"Youth services librarianship, a profession whose work centered on selecting and recommending books to young people in school and public libraries, was an established profession. Yet, in 1938, the profession found itself struggling against an upstart medium: comic books."
- Carol L. Tilley, Of Nightingales and Supermen: How Youth Services Librarians Responded to Comics Between the Years 1938 and 1955
Skimming Larry Tye’s new biography Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Random House, 2012), I came across a quote that lauded the Pratt Library for its foresight in championing comic books both as a tool for improving young reader's advisory and boosting circulation: "Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore was the first to use Superman to attract kids in 1940, and the technique spread." Intrigued, I decided to investigate the Library’s connection to America’s most enduring superhero, who made his national debut in Action Comics #1 some 75 years ago.
Created by the team of writer Jerry Siegel (based on his 1933 short story "The Reign of the Super-Man") and artist Joe Schuster, Superman debuted in the June 1938 issue of the DC Comics-predecessor National Allied Publication’s Action Comics and became an instant sensation. That first issue quickly sold out its run of 200,000 copies, with the series soon approaching sales of almost 1 million copies per month as Superman became the most popular superhero in America.
By the spring of 1940, Elizabeth Hart, a librarian at Waverly Branch, had become a fan after stumbling upon a "recommended book list" of over 100 children’s classics appearing in Superman Quarterly #4 (Spring 1940). Hart cut out Superman’s book list, added her own "reader's advisory" (a fundamental library service used to suggest titles to readers based on age, reading level, curriculum or interests), and posted it on the library’s bulletin board. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response the list generated among boys and girls alike at Waverly Branch, Hart developed a window-sized poster of Superman, as well as flyers to further publicize the recommendations.
Hart wrote about her promotional experiment in the library’s Staff Reporter newsletter that March (Vol. 7, No. 5, March 1, 1940, which can be found in the Maryland Department). Her article "There's a Giant on the Beach" discussed the popularity of comic books and revealed that her own interest was piqued after observing that "young people frequenting Branch 9 [Waverly Branch] often brought their own copies of Marvel Mystery Comics, Slam-Bang Comics, Amazing Mystery Funnies, etc. to read in the library in preference to our books."
She decided to read some comic books to better understand them and suggested that all librarians should follow her example for a better understanding of the "psychology of the American masses." She recommended "advertising juvenile classics" with the help of the Superman book list and directing young people to the fantasies and adventure works of writers such as Doyle, Wells, and Stevenson. She concluded the article with this resolve: "If we librarians can't keep this giant tied down, we can at least enlist him in our service."
A little more than a week after Hart's article appeared in the Library’s internal newsletter, the Baltimore Evening Sun published a brief article "Superman Does Super Job for Library Circulation," about the library’s experiment.
"The Enoch Pratt Library enlisted the aid of the Superman today and the man from a distant planet performed a near miracle with his usual dispatch," the Evening Sun reported. A sub-headline added that the Man of Steel’s "recommendation" brought young readers to their "special self."
Assistant librarian Francis St. John told the Sun, "Superman has succeeded in a project wherein the library’s success was limited—he has convinced the library’s young readers that they should read books that the library has been recommending in a select list for young readers."
Although librarians had already been recommending titles like Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, St. John observed that Superman’s personal "stamp of approval" instantly boosted circulation of these young adult classics. (And, after all, Superman’s biological mother Lara Lor-Van was a librarian-archivist on Krypton, so giving reader’s advisory may well have been in his blood!)
In Carol L. Tilley’s book Of Nightingales and Supermen: How Youth Services Librarians Responded to Comics Between the Years 1938 and 1955, the author speculated that the Pratt Library’s experiment may have motivated DC/Action Comics to develop additional book lists in hopes of other libraries utilizing Superman materials. Regardless, soon other libraries across the nation were undertaking similar trials and experiencing similar boosts in circulation.
One thing is for sure: the Pratt Library's experiment in letting children's reading interests guide reader's advisory lists, rather than the other way around, helped change one of the basic tenets of "youth services" librarians: that kids should be told what to read.
The Pratt Library’s once-radical leadership in this area is now an accepted norm of reader's advisory, a lesson we see in action today as children's and young adult librarians across the nation program Wii events, sponsor anime clubs, and amass graphic novel and manga collections—all guided by the principle of youth interest and appeal factors.