March 20, 2018

Academic Librarians Get Graphic

Library Ninjas comic coverKansas State University Salina and Kansas Wesleyan University partnered to create a graphic novel that explains how to conduct effective library research. Heidi Blackburn, undergraduate services librarian at Kansas State Salina, and Kate Wise, associate librarian at Kansas Wesleyan, worked with Kansas State Salina student Greg Charland to create storyboards. Blackburn and Wise wrote the instructional portion, and Charland co-wrote and illustrated the result: Legends of the Library Ninjas: A Quest for Knowledge.

Undead Inspiration

The comic was inspired by a similar effort at a nearby institution, Blackburn told LJ. McPherson College’s Miller Library created the Library of the Living Dead comic a couple of years ago. Blackburn and Wise frequently collaborate with the creators, Matt Upson and Michael Hall, because their schools are nearby and have similar student populations. So they were excited about the concept and waited eagerly for the results.

When Upson and Hall officially presented at the Kansas Library Association Spring Conference, “We immediately asked Michael Hall if he could do” something similar for them, Blackburn said, “but he was committed to other libraries who had gotten to him first.” So they turned to Charland, who was so intrigued by the project that he gave them a discount on his fee. Charland was paid out of a $3,500 K-State Academic Excellence Award grant, which also covered the K-State portion of the printing costs. Library Ninjas was printed by print-on-demand graphic novel publisher, ComixPress, and online access was set up through Issuu, so they could track analytics.

Since McPherson had just done zombies, K-State and Kansas Wesleyan chose ninjas based on a long-standing campus joke. “We joke that we have them because chairs gets pushed in and stations cleaned up but nobody ever sees anyone doing those things.” Blackburn assured LJ that the ninja characters are not based on her or Wise personally.

Measuring Comic Impact

To assess the first appearance of the library ninja trioviability of the project, the librarians conducted a survey in advance, and found that 66 percent of K-State students surveyed were optimistic about using a graphic novel as a handbook, and 54 percent at Kansas Wesleyan. According to Blackburn, they found that freshmen and sophomores were extremely receptive to the idea, while juniors and seniors were not as open to it. Blackburn attributes the difference in part to the fact that juniors and seniors have more specific research needs, based on their majors, rather than library skills in general, and in part to the fact that more recently matriculated students are more familiar with graphic novels being present in their high school library collections. (K-State maintains a small graphic novel collection of its own as well.)

Kansas State Salina debuted the book at a Library Ninjas party during the campus’ Wildcat Welcome Week in August, and all K-State Salina Freshman University Experience courses, as well as other introductory courses, added the graphic novel to their library instruction curriculum. It was announced on Facebook, Twitter, and the library blog. Advance copies were given to the admissions and public relations offices, the writing center, and academic advising. A display and print copies were available in the library, and a link to the electronic version on the library website. All Kansas Wesleyan University freshmen received the book during library instruction day in early September, as part of Wesleyan Challenge, a required first-year experience program. An email introducing the graphic novel was sent to the faculty and the public relations office. An announcement was made on the college’s home page, and the library’s, with a link to the electronic version, and it was supported by a display in the library’s main case.

Library ninjas serve up materialsAfterwards, both schools surveyed students in their university experience courses to see whether the comic had been a success. Said Blackburn, “the assessment turned out much better than we even anticipated.” Blackburn and Wise had expected about half of the students to successfully demonstrate the skills taught in the comic; actually, the results were higher, with over 80 percent on both campuses now able to successfully use Boolean search strings, and about 60 percent to identify the online catalog as the way to find books. Some 49 percent of K-State students could identify interlibrary loan, and 73 percent of Kansas Wesleyan students.

Not only was the comic effective, it was appealing. Some 84 percent of K-State students surveyed rated the graphic novel as “awesome” or “pretty cool”, and 65 percent of Kansas Wesleyan students. About half of the students said they would refer to the comic again in future.

Neither campus showed any difference in response between the print and electronic versions of the comic. And both have seen increased traffic to the library this year, though Blackburn is careful to note that other factors mean that increase can’t necessarily be correlated to the comic: Kansas Wesley added a new academic success center to the library and K-State added two new majors to the campus. And once those additional bodies get to the library, they’re also behaving differently: Blackburn says “we’ve seen an increase in students helping themselves to our stacks, doing self-service, rather than immediately going to the desk.”

There’s no sequel in the works, at least for now. Next steps for the library ninjas include being “consistently implemented in our university experience courses as part of the permanent curriculum” and tracking the results over several years.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Hooray! Kate Wise is my twin sister, and Heidi is a great friend and colleague. I’m so proud of them and their awesome creative efforts to engage their library populations. Congrats friends!

  2. I am SO happy that what Matt and I started has gone on to inspire others. I wish I’d had time to work on this book for Katie and Heidi, but they did a bang-up job without me! Great work!

    • Heidi Blackburn says:

      We owe a lot of credit not only to you and Matt, but also to our very talented artist, Greg “Inky” Charland, whose work can also be seen in the hilariously geeky web comic “Five and Dime Comics.”

  3. I see that the graphic novel may be viewed. Are other libraries able to use it?

    • Heidi Blackburn says:

      Yes! Other libraries are welcome to use it, we just ask that they contact us so we can hear where and how other libraries are using our work. We put it online so others could use it for educational purposes.

  4. Unfortunately they’ve made a grave error- the plural of ninja is ninja, not ninjas…

  5. This could really work as an introduction to college research for our Learning Framework course. Just wondering if there might be one produced for Academic Libraries (basically replacing Dewey with LC)?

    • Heidi Blackburn says:

      We did consider how most academic libraries use LC, but it was purely coincidence that both our campuses use Dewey for historical reasons, so it worked out well for this version for our First-Year Experience courses. It is definitely something we can consider in the future, now that we know there is interest.

    • The comics that Mike and I have made are also Dewey oriented. Oddly, none of the academic libraries we have worked with use LC. Right now, I’m working on a lengthier comic (100-150 pages) geared toward use in info lit courses or one-shots sessions/modules. The proposal is currently out for review with an academic publisher. This would be a more generic guide/textbook that is aimed at undergrads and would feature segments on both LC and Dewey. We’ll lose a lot of the institution-specific, customized cool factor that is part of what Heidi, Kate, Mike, and I have done, but it will hopefully make up for it in breadth and depth of content. Humor will still play a big role and we’ll keep poking fun at library stereotypes and misconceptions.

    • In the library comics Matt and I have produced, we have yet to have a client ask us to produce one using LC (I’m working on book #5 right now and have contracts for two more). It’s odd.

  6. Cool stuff :)