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CR Sunday Interview: Caitlin McGurk
posted September 4, 2011

imageCaitlin McGurk is the librarian at the Schulz Library serving The Center For Cartoon Studies and the surrounding community of White River Junction, Vermont. Last week the Schulz Library faced a potential collection-destroying crisis due to flooding caused by Hurricane Irene. After a dramatic overnight moving of some material from the library and others to higher shelves, the library has since been moved to a new and one assumes much drier location. Every book was saved. At the start of a new school year, McGurk now must coordinate fellow CCS staffers and volunteers towards the goal of setting up a working library, and then eventually moving the collection back into the original building -- or a new location if one is in the offing.

I am very grateful McGurk took a few moments to talk to me during what must be an extremely busy and exhausting time. If you're inclined to help with this unique resource of comics, we discuss how and how not to do so near the conclusion of the short talk below. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Did it ever occur to you that something like this might happen to the library? You're close to the river. At the same time, I imagine that with most libraries fire is a greater concern than flooding.

CAITLIN McGURK: You know, something like this hasn't happened, from what I've been told, in over 10 years. We've only been here since 2005, so I don't think anybody's thought too much about it. There are some issues just in general with that facility just because -- I'm the first degreed librarian to come into the school. When James [Sturm] and Michelle [Ollie] started the school, they made the library and ran it themselves and did a really amazing job with it. I don't think they necessarily had all the planning in place for when they outgrew the space, or where the best location might be eventually.

You've been to that library, so you're probably a little familiar with it.


McGURK: We're so high up from the river, because it's a three-story building. I definitely never thought it could be that bad.


SPURGEON: Now, were there other problems with the space? Have there been environmental or capacity problems with where the library's been located?

McGURK: The space is fantastic. It's perfect for us at this time. We've recently started to outgrow it, but we do have an archives building -- that's where the collection is being housed now. We were possibly going to move in a few years, but that building has been fantastic.

SPURGEON: How did you find out about the potential danger to the library that night? Were you part of the late-night raid on the place?

McGURK: Oh, yeah. The whole raid was pretty much run by me and Michele and James. The students came out in droves to help. We were talking about what we were going to do about the river long before it raised, just because everyone is so invested in the library and so concerned about it.

SPURGEON: Were you the one that made the call?

McGURK: Michele and James were the ones that were going to make the official call. I was actually on my way to check on the library when I got a phone call saying that we were going to start evacuating.

SPURGEON: James described that night as being a very weird scene. I don't know if you'd agree or not, or if that was your experience, but he said there were actually containers striking a nearby bridge, banging on it.

McGURK: Honestly? It was the most cinematic scene I've ever experienced. [laughs] Most people had power outages by that time. When we were out there the only lights that we could even see by were a lot of people with flashlights and just these blaring emergency lights. It was a strobe-light kind of a situation, and we're trying to grab the books that we can see. James and I had briefed people on what the most important stuff was; everything else was just going to be moved to higher shelves.

While we were in the building a train car came down -- there's pictures of it everywhere -- and it slammed against the building. At one point there were a few... gas tanks? Like propane tanks?

SPURGEON: [laughs] Oh my goodness.

McGURK: One of them exploded. All of the sudden everything smelled like gas. So we evacuated everyone.

There honestly wasn't a point where anyone was in serious danger. We made sure of that. As soon as that gas tank thing happened, everyone got out and stayed out until the police told us they would have it clear by 12:30. So at 12:30 AM, myself and a few other people went back down there. A lot of people showed up just because they knew this was probably happening.

SPURGEON: Can I get an idea of the size of the collection and what you consider its rare books? Someone wrote on-line that night that James made off with the rare books. I liked that image, but I wondered what that consisted of. But first, how big is the collection?

McGURK: I would say there were 10,000 books in that building.

imageSPURGEON: As far as rare material, what are we talking about? Old comics, old books... ?

McGURK: We have some really rare Steve Ditko materials and -- my personal favorite, and one of things I went straight for -- the entire run of Nickelodeon Magazine in bound form. [laughter] We have some really old Punch and Judy collections, some books from the 1800s, all sorts of old, editorial things. All of that went first. That was immediate, and also the e-readers since we have a bunch of e-readers there. Followed by student work. There's a lot of that there -- at least 500 items. We got our 'zine collection out quickly. Then we went for gag comics, because there's a lot of old stuff over there, too. Then daily strips, and then we started with graphic novels and anthologies. Everything that was closest to the floor was important, after content. So once the important content stuff was out we went to the material closest to the floor and put it as high as we could.

I'd say we got about 50 percent of the collection out that night.

SPURGEON: Caitlin, you'll have to refresh my memory, but didn't you just get to some sort of place in terms of sorting the collection? Or cataloguing?

McGURK: Yep. [laughter] I'm their first degreed librarian. I'm here for a one-year contract, and I started in November. In March or April I had finished actually creating marked catalog records in the database I had built for the whole library. And then about maybe a month and a half ago, I had just finished cataloging the 'zine collection, which is 2000 'zines. Luckily, this happened right after every single item in here was officially catalogues. It's all on-line. We know what's here and where it belongs.

SPURGEON: Have you received support from other librarians?

McGURK: Most of what we've asked for so far has been financial donations for our potential move, for all sorts of things that we might need, boxes or whatever. I've gotten a lot of e-mails from librarians who are asking what they can do, if they can come up and help.

SPURGEON: You've mentioned a couple of times that you're a degreed librarian. Can you talk a little bit about your education and your past work? I seem to recall that you did some work on one of the New York collections.

McGURK: I'm from New York originally. I was living in Brooklyn before I came up here. I have a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science from The Palmer School. I went into getting my degree with the specific goal of being a comic book librarian, because I've been a mini-comics artist and 'zinester for quite a long time.

SPURGEON: Are you the first comics-only librarian? I guess the Ohio State folks count...

McGURK: There's Ohio State, and there's Karen Green at Columbia University. She's both the graphic novels librarian and the medieval studies librarian. There's lots of people all over the place that manage graphic novel collections, but I might be the only one in a stand-alone comics library. It's attached to an institution, but it's not like we're a collection in a bigger library with lots of other stuff.

Before I came here I was at Marvel for a little while, where I helped archive their entire collection on the publishing floor. I created a mini-comics archive at the Butler Rare Books Library at Columbia University. Most recently I was working at a children's hospice in Chelsea in New York, where I started a comics-making program -- like a book-therapy type program.

imageSPURGEON: What is it you have ahead of you now? Is it just getting the library in shape for students to access it for the Fall semester?

McGURK: We've made amazing, amazing progress. It's been impressive because of all the help that we've had from volunteers and students. Not even just students -- people from the community have come out to help us. So that night and the following morning we moved everything into our storage space where the archive was. It's a building only accessible by key card, so it wouldn't be ideal for a permanent library setting because we want the public to come in. We've set it up as a temporary lending library. We've been sorting all the books that were placed haphazardly in piles that night back into their categories where they belong. We have some shelving in there we've set up. As of today, we've almost filled the shelving with the books we really want out there circulating until we have a permanent space.

SPURGEON: Will all of this get done by November? Are you now on the clock, or have you given any thought to staying on? How does that work?

McGURK: You know, I haven't really thought about it yet. [laughs] Honestly, this has been a real mental and emotional experience for me. I'm so invested in this collection and the student body and everything that's going on here. All I can think about is fixing this. If we get a space... there are some open storefronts, and there's a potential we might move into one, but there's potential we might move back into the space we had. Because it's fantastic. Even if we don't put the library there, we're still going to keep it for something for the school. It's such an ideal location. We're looking at I would say at least a month before we make any serious moves, maybe, because that building is still being cleaned out before people can even come in and start repairing it.

SPURGEON: I take it you've enjoyed your time there, and that you've enjoyed being part of the community?

McGURK: Absolutely. [laughs] Honestly, I'd stay here for good if I could. We'll see. New York City is a very different place. [laughs] But I've never in my life been a part of such an amazing community. It's like living in an art commune, basically. Everyone hangs out together, and draws together and drinks together and cooks together. It's so supportive. It's unbelievable.

SPURGEON: From the librarian end of things, has the library become the kind of public lending space you hoped it would be?

McGURK: We don't lend to the public. We're actually only to the public as a reading room. We only lend to students, alumni, faculty, staff and the occasional researcher. But we do get a lot of foot traffic, especially during the summer when people are traveling up here and in the Fall with all the tree peepers or whatever they call them. [laughter]

There's a lot of interest. We also do a lot of workshops in there, too. Jen Vaughn, who is like my assistant librarian there, she's tutored a few students that were going to Dartmouth or high school students that want to study animation a little and have a project to work on being that we have a library there. She's taken a few interns under her wing. I've done animation workshops for Dartmouth at the library, because we have lots of books on that. The public is definitely involved; we're definitely out there in terms of awareness.


SPURGEON: Where do I direct people as far as what they might be able to do to help if so inclined? Do I send them to your original post on the matter?

McGURK: Definitely.

SPURGEON: And I assume now is a bad time for someone to box up their collection and send it along?

McGURK: We are not looking for books at this time. [laughter] The last thing I want is a shipment of books I don't know what to do with. [laughs]

I'm so glad today that no book was lost in this whole situation. That's just amazing. So financial donations, and we're also trying to guide people -- I think this was mentioned in Jen Vaughn's post on The Beat -- towards helping the Main Street Museum, which is the building that our library used to be in. They took a really, really hard hit. They need the most help right now.

They lost of lot of their materials. The water didn't get up to the floor we were on, but the floor below had two storefronts, and a huge amount of storage for the museum. A lot of that we watched sail down the river that night, and the next day we were down there in boots walking through three feet of mud and picking up beautiful, smashed pieces of memorabilia and photos. It was devastating for them. They need the most help right now. We're taking care of our situation, though we could use some funding for what we do next.


SPURGEON: Is there anything else we need to know about your situation?

McGURK: I think the thing to be most clear about is that we really do not have a definite location yet. There's just as good of a chance going back into that building as there is of us getting into a new space. This just happened a few days ago, and everything is still uncertain. We don't know yet. [laughs] We have to wait until we hear from some landlords. Michelle and James have been shoveling mud out of the museum for the last couple of days. We're all just helping each other right now, and then making plans later.


* good morning you
* the Schulz Library Blog
* The Center For Cartoon Studies


* Caitlin McGurk, sitting in the former and perhaps future Schulz Library space
* a photo of the building, late winter 2011
* Steve Ditko's work
* a shot of one of the shelves and the general workspace in the former home to the Schulz Library, again winter 2011
* CCS' James Sturm and more shelves, you can probably guess from when
* the Main Street Museum space in those same less flooded times
* Kevin Huizenga's drawing of the building (below)