and very difficult to catalogue.

“People have no idea of the amount of back work behind the scenes just to make a book available,” she said.

Because Indian comics are hard to find in the US and most Indian sellers do not ship internationally, Thacker had no other choice but to go to India to make purchases.

In 2013, she traveled to India and attended one of the largest comic conventions in New Delhi. There, she met with comic book publishers, built connections and bought more than 700 comics to start the collection. In February, she went on a second buying trip and purchased another batch of comic books from vintage and Bangladesh sellers.

As for the cataloguing process, the Indian comics were quite a “beast,” said Nicole Ream-Sotomayor, foreign language cataloging specialist.

In fact, the comics proved to be the hardest material she has ever had to catalog, she said. Apart from creating an entirely new database for the Indian comics, she also had to teach herself how to read Hindi and Bengali scripts first.

But even if the process was long and arduous, the value the collection brings to the University is well worth it — a thought that Ward, Thacker and Ream-Sotomayor all agreed on.

“That’s the great thing about a library,” Thacker said. “I view us not as just the partners in education and a repository of books and online resources. We’re also supposed to be a center for cultural and intellectual life on campus — and part of that can be fun.”

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