When Archiving and Comics Collide

This interview is over 1 year old and may no longer be up to date or reflect the interviewee/interviewees’ positions

by Sandra Hoyer, Head Editor, INALJ Washington

When Archiving and Comics Collide: Tess McCarthy on Incorporating Creativity in Librarianship

profile pic2Tess McCarthy is the archivist at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco, California. She also draws comics. All artwork featured in this article is by Tess McCarthy . (Images used with permission.)

Tell us about yourself.

I am the resident archivist at The Center for Sex & Culture’s library/archive where I am earning my chops for at least another 6 months to fulfill my one year term. Besides archiving, one of my other passions is drawing comics. I used to draw a comic strip about the future of libraries called “Libraries of the Future.” I am currently developing and writing a comic called “Ghost Dog.”

As an archivist, I am really enjoying shaping a collection from the ground up. It has been a wonderful experience so far. The best thing about this position is calling the shots and finding out you have made a sound decision for the organization. It has given me confidence as an archivist/librarian and my experience will be valuable everywhere I go from here on in. SandraHoyer

If you were asked to describe yourself with ten fun facts about yourself, what would you pick?

1.  First in family to get a Masters degree
2. Former Miss Azusa contestant
3. Drove a school bus (hey, James Cameron drove a school bus)
4. Shot animation sequences on Art Clokey’s 35mm (rigged) stop motion camera
5. Was told by casting director I was too tall to be around Winona Ryder (who’s like 5’3″) and got booted off set for casting call
6. Did standup comedy for 7 weeks straight
7. Groomed a horse for 8 months before riding him
8. Love to swim but hate getting in the water (I don’t know if that’s fun, but it’s very revealing)
9. Can do a mean Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon pose) with the help of blocks
10. Recently exhibited comics in a multi-media art show

When did you begin drawing? What attracted you to comics specifically?

Everyone says that they began drawing as soon as they could hold a crayon, but I specifically started drawing with intention at the age of 12.

Originally, The World Book Encyclopedia for Children drove me to draw. I loved the illustrations. The particular series we had was from 1973 and I tried to copy everything. Also, there was an entry on “Cartooning” that attracted me to comics. I took all the information from that section to make my own comic strip by the time I was 13.

Way before drawing my own stuff, I remember being into comics long before that as a reader. My parents had a beer, wine and grocery store in East Hollywood and we sold MAD Magazine, Heavy Metal, comic novellas from Mexico and some dime store comics (like Marvel and DC titles). These comics never sold but I read them very delicately so as not to damage the merchandise–no one knew I read the novellas.

By the time I was a freshman in high school (about 15), I had a 3 panel comic about an invisible teddy bear. The strip was modeled after the Saturday Night Live skit “Mr. Bill.” After that I created “A Cow Named Luca” (Luca is taken from a Suzanne Vega song) about a mutated cow from Chernobyl who “floated” across the world and ended up in a farm in Iowa. I stopped doing comic strips in my late teens and early 20s and pursued animation and exhibiting paintings in LA.

Sometime later, a fellow artist prompted me to get back into making comics. In the 1990s, comics were dominated by men who went to art school and had major followings. Alcala was self-taught and a generation or two earlier. He was the late and great Alfredo Alcala (Christian Voltar Alcala, 2004) who created Voltar and did the penciling for Conan the Barbarian. At the time I knew him he was doing DC comics Swamp Thing. He told me, “Why waste your time painting when you have the ability to bring a whole world to people? Painting is so static.” He was a legend. When I think of influential people in my art, I would say it was Alfredo who told me all I needed was practice–not a degree. “Don’t waste your time and money to get a degree when all you need is to keep refining your technique. You can be taught tips, tricks, sure, but you still have to be the one to do all the work.”

I later took my first art class at 28 before I started taking animation courses at LACC. I showed an 8 mm short paper cut out, stop motion animation set to music at student open house and Scott Nordlund (who did the California Raisin commercials) approached me and said he was doing paper cut out animation for an Ani di Franco video and asked to join his team. I did cut outs for an animation sequence and just embedded myself in that downtown LA studio, I got to be around really amazing artists like the band, Glue and art director Zen Mansley.

After my stint doing animation, I went back to school to finish my undergraduate degree in Behavioral Science and was going to be an elementary school teacher in Colorado. At the Metropolitan State College [University] of Denver, I got my big break as the editorial cartoonist for the paper The Metropolitan. I had been on the cover of their editorial section, “Insight” a few times. In the meantime, I worked in a computer lab, helped the disabled population, scrubbed floors and drove a school bus until I moved out to San Francisco in 2007.

In 2009, I applied to grad school at SJSU and got accepted into the SLIS program. Unfortunately, during my first program year, I also went through surgery, chemo, and radiation therapy. During that time I went back to drawing comics. In 2010, I contributed “Libraries of the Future” for the student newsletter called The Descriptor. Once I felt better I stopped doing the strip and focused on finishing school. It was hard for me to juggle the dedication (and long hours alone) when you do comics. Now that I have graduated and am still looking for a permanent position, I feel that I am ready to go beyond a strip or editorial and work on a graphic novella. It’s going to be called, Ghost Dog which is based loosely on my 14 year old Australian Shepherd who passed away. One of my biggest dreams is to get one of my works published. I would be so honored if a publisher like Fantagraphic Books picked it up. We’ll see. I have always wanted to earn rights to a book or graphic novel and to know that I have an ISBN to prove it.

How did the love of drawing eventually translate into the love of librarianship? Or are these parallel loves?

Good question! I’m still trying to figure out what came first in my murky memory. It is possible comics lead me to librarianship. Everything I wanted to teach myself about drawing was locked up in books. I copied all the bibliographic information in the encyclopedia article (that one summer before creating my own cartoon strip) and skateboarded up to my local library branch (the Memorial Branch on Olympic Boulevard). I asked the reference librarian if there were books on cartooning. She initially came back with, “Huh?” Then I said, “I don’t want to read about them, I want to do them.” She then proceeded to spin her chair around and prod down to the 700s. This is where she got me the classic by Jack Hamm Cartooning the Head and Figure (741’s I think). Finding materials on cartooning was proving to be a difficult task. In order to support my need to get the right reference materials, I had to be my own librarian. No one was really teaching this stuff to kids and the secrets were revealed (as far as I knew) in that one encyclopedia entry. It taught me to look outside libraries and I ended up getting something on drawing comics the Stan Lee/Marvel way at the LACC bookstore.

How do you get the inspiration for your drawings?

Since I am all over the place with my work, pretty much anything will get me going. When I was doing editorials in my undergraduate paper, The Metropolitan, infamous political figures moved me–so I did some pieces on Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong-il, and Saddam Hussein–who were living at the time but now dead. But, with the 2010-2011 series of “Libraries of the Future,” pretty much anything I found interesting was fodder for hyper-realizing libraries. I read an article on something in Library Journal or in the ALA magazine and imagined the course of the “new trend” going wild.


What is your favorite librarianship-related topic to draw about?

Any news that talks about library automation or technology, like AI, is game.



Comic 1 has a lot of typos in it.

Comic 2, “Shared Spaces,” was not really hilarious. My work (I do not think) is laugh out loud funny, but I try to get my readers to think like me. This particular comic was my first one. Sarah Dunn, the editor at the time, was really encouraging. Most of the time I would start a library comic and discover a library was already doing it! For instance, I had this idea for LOF (Libraries of the Future) to do a piece on–what I call–“iPadbraries,” but they started doing that at my gym two years ago.

Comic 3, “Biodegradable Books” is a real long-winded one.



As you can see from “Libraries of the Future,” the work is markedly different than my earlier work. At least I think it is.  What I really would like to do is pin all of these comics on to a Pinterest board so that I can see for myself. From 2005 to 2007, I was part of The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. It was a great honor to have my work up there (albeit in the student section) with the big guns of editorial art/comics/cartoons.

What is the most funny/weird/silly/interesting thing you have ever been asked to draw about?

Doing editorial comics around tragedy is interesting. I was asked to do an editorial about the Unabomber/Ted Kaczynski when the news broke out. I sent them this proposal (I did with a ballpoint pen and orange marker). It was hard to strike a balance in editorials without upsetting someone–especially when numerous lives are lost. Sometimes comics turn out weird–which does not make it at all funny. Maybe just awkward? Below is a rejected comic:



Actually, I would like to do some drawings for Emily Weak’s blog, Hiring Librarians. There is a segment in the survey which asks a respondent about the weirdest/silliest thing someone has worn to an interview–or something to that nature–and I frequently conjure up images in my mind when I read some responses. One person wrote that someone wore a super hero costume to an interview and I literally wanted to draw the scenario out. Maybe when I get more down time, I will have a chance to follow through with this idea.

While I have always offered up my own editorials, I was asked to draw Chief Justice Roberts for The Metropolitan’s “Insight” section and thought the work was okay. Caricatures are tricky and you have to bring out distinguishing features.  Roberts looks like your average white guy. Now that he is older, I bet he would be easier to re-do.



What advice would you give to any fellow artists out there hoping to better weave art into their library and information science professions?

As an artist you have content knowledge! That is the biggest selling point. The “pitch” is that not only are you a creative person, but you are familiar with a process that spans a variety of interdisciplinary topics and a multitude of technologies and methods which make you an expert. If you are an LIS professional with an arts background you are quite possibly a content creator too–and, you would have the ability to curate other’s works or expose your users to artists who are influential in the art field you specialize in. Say you are an architectural draftsperson and a librarian, you may know some of the illustrators who are in the field and can help with the acquisitions team at your library. But, I am sure you are already doing something like this, right?

If comics are your passion, you can dream up workshops for libraries or similar spaces. For instance, if you have a great handle on how to draw manga, break it down into basic steps and develop curriculum for a specific library audience. Also, look outside libraries and into organizations that provide workshop programs. For example, you can teach comics to anyone and in a variety of venues. Propose a workshop at a Boys and Girls Club for younger audiences or for older adults at a community center. If you know how to do something well, learn how to teach it to a variety of users who can benefit from instruction. It also helps you hone your information literacy skills instruction since teaching methods are based on same learning theory.  If you are reading this article and think you cannot teach others how to draw a particular style/genre of comics, you can always develop a program for say readers of manga.

In terms of applying experience, I have used my experience with handling materials like India inks in my drawings over into archives work.  I know how delicate the surface is if I come across a drawing to process. I could say with confidence, “Oh, this person almost certainly used a round brush to create this line.” I can tell if someone used dipped ink into a fountain pen to make a line (by virtue of how metal nibs bear into paper). I have some idea how the work was created and therefore the need to go to an expert is lessened because I can describe the work.

Also, I constantly use my knowledge about comics in collection development and management. Oftentimes we get donations of comics that are out of the scope of the collection and I am able to say, “That title is a definite keeper since it is done by ___ and is about ___.”

I also have a “visual reference library” and tend to collect comics from artists that I admire. I borrow some of the poses and style from other artists. I love the work of Milo Manara and when I come across some of his published work, I offer an appraisal of the work based on the condition of the book and its scarcity in the market. However, his work is very heteronormative and I also have to be sensitive to our collection’s mission to present work that is balanced and represents a variety of underground artists.  I have weaved some of the collection criteria into existing policy and I think it’s been helpful to staff because we’re all on the same page with notating if a comic is in Mint or Near Mint (NM) condition for example.

Lastly, if you are an artist and a librarian (or archivist), keep both passions fed. Consider sites like TaskRabbit or eLance to keep doing art work for others. But, strike a balance. It is like owning two pets. You have to feed both, and you may adore one over the other, but love them all the same.

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