For years, Ohio State University (OSU) has had a collection of graphic novels, editorial cartoons, and comic strips that could go toe to toe with archives the world over. What it didn’t have was a space that did that collection justice. For decades, OSU’s cartoon collection, which includes more than 2.5 million comic strips spanning decades of American newspapers, was housed in a pair of disused rooms in the school’s journalism building. A recent move to renovated space in the University’s Sullivant Hall, though, means that the decades of pop culture history housed at OSU’s newly-minted Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum (BICLM) finally has a happy home, and one that staff are eager to introduce to the public.
The new space measures 30,000 square feet, a significant upgrade from the 6,800 square foot space previously available to the cartoon and comic collection. In addition to doubling the storage space available so the staff can keep more items on site and at-hand for researchers, that means the new BICLM space has a larger, more comfortable reading room for scholars studying the history of cartoon and comic art, as well as two exhibition spaces where the gems of the collection—including the original pages of author and OSU alumni Jeff Smith’s award-winning epic fantasy Bone—can come out to shine.
In the collection’s former home, access was an issue for curators. Many items had to be stored off-site, and the small space didn’t provide an inviting atmosphere for researchers, much less casual comics fans. And the material that was on-site wasn’t necessarily easy to explore. “People know how to look for a book in a library,” said Robb. “Our collection can be harder to navigate.” With more room to display the works and a larger reading room, Robb told LJ that being more inviting to the general public is a priority for the BICLM.
Creating a space that’s welcoming to comics fans of all stripes, said Robb, is important because of the nature of comics and cartoons. The mass appeal of the medium means that whether it’s Spider-Man or Cathy, almost everyone has a favorite character whose exploits they follow. While it’s not as high-brow as other art collections, that appeal makes it just as important to preserve. “Cartoon and comics are art and literature and entertainment and commerce that millions of people consume,” Robb pointed out. “OSU is positioned to be a leader in preserving those materials.”
Creating a new space for that preservation presented significant challenges for Robb and her staff. From single strips to comic books to full size Sunday funnies, some of which used to take up full broadsheet newspaper pages, there are a lot of different shapes and sizes to deal with at the BICLM “One of the challenges of our collections is the wide variety of formats we work with,” said Robb. “We have works on paper, 3D merchandise like sculptures, and now we’re starting to look at digital collections as well.” Working with OSU on the renovation from start to finish meant not only that Robb and her staff got to double the space they were working with for storage, they also got to help determine what that space looks like, blending regular book and periodical storage with copious space for flat racks and portfolio storage.
With the renovation behind her, Robb is now looking forward to getting back to the business of curating the collection at the BICLM, which is named for Billy Ireland, a cartoonist who mentored coimcs legend Milton Caniff, the creator of titles like Terry and the Pirates whose papers formed the nucleus of the early collection of comic and cartoon art at OSU. The BICLM celebrated its opening with a history of cartooning and a primer on the artistic techniques used in it, entitled Subsatance and Shadow. Next March, meanwhile, will see a new exhibit on the work of legendary Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson, who had put the entire run of original strips of the much-loved series on deposit with the new museum.