By Matthew R. Dyer, Head, Employee Services & Marsha McDevitt-Stredney, Director, Marketing & Communications, State Library of Ohio
Amongst Ohio’s many points of pride has to be the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University. Hailed as our nation’s largest and most comprehensive academic research facility documenting American cartoon art, the non-circulating collection began in 1977 with a gift of the Milton Caniff Collection. The collection has grown, thanks to generous gifts-in-kind, to include 450,000 original cartoons, 36,000 books, 51,000 serial titles, 3,000 linear feet of manuscript materials, and 2.5 million comic strip clippings and tear sheets.
Every three years, the Cartoon Library and Museum draws international attention and attendance for the Festival of Cartoon Art. For two days, cartoonists, comics scholars, fans, collectors and students enjoy lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions, receptions and other special events. The next festival will be held October 14 – 17, 2010.
Although exhibits are open to the public, the library and museum is an archival facility and access to the collections is limited. Fortunately, many items in the collections have been digitized and are available to view online at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum website.
Matthew R. Dyer recently talked with Jenny Robb, Assistant Professor and Associate Curator of the Cartoon Library & Museum.
Matthew: Tell me about your favorite piece in the collection.
Jenny: It’s hard to choose a favorite! If I had to choose one, I would say the Hale Scrapbook. [It’s] a scrapbook that was created around the time that Jane Austin lived and it’s one of the oldest items in our collection. It has lots of printed cartoons from the time period that somebody put together in a scrapbook. It’s a gigantic book as well, so it’s a really interesting object. The person who purchased it at auction was told that it had belonged to the Hale family in Boston, and so we’ve always just called it “The Hale Scrapbook.”
Matthew: What is the one piece in your collection that just can’t be missed - the biggest “must see” for any visitor.
Jenny: Another tough question! (Laughs) Everybody likes different cartoons; everybody has their favorites. So, I would say that anybody who’s coming to visit and wants to see something from our collection should pick what it is that they like. So, for example, you might love Calvin & Hobbes, or you might love Peanuts, or you might love Superman comic books, so the must-see would be whatever it is you're most interested in. I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t like any cartoons or comics; usually people like something. Even people that will say to me, “You know I don’t really read the comics much” or “I don’t read cartoons much” will usually add "but I love the Far Side," or some other particular title.
Matthew: So is your collection pretty much – if it’s out there, you have it? Or you have access to it? Or…?
Jenny: We may or may not have it, it just depends. We try to collect as comprehensively as we can. Our main focus is on American printed cartoon-art. But we do have a large collection of Japanese Manga. And we might have things in different formats: so we might have the actual printed piece if it’s a comic book, we might have clippings of comic strips from actual newspapers, we might have it collected in an anthology or book format, or we also might have original art, so it just depends. Our goal is to have a representative sample of all professional cartoonists.
Matthew: Tell me about the most controversial piece in your collection.
Jenny: Well, a lot of our historic editorial cartoons and comic strips have racial stereotypes that are offensive to our contemporary sensibilities. We look at them today, and we realize how completely unacceptable they are. But in the time period they were created, it was acceptable to portray people of a particular race, ethnicity, or nationality in that way. Whenever we’re exhibiting those works, or showing them to people, we want them to understand that they are historical items that help us document the past.
Matthew: Is there something that people might skip over or don’t pay attention to, but they really should? Or something that people might take for granted and under-estimate its value or contribution to cartoon art?
Jenny: (long pause) There are so many cartoons out there that don’t get all the credit they deserve as incredible works of art. One artist in particular that we have tried to draw attention to because his work is so amazing but has been largely forgotten, is Billy Ireland. [He comes to mind because] our name is now the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. His granddaughter gave us a very generous donation to name the library, and we’re actually doing an exhibition of his work right now at the Thompson Library Gallery. He drew full newspaper page cartoons that were called The Passing Show. They consisted of multiple panels talking about current events, or personalities, or things going on in Columbus. Each one is a little bit of history, and they’re just beautifully drawn. Ireland was a self-taught artist which makes [his work] even more exceptional. His work is really special, and unfortunately he’s not remembered today. When he worked for The Columbus Dispatch from 1898-1935 he was very popular and very well known.
Matthew: What would you like to share about the upcoming Festival of Cartoon Art?
Jenny: We have two events that are open to the public, so if people are interested in attending, those are the two that I’d recommend. Both are at Mershon auditorium, and both require tickets which people can get at the Wexner Center Box Office. One is An Evening with Matt Groening which is on Saturday night. Tickets for that are actually free, but you must have a ticket to be admitted.
The second one is on Sunday afternoon; it’s an Artist’s Talk with Art Spiegelman, who is a Wexner Center Residency Award artist. He’ll be giving a public lecture as a part of the festival. There is a charge for that, and people can get tickets at the Wexner Center Box Office.
Matthew: What else would you like to share about the collection?
Jenny: One thing to point out is that we operate like a rare-books room, so none of our objects circulate. The idea behind our library is to be sure that cartoons and comics are preserved and available to researchers. So even though there are items that seem very common, a lot of the items in our collection actually are very “rare.”
Anyone can come and do research in our reading room. We encourage people to e-mail or call us in advance to make an appointment and let us know what they want to see. That way we can be ready for them when they come to visit.
Also, we’re happy to let people to know that we’re scheduled to move into a new location in 2013 where we’ll have exhibition galleries that will be open to the public in addition to our reading room. Right now we do have exhibitions inside of our reading room, but the space is limited. We’re very excited to be going from 6,500 to 40,000 square feet where we’ll have the ability to show exhibitions separate from our reading room.Right now we’re in the basement of the Wexner Center complex, and our door is really kind of hidden, so a lot of people don’t even know we exist! Even Ohio State people don’t know that Ohio State has the largest collection of cartoon related materials in the world. The new location will have a ground level entrance right on the plaza, so we’ll be a lot more visible. We’re really excited about it; it’s going to be really wonderful!