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1 The Use of Graphic Novels in Information Literacy Instruction By Ryan Scicluna Library Assistant Outreach Department University of Malta Library Tel: 2340 2541 e-mail: [email protected] http://www.um.edu.mt/library Graphic Novels Library Malta Mob: 79667384 e-mail: [email protected] https://www.facebook.com/GraphicNovelsLibraryMalta

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Page 1: The use of graphic novels in information literacy instruction for malta


The Use of Graphic Novels in Information Literacy Instruction

By Ryan Scicluna

Library Assistant

Outreach Department

University of Malta Library

Tel: 2340 2541

e-mail: [email protected]


Graphic Novels Library Malta

Mob: 79667384

e-mail: [email protected]


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Contents Definition of a graphic novel ................................................................................................................... 3

Why is it important to be information literate? ..................................................................................... 4

How do graphic novels help? .............................................................................................................. 6

Projects and examples of how comics can teach Information literacy skills .......................................... 8

The local scene and how it can be improved ........................................................................................ 11

References ............................................................................................................................................ 13

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The use of comics in educational resources is not a new thing. In fact one can find multiple

articles outlining how comics are used in fields of study such as English language (James,

2007), Mathematics and Social Sciences (Boerman-Cornell, 2013), Media (Doyle, 2008),

etc... Comics are also being featured in University degree courses both as undergraduate or

post-graduate studies. For example, the University of Florida in the US has a Comics studies

credit where students and professionals study and teach comics; The University of Oregon,

also in the US, has a whole faculty dedicated to Comics and Cartoon Studies; The University

of Dundee, Scotland, offers a unique MLitt in Comics Studies and students can pursue their

studies further after completion of the Master with a PhD in comics studies.

So how do comics and graphic novels teach readers to be information literate?

Definition of a graphic novel

According to Alan Moore, a famous comic book writer, author of Watchmen and V for

Vendetta, the graphic novel is “an expensive or long comic book”. So what is a comic book?

Will Eisner (2008), who is considered the father of the graphic novel defined the comic book

as, “a means of creative expression, a distinct discipline, an art and literacy form that deals

with the arrangement of pictures or images and words to narrate a story or dramatize an

idea”. Another more simplified definition is Scott McCloud‟s (1994). He describes comics as

“Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey

information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”

The important key words in that explanation are “convey information”. Comics are just like

any other medium. Like films and books, comics are a way for artists to tell a story either to

teach or to entertain, sometimes both. In this way, comics offer another way for educators to

offer multiple subjects in an interesting and motivating way.

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Comics convey information whether directly or indirectly so comics require a multi-model

understanding of literacy. Comics can be used to greater effectiveness in teaching at all levels

by helping to arm students with the critical-literacy skills they need to negotiate diverse

systems of mean making (Jacobs, 2007)

Why is it important to be information literate?

According to the SCONUL seven pillars model for information literacy, a user must possess

seven basic library and IT skills to be information literate. These skills are:

Recognise the information need

Distinguish a way of addressing the gap between current knowledge and the need

Construct strategies for locating the needed information

Locate and access said information

Compare and evaluate the researched information

Organise, apply and communicate the information acquired

Synthesise and create new information thanks to the new knowledge learnt.

Similarly, in a study in 2005, Combes defined a literate person as:

able to use technology

is also ICT literate

able to use a range of information resources

having a range of well-developed literacy skills

able to use information

able to manage the increasingly complex information environment. (Combes, 2005)

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The main focus here is that information literacy involves multiple skills that are spread across

multiple platforms of information. The ability to access and evaluate information on such

platforms is essential in today‟s digital society.

Being information literate involves a number of skills which will help the individual navigate

into today‟s digital age. This is essential because we are living in an information overload

society. We are constantly bombarded with information through the internet, smart phones,

tablets, etc... All this information is resulting into misunderstandings, misuse of information

and since there are multiple sources from where one can obtain information, the validity of

such information is becoming less clear and difficult to verify.

Information literacy is important due to the amount of information that is available in

contemporary society. Simply being exposed to a great deal of information will not make

people informed citizens, they need to learn how to use this information effectively.

Data Smog refers to the idea that too much information can create a barrier in our lives.

Especially students and the society require a special set of skills to handle this fast increasing

information, in order to use their educational and economical purposes more effectively.

Information literacy is considered as the solution for the data smog (ACRL 2006).

Consequently, it will help decision making and productivity which is beneficial to the

society. Due to the information explosion and data smog, all students and the society face

many difficulties to locate, evaluate, use, and communicate information.

Student centred, inquiry based, problem solving, and a critical thinking proactive learning

environment, with the help of information literacy skills, will develop deep learners in the


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Furthermore, information skills are vital to the success in education, occupation, and day to

day communication of all citizens. Information literacy skills will help students to achieve

this target in a broader sense, in student centred learning (Ranaweera, 2008)

To this extent, countries are adopting a more inclusive approach towards information literacy.

For example, in 2011, Wales created a national information literacy framework which deals

with the inclusion of information literacy skills in the schools curriculums across all ages.

Their main goal is to create an information literate society able to find and use information in

the 21st century Wales.

How do graphic novels help?

As images become ever-present in communication of information between entities,

communities and individuals, librarians and related professionals must consider the visual in

any discussion of information literacy (Harris, 2006). For this reason, comics and graphic

novels are the perfect vessel to use to teach information literacy skills, especially from an

early age.

Comics may enhance readers‟ understanding of material and abilities to work with language,

visual literacy and the more far-reaching critical literacy. Comics motivate readership and

encourage creativity (Duncan and Smith, 2009). In this regard getting them first to read those

comics and then build on that scaffold will turn them into lifelong readers. While also

developing the critical-literacy skills they need to negotiate diverse systems of mean making

(Jacobs, 2007).

Due to the multimodal nature of graphic novels there is no either/or dichotomy because

words can take on properties of images and vice versa. It is the reader, however, who must

synthesize these elements to make meaning (Gillenwater, 2009).

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Because graphic novels use images and text closely integrated together, reading them builds

within students the same skills they need for reading websites and magazines (Boerman-

Cornell, 2013).

Comics can be very effective in academic settings, especially in library instruction, due to

their engaging and participatory nature, as well as their ability to model behaviours and

imbed lessons within a greater narrative (Upson, 2013). They also have the potential to

engage learners who may not excel or exhibit interest in library instruction or information

literacy. Research has shown that students tend to prefer a comic to a PowerPoint

presentation as comics are easier to use, more attractive, more useful and more useable than a

PowerPoint presenting the same information (Webb, Balasubramanian, Ó Broin, & Webb,


An interesting example of how comics are used to teach information literacy is the way Matt

Upson and C. Michael Hall used a graphic novel during a lecture on evaluating resources to

undergraduates. Students were presented with a copy of Atlas Black: The Complete

Adventure by Short, Bauer, Ketchen, & Simon, to the students for examination. This work is

a 300 page graphic novel textbook for management students written and designed by

management professors. When given the text for evaluation, the students immediately

questioned it because the item is clearly a graphic novel and not a traditional textbook. It took

them some time to evaluate the resource and they still were not entirely sure they were

correct in their decision to accept it as a legitimate resource for academic purposes, but they

did so by asking the traditional questions about authority, purpose, and audience. This

example serves to validate Duffy„s (2010) comments regarding the outsider nature of comics

in the academic world, while also recognizing that students can come to question and accept

comics as valid and legitimate academic texts (Upson, 2013).

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Decoding information and creating new knowledge is another way comics can be of use in

accruing information literacy skills. Learning how to decode involves developing an

understanding of the conventions of the medium and gaining experience synthesizing image

and text-based information (Hoover, 2012).

Projects and examples of how comics can teach Information literacy


Will Eisner produced instructional comics for the US Army and for schools from the 1950‟s

to the 1970‟s. He divided instructional comics into two categories: “technical instructional

comics” and “attitudinal instructional comics”. Eisner‟s categories represent respectively

those comics which give instruction in procedures, process, and task performance ... such

tasks are, in themselves, sequential in nature, and those which are useful for conditioning an

attitude toward a task. These comics allow educators to create comics which speak to a broad

audience and instruct on multiple levels. An example of such comics is the Cartoon History

of the Universe series by Larry Gonick, a massive project which combines solid historical

scholarship with effectively humorous cartooning, creating a highly accessible survey of

world history. Another good example but very different from the one above is The

Adventures of Johnny Bunko by Daniel H. Pink and Rob Ten Pas. This is a career guide in

manga format which teaches six essential lessons about succeeding in the work place.

Matt Upson from the Emporia State University, Kansas, has developed a series of library

comics to deal with the instruction of information literacy skills. Collaborating with Mike

Hall, a professional writer, cartoonists and educator, and Dustin Evans, they created a unique

instructional guide to their library resources. Since it was released online in April 2011,

Library of the Living Dead has been downloaded over 2 million times and has been featured

in numerous library publications (Upson, 2013).

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The main focus was to give students the basic library skills needed to navigate through the

library services whilst also arming them with information literacy skills though a fun and

innovative way. The response from the student was positive and immediately evident.

Following the success of their first guide, Matt and Mike developed more comics designed

specifically for information literacy instruction and library advocacy.

Similarly, and following in the footsteps of Matt, Mike and Dustin, Kansas State University

Salina and Kansas Wesleyan University partnered up to create a graphic novel that explains

how to conduct effective library research. In this example, Heidi Blackburn, an

undergraduate services librarian at Kansas State Salina, and Kate Wise, an associate Librarian

at Kansas Wesleyan, worked together with Kansas State Salina student Greg Charland to

develop story boards and create a graphic novel entitled: Legends of the Library Ninjas: A

Quest for Knowledge, with the main aim to create an enjoyable environment where students

could learn library skills and information literacy ones.

Before they embarked on this project Blackburn and Wise conducted a survey and found that

66% of students surveyed at the Salina University were very optimistic about using a graphic

novel as a handbook and 54% had the same response from the Wesleyan university.

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.

Blackburn and Wise had expected about half of the students to successfully demonstrate the

skills taught in the comic, however, they were surprised by the results as over 80% on both

campuses were able to successfully use Boolean search strings, and about 60% identified the

online catalogue as the way to find books.

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Some 49% of K-State students and 73% of Kansas Wesleyan students could identify

interlibrary loan. Another 84% of K-State students and 65% of Kansas Wesleyan students

surveyed rated the graphic novel as “awesome” or “pretty cool”. About half of the students

said they would refer to the comic again in future.

Both librarians have seen increased traffic to the library that year and observed how students

were behaving differently. An increase in students helping themselves to their stacks and

doing self-service, rather than immediately going to the help desks was observed by both

librarians (Schwartz, 2012).

Dr Carol L. Tilley, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information

Science at the University of Illinois has worked to promote the idea of comics in libraries and

classrooms for the last seven years. She has published several articles debunking the major

arguments against comics made by the late psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who in the 1950s

published his research in a book entitled The seduction of the Innocent. In her research Dr

Tilley actually comes to the opposite conclusions of Fredric Wertham (Tilley, 2013). She has

been since teaching librarians on how to build graphic novel and comics‟ collection for their

libraries, and insisting on including the comic book in schools for educational resources

covering multiple literacies. Focusing in particular on information literacy as a process that it

always present when reading comics, she confidently promotes comics across all ages in

many different subjects.

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The local scene and how it can be improved

When it comes to the local picture, comics are shunned and referred to as for children and of

very poor content. This idea is unfair and untrue. Like all other mediums, such as films or

books, one has to search and look for the best item that fits a particular need.

Whether for entertainment or education, one cannot judge the validity of a medium by one

particular product or two. In this regard, comics offer a multitude of genres that appeal to all

audiences. Comics designed to teach information literacy are part of a new genre which is

gaining popularity fast in academic circles. In Malta, we can adopt this new innovative way

in which students are being introduced to information systems, taught how to operate within

such systems and also how to be effective information literate people.

The adoption of comics and graphic novels in school curriculums is an easy step towards

having an inclusion of information literacy skills in the Maltese national curriculum. Other

schools and universities abroad have been experimenting with the uses of comics in an

educational context for years now. Information literacy is one of the areas which benefit from

the inclusion of such material in classrooms. The first step in achieving a National

Information literacy strategy for Malta could be the introduction of specialised comics in

schools that deal specifically with the education of such skills. Also, more national research

into comics and how they can be utilised by educators to help students develop multi-modal

literacy skills need to be conducted on a national scale.

Although some private schools show a sense of initiative towards the inclusion of comics in

their school library and during specific classes, the majority of schools have a negative

approach towards comics. Currently, I only know of two schools which allow some teachers

(both of them teaching Art and History) to use graphic novels during their classes. These are

St Edward's College in Birgu and SMC Boys' Secondary Verdala in Birgu.

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The latter one even has a comics club where students can create their own comics with the

assistant and supervision of a Maltese comic book author, Mr Dean Fenech author of

Apocalypse Rocked. At the moment these students are in the process of publishing their own

comics‟ anthology with the help of their school. Through their subjects, these teachers are

also showing students how to read different models of information and how to asses it.

The response from such classes is extremely positive from all levels of students as it is also a

way to include low-achieving students in an environment they are comfortable in together

with the other students.

Another key element that will help in the inclusion of comics in the educational curriculum of

schools and in the overall adoption of an information literacy framework through comics is to

change the mentality that a lot of people have towards comics in general. The medium is as

diverse as any other and scientific research has been carried out outlining its benefits in

education. Also, knowing exactly what we mean by information literacy will also help in

identifying the right comics or themes needed to start instilling into our society a need to be

information literate.

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Boerman-Cornell, B. (2013). More than comic books. Educational Leadership, 70(6), 73-77.

Combes, B. (2005), Starting at the beginning: A conversation about information literacy,

Connections, vol. 54,


Doyle, A. (2008). Graphic novels: Mice in masks and ageing superheroes: Using graphic

novels in the media classroom. Screen Education, (51), 68-73.

Duffy, D. (2010). Out of the margins ... into the panels: Toward a theory of comics as a

medium of critical pedagogy in library instruction. In M. T. Accardi, E. Drabinski, & A.

Kumbier (Eds.), Critical library instruction: Theories and methods (pp. 199–219).

Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

Eisner, W. (1985, 1990). Comics and sequential art (Expanded Edition ed.). America:

Poorhouse Press.

Gillenwater, C. (2009). Lost literacy: How graphic novels can recover visual literacy in the

literacy classroom. Afterimage, 37(2), 33-36.

Hoover, S. (2012). The case for graphic novels. Communications in Information Literacy,

5(2), 174-186.

Jacobs, D. (2007). More than words: Comics as a means of teaching multiple literacies.

English Journal, 96(3), 19-25.

James, B. C. (2007). Transforming english with graphic novels: Moving toward our "optimus

prime". The English Journal, 97(2), 49-53.

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McCloud , S. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art [ ] William Morrow


Ranaweera, P. (2008). Importance of information literacy skills for an information literate

society. Naclis, Sri Lanka.

Schwartz, M. (2013). Academic librarians get graphic. Retrieved October, 20th, 2013, from


Schwarz, G. (2006). Expanding literacies through graphic novels. The English Journal, 95(6),


Tilley, C. L. (2013). Comic books' real-life supervillain: Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham.

Retrieved November, 11th, 2013, from http://boingboing.net/2013/03/04/comic-books-


Upson, M. (2013). Matt upson - librarian. Retrieved November, 7th, 2013, from


Upson, M., & Hall, C. M. (2013). Comic book guy in the classroom: The educational power

and potential of graphic storytelling in library instruction. CULS Proceedings, 3, 28-38.

Webb, E. N., Balasubramanian, G., óBroin, U., & Webb, J. M. (2012). Wham! pow! comics

as user assistance. Journal of Usability Studies, 7(3), 105-117.