Comics & the Superpowers of Catalog/Metadata Librarians: Beinecke Illuminated visual podcast no. 2

May 23, 2019

By Michael Morand

Our visual podcasts series takes you behind the scenes of the work, collections, and programs of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
In the second episode, Tubyez Cropper, communications associate at the library, talks with Brenna Bychowski, catalog/metadata librarian, about her career overall and about some current work cataloging comics. 


Tubyez Cropper (TC): Hello everyone, and welcome back to Beinecke Illuminated. I am your host, Tubyez Cropper. Now for those of you who have missed the first episode, this is basically a visual podcast where I talk to different Beinecke staff about their favorite items in this vast collection that we have here at the Beinecke. So today I have Brenna Bychowski, and Brenna how are you?
Brenna Bychowski (BB): I’m great, how are you?
TC: Wonderful. So, Brenna has some amazing things here to talk about, probably one of my favorites so far, it’s just amazing, we’ll get into it in a bit. But first let’s just talk about you for a second. Tell us what you do at the Beinecke, your official title, what you’re currently working on, and how’d you get into this line of work? 
BB: My title is Catalog/Metadata Librarian, and I work in the rare book cataloging unit. We handle pretty much all the materials that are not manuscript – books, serials, pamphlets, broadsides, but then also things like maps, any sort of graphic materials, so we get games sometimes, board games or card games. We also do realia, so that’s like toys, the rare bottle of aftershave, all sorts of weird and interesting things like that. And as a cataloger, my job is to describe these things in our online catalog so that researchers can find them. Ideally they can find things that they know they’re looking for, but then if we’re doing our jobs well they find things that they didn’t know they were looking for. So that they can find out all the amazing things that we have on whatever topic it is that interests them. And sometimes that’s as simple as copying information from the item into the catalog, and sometimes that involves research to sort of pin down dates and who created things, and how different items are related. It’s a lot of fun, and we just get to see the wide array of everything that we have here. It’s fabulous.
TC: That sounds amazing. And before you continue I do want to point out the best thing about this visual podcast is we’re showing a lot of things that people don’t know about, that people don’t know exist here at the Beinecke that we collect. So yeah, Brenna, how did you get into this line of work? How did it all start?
BB: Well, I was a history major in undergrad, as were so many librarians, and I knew I was going to library school right afterwards, which I know is pretty unusual for a lot of librarians. They kind of fall into it sideways. But I knew that was what I was going to do. But when I started library school, I thought I was going to go into reference and public services because I was learning so many amazing research skills that I really wanted to be able to share with undergrads. Like, “I wish I’d known this when I was a history major, I want to pass that on.” But then one of my classes did a visit to the rare book library on campus—I was at Indiana University so this is the Lilly Library, which is an amazing repository that just has all sorts of fabulous things—and I saw just the cool things in the collection, everything from a Shakespeare first folio to Oscars, and I was like oh, hmm, maybe this is the kind of place I want to work. I was still thinking reference, so I did an internship in public services, got to curate some exhibitions, give some tours, and it was a lot of fun. So, then that turned into a job working in the reading room there as a student, as like, how much time can I spend there, I want to get all the skills that I can. And I became friends with one of the catalogers there, and she was like “You should let me teach you to catalog. Because I think you’d like it.” Finally I broke down and was like “Okay, teach me how to catalog.” And I really enjoyed that too. But I enjoyed everything, I also did archival processing while I was there, I tried to do a little bit of whatever I could just to work with these materials and get some experience. When it came time to start applying for jobs, public services skills are really transferrable. You can use the same skills at a rare book library, a public library, an academic library, there’s a lot going on there. But rare book cataloguing tends to involve a little bit more of a different skillset then traditional cataloguing does. And so, there was a lot more competition for public services jobs than cataloguing jobs. It was cataloguing jobs that started responding, and I thought, “Sure, I’ll take whatever I can to get an actual job.” But then once I was cataloguing regularly I was like, oh no, this is what I love. I love getting into the materials and getting to spend time getting to know them, and it’s one of the best ways to learn a collection anywhere, to just spend time describing it so that other people can find it.
TC: Great, so what do you have for us today?
BB: Today, I have comics books. I brought in some issues of both the Batman comic and Detective Comics, which is one of DC’s earliest ensemble comics where various characters would show up, and that’s where they would introduce new characters to see if people like them. If they did, then they would get their own spinoffs. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics before he got his own series. He still appeared in detective comics. 
TC: And Batman just recently had his 80th anniversary, right?
BB: Yes, he did. Of his first appearance of an issue of Detective Comics. He first appeared there, then he got his own spinoff series. But, of course, with all major super heroes, there’s lots of other really cool characters around him. A character that was introduced in the late sixties to go with him was Batgirl. There have been several “Batgirls” over the years, but the first one was Barbara Gordon. She’s the daughter of police commissioner, James Gordon. She is a librarian, which is why I like her so much. She’s the head librarian of the Gotham Library. What I did not know, until I started working with these (because I never spent a lot of time looking at old comics. I mostly read contemporary comics), was that she would use her librarian skills to solve crime, which is just amazing. What librarian doesn’t want to secretly solve crime? For example, she has a story in issue number 410 of Detective Comics, and she’s even on the cover of it. “Batman & Batgirl,” where she happens to be at work and notices some people acting suspiciously and knows that there’s this big bruhaha happening in the fashion industry, where this model is going to be setting the trends for the next few years. There’s all sorts of espionage going on to find out what she’s going to do. She sees people looking at books about fashion history, and this one guy returns them. The next guy is like “Oh I’d like to see those!” and she’s like “Sorry you can’t until they’ve been checked back in.” She gets them right out of his way. She’s like “But I know what they are, so I know what you’re looking for….” 
TC: And you’ve brought in a few boxes, so I’m very curious on how large the collection of comics is. Do you have an idea or an approximate number of boxes?
BB: The total number of comics that we have? I do not even know. But the collection that I have been working with, those nice big boxes that the manuscript unit uses, I had about nine of those just full of comics. I’ve windowed it down to about six or seven now, so I’m making progress.
TC: So that is the batgirl comic. What were the other ones that you wanted to show?
BB: We have another issue of Detective Comics, and you can tell how popular Batgirl was because she was getting her name on the front along with Batman.
TC: Is this before Robin? 
BB: No. Robin is here definitely. A lot of the Batman stories will feature Robin. The thing with the Detective Comics is that you usually have multiple stories in one issue. It’s not just one issue that’s one story. If you put multiple characters on the cover, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re interacting it just means each of them has a story. Batgirl’s story in this is like a solo adventure. She isn’t necessarily helping Batman, which is fun because she gets to go and do things by herself. In this particular story, her father is asking for her help because there’s been a crime, this building has burned down and they found a library book in the wreckage. He says, “Why don’t you take this and see what you can tell me. It’s a book about subversive politic stuff. It leads her to this underground group of rabble-rousers. The girl who checked it out isn’t super invested in it. She’s just been reading up on it, and getting pulled in by the wrong crowd. Of course, Batgirl comes and saves her and helps shut down all of the bad things that this group is planning on doing to Gotham. 
TC: I can just imagine how much you geek out about this stuff when it reaches your desk. That’s the most fun job to have. What was the third one we have here?
BB: So, the third one is an actual issue of Batman, rather than detective comics. It does feature our friends Batman and Robin. One of the funny things about this particular story is that batgirl does not know that Bruce Wayne is Batman’s secret identity. He also does not know that she is Barbara Gordon because of course you never tell anyone your secret identity. He’s trying to get her to help him solve this case. To earn her trust, he decides to reveal his secret identity. He shows that he is Bruce Wayne, but he makes it seem like it’s make-up and a mask that he’s wearing. She’s like, “Oh you can’t fool me. You’re pretending to be Bruce Wayne, but I can see through you,” and so it’s like a double blind in that he actually is Bruce Wayne. It ends with her father having a dinner with Barbara and Bruce Wayne at the table and they’re all just interacting and none of them have any idea of who they are. 
TC: I could imagine that in a TV show, just imagining that scene. 
BB: This one also is fun with the librarian stuff because you also actually get to see her looking in a card file, which of course we don’t have a lot of in our libraries anymore. But in special collections, we still have a few of them. Then you get this wonderful action sequence of her changing into her Batgirl costume and talking about how the sweater she was wearing is her normal work clothes, just reversed to be a part of her costume. She can turn her handbag inside out to be her gear bag, and she has these crazy “laya buns” going on and glasses. It’s very stereotypical librarian.
TC: I’m sure you go through decades of comics. Do you see a progression of illustration in it? Do you see a whole shift in the way they created these comic books and these character costumes eTC?
BB: Definitely. Lots of characters go through look changes. Especially for the longest running comic series.  The creator involved don’t stay the same. They change over time. So, the writers will change, the artists will change. Sometimes it’s issue to issue s they’re trying to find the right the mesh of people. But then you’ll get artists who have a really long run and any new writer or artist will add they’re stamp to a character. The men’s costumes tended to stay a little stabler than the women did because there’s definitely shifted with the fashions of the time. They’ll have go-go boots or short boots. The most obvious progression of any one given character’s outfit that I saw was Supergirl. In the span of ten years she went through about five or six different costumes. Long capes to short capes. Leggings, miniskirts, hot pants, thigh high boots, go-go boots. So, I think it was just a response to the seventies and everything changing so fast. 
TC: So as of now, is any of this stuff available for anybody to look at and research?
BB: Oh definitely. As soon as I’m finished cataloging something- once it’s in the catalog, people can come and look at things. One of the really nice things about what I’m getting to do is- a lot of the series that I’ve been working with, I’m adding to things that we already have. So, either we already have a pretty substantial run and I’m adding 20 issues or something. Or we might have two or three issues and I’m adding like 30 or 40. A lot of these are already in the catalog, but the way people think about comic books has changed a lot in the past 20 to 30 years. Traditionally, we treat these as serials. You have one record for a whole title, and traditionally with serials, you don’t trace contributors because there’s so many of them. They change so much, and there’s only so much space that you have in a record. You can’t trace 150 people because that just goes crazy. But the contributors of comic books are really important to the writers and the artists. I’m now adding that information to the records. I can’t do everybody, but anybody who does a substantial amount with any given title, I’ll trace the writers and the artists. But I’ve also been trying to be good with tracing the contributors who tended to get less recognition like letterers and the colorists. That’s particularly important with early comics because it’s very easy to think of comics traditionally being for guys. The art is usually tailored towards young men, and all of the famous writers and illustrators were men. But a lot of women were involved in early comics., but they were mostly letterers and colorists, who tend to fall to the bottom and get a lot less recognition. So being able to bring out those contributions is really rewarding and one of the reasons that I love doing this. 
TC: I love your job. So, for those of you who are interested in looking at these comics and want to fan over these amazing illustrations, they are available. Brenna, thank you so much for coming and talking to us about this. Is there anything else that you wanted to put out there or reiterate about Beinecke’s policies? 
BB: Just to say that we have an amazing selection of things here. It’s really easy to think of a rare book library as a place that has lots of fancy old books – illuminated manuscripts and early printed things like the Gutenberg Bible. That’s certainly what my idea of rare book library was. But we have so much more than that, including comic books. That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing necessarily that would be special enough to be here, but it is because they are important cultural artifacts that tell us what people actually liked to read for fun. The catalog is a great place to start to look for these things. It certainly can be intimidating. There’s a lot of stuff in there. Always talk to the librarians and ask about search terms and things like that. If you are interested in the comics, all of the records should have a nice little term in them called “comics.” You can put that into the catalog and easily find everything that we have. Just poking around and seeing what is there because 95% sure whatever you’re interested in, we have something. And don’t afraid to ask questions. Librarians are totally here to help you, and everyone has so much knowledge that we’re pretty much all happy to word vomit over anyone who is willing to listen to us. Give us the chance and we will impart anything we can to help.
TC: This has been another episode of Beinecke Illuminated. Brenna, thank you so much for coming, and we will see you next time.