Exclusive Interview: Touring the World’s Largest Library Comic Book Collection of 350,000 items @ Michigan State University with head honcho RANDY SCOTT!
Michigan State University is a sprawling and beautiful campus of leafy trees, ubiquitous green & white team colors, and intriguing experiences, such as visiting the World’s Largest Library Comic Book Collection.
Located in East Lansing, about 1hr 30mins west of Detroit, the school was founded in 1855 as a prototype land-grant university and renamed MSU in 1964.
MSU currently sits on 5,200-acres dotted with 566 buildings. Over 50,000 students attend here. There are 27 resident halls and over 900 registered student groups on campus. Yes, this place is massive. It’s one of the largest universities by population in the USA.
MSU’s Nuclear Physics graduate program ranks # 1 in the nation. Magic Johnson & Sam Raimi attended MSU simultaneously in the late 1970’s. Fun factoids abound.
I’m here visiting the MSU Library, the building which contains the main portion of the comic collection.
You park on the north side of Spartan Stadium in Lot # 62 W (99 Red Cedar Road, East Lansing). You ‘pay by plate’ by the hour. Then, use the footbridge to cross the beautiful Red Cedar River and enter the library doors straight ahead.
Once inside, the Special Collections Reading Room is on your left. This is where you’ll read the comics.
As the world’s largest library/academic comic book collection, the MSU Comic Collection is a true world resource.
Sure, Mile High Comics in Denver has a self-estimated eight million comic books in three warehouses and a single individual, Bob Bretall, in Mission Viejo, California has over 105,000 comics.
But the MSU Collection is catalogued, indexed, available to the general public free of charge and managed by comic book expert, Randall W. Scott.
Randall W. Scott, or “Randy” as he prefers to be called, is an MSU Special Collections Librarian, Comic Art Bibliographer, and head curator of the MSU Comic Art Collection. Working here almost 50-years, Randy has one of the greatest jobs on the planet: reading and archiving comic books.
Yes, a state university had the foresight to bankroll Randy’s unique expertise and thus, help fund a world-class collection of pop culture artifacts in the form of comics books. We’re so jelly. Randy, I want your job.
MSU’s Comic Book Curator and Head Honcho: Randy Scott
“I’ve always enjoyed comic books. I like the format of blending words and pictures. I also read a lot of books without pictures. Mainly, I like thinking about how the literary form of comic books works and is evolving. Comic books are different from every other kind of storytelling. And I like the theoretical questions associated with comics and collecting comics.”
“I grew up on a farm in Alpena County in a little town called Hubbard Lake. I like to practice reading in other languages like French, German, Spanish. My foreign language level is fair. But my level of reading comics is pretty good.”
“In the late Sixties, I migrated to Lansing and attended MSU while working at Curious Book Shop, a used & rare bookstore run by Ray Walsh. I was Ray’s first employee and the comics buyer there back when Curious had an upstairs that was all comics. Stan Lee did a signing there once! I met Ray while we were both students at MSU. He was famous for riding his bike around campus in a trench coat.”
“As a student here at MSU, I worked as a writer and editor on an underground paper aptly called ‘The Paper’ and toward the end of its lifespan, it became absorbed into SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. There was a national movement for underground papers at that time. Detroit had The Fifth Estate, Ann Arbor had The Sun and so on. In June 1969, we had a convention in Chicago where SDS split and The Weathermen became one of the splits, so I briefly became an original Weatherman before it became the Weather Underground.”
“I have a B.A. from MSU and an M.S. in Library Science from Columbia with a concentration in cataloging and indexing.”
“I started working in the MSU Library back in 1971. I had various jobs, including being a preorder typist, whereby I would send out orders to jobbers to order books. I started cataloging the Comic Art Collection in 1974 when I developed a system for indexing and cataloging them and I’ve been here ever since.”
“In 1975, a high-school student stole our Amazing Spider-Man # 1 comic book. We knew who it was but couldn’t prove it. Today, in good condition, that comic is worth around $100,000.”
“After that happened, I decided to take on the job of looking after the Comic Collection, during my lunch hours, as a volunteer.”
MSU Comic Collection: At 350,000 items, it’s the World’s Largest Library Comic Book Collection
Randy and I head downstairs, one floor below the Reading Room.
The Comic Collection is housed in long rows of electronic Spacesaver mobile storage units. The lights are on 120-second timers, thus, if there’s no movement for 120 seconds, the lights go off.
“We have the main core of the collection here. Then we have about 700 shelves of international comics at an offsite, remote storage warehouse.”
Russell Nye: Creator of the MSU Comic Collection
“The MSU Comic Collection started in 1969-70 when MSU professor Russell Nye donated 6,000 comic books, mostly 60’s-era Marvel superhero comics, to the university.”
“Around 100 of the comics were his, the rest were from some of his senior students who donated their collections to him for his new Pop Culture course.”
“Nye taught in the English department from 1941-79. He was an early proponent of Pop Culture Theory and I had him as a teacher. Nye was a gentleman, always wore a suit, taught 19th century American Literature and had an inquiring mind.”
“At the time, comics were deemed ‘inappropriate material’ by academia. However, Nye was respectable, he had also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945, so they couldn’t deny this pop culture scholar’s donation of comics.”
“Comic books had already been around for over 100 years and it took them that long to get academic recognition. I did Independent Study with Nye and wrote a paper called ‘Comics in Libraries’ where I argued for their inclusion.”
“Prior to this, academic libraries had been reluctant to collect and study comics, which they foffed off as ‘subliterature’. It was revolutionary times. The spirit of the time was to open things up and do what hadn’t been done before.”
“Nye wasn’t thought of as a radical but being a proponent of putting comic books in libraries was definitely a radical idea at the time. It’s hard to fathom now because it’s more commonplace. Now over 50 libraries have permanent comic book collections.”
It’s a Midwest thing: Michigan and Ohio Lead the Charge
“Ohio’s Bowling Green University started a Pop Culture department around the same time. The Journal of Popular Culture started in 1967 at Bowling Green and was edited by Ray Browne. They now have the Browne Popular Culture Library, which is the world’s largest collection of pulps, dime novels and ephemera.”
“In 1977, Lucy Caswell started the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University, which is now the world’s largest repository of original cartoon art.”
“It was a Midwest thing. We started putting comic books in libraries, then NYPL followed suit after a few years and now it’s a global thing.”
“In 1978, the Russell B. Nye Popular Culture Collection was officially titled as a branch of the Special Collections. This collection includes the Comic Art Collection, 10,000 volumes of sci-fi (mostly monographs), probably 5,000 books, magazines & fanzines, and loads of Popular Fiction (ie: dime novels, pulps, detective, westerns, etc).”
A Taste of the Goodies
“The hardest part of being a Comics Librarian is cataloguing. Cataloguing is a daily, ongoing process. On January 1st, 1981, we stopped using the filing index card system.”
“Every year we get deliveries of 12 to 20 boxes of comics sent via UPS. Gerber invented mylar comic sleeves. I order these babies 5,000 at a time. Cataloguing all this stuff takes time.”
“We have 7 copies of the original Obadiah Oldebuck here, the first comic ever created.”
“We have the personal microfilm collection of Detroit comics guru Jerry Bails and the #1 CAPA-Alpha (1964).”
“We have all sorts of comics: Young Allies # 1 (1941), Walt Disney Comics and Stories No. 1 (1940), Wonder Woman # 1 (1942), R. Crumb’s Zap # 1 (1967), etc.”
“We have about 600 Underground comics, 10,000 volumes of Manga, 1 million comic strips donated by Dick Webster, and large holdings of Eclipse, Marvel, DC, Fantagraphics.”
“We have the King Features proof sheet collection from NYC (1930’s-1990’s).”
“We have 530 scrapbooks of daily newspaper strips. They came all at once from Rodney Ford in Sacramento, California. Over 100 titles from the 1920’s-1970’s. He made the scrapbooks meticulously by hand.”
“We have 17,000 Golden Era comics (1938-52), the first 1,000 of which came from Jim Haynes, a Connecticut racetrack owner who grew up in Port Huron, Michigan.”
“We have the Lexikon der Comics, the only copy in North America. It’s a German language encyclopedia of comics.”
“The list goes on and on. MSU has a tradition of keeping the best two copies of each item. Our triplicates we give to the MSU Surplus Store to be sold, and proceeds of these sales come directly back to the library to continue supporting the collection.”
MSU’s International Comics @ the Remote Storage Warehouse
After touring the main collection, Randy drives us to an offsite warehouse in Lansing, about 15 minutes away from the main library. The facilities coordinator, Josh Maki, lets us in.
The warehouse is divided into two massive rooms.
One room contains international comic books on 10 and 12-foot-high steel shelving. The other room is a high-density storage bay of 800,000 books and bound journals. Big blue-box air scrubbers clean the air.
This is but one warehouse in a complex of warehouses. The others are: Folio, Special Collections and RSA. The comics warehouse is RS-F and called ‘remote storage’. Spread across the complex, there are around 1.7 million items.
“Here we have about 700 shelves of international non-American comics from all over the world. For instance, we have 1,800 comics catalogued from India alone.”
“We have shoe boxes full of two million daily comic strips, plus big boxes of proof sheets, Sunday sections, etc.”
“The most we ever paid was $130,000 for 13,000 European comics in the 1990’s.”
“We get about one international visitor per month, mostly from Europe and Asia.”
“When visiting, please remember that international comics must be requested at least three full days in advance.”
Funding: Where does the money come from?
“I get a little slice of the annual MSU Library book budget. I also have a couple of endowments which provide funding. Our total annual budget is around $40,000.”
“In regard to acquisitions, I have a Collection Development statement that I follow when we want to acquire new material for the collection.”
In addition to the budget Randy receives from MSU, generous supporters also lend a hand by giving funds in support of this collection.
For more information on ways you can support the collection, contact:
MSU Libraries’ Development Office
MSU Special Collections
Established in 1962, the MSU Special Collections department contains 450,000+ printed works, several manuscript and archival collections, a huge stash of ephemera, and more.
MSU has a massive collection of Sixties Radicalism pamphlets and papers. You can find these in the American Radicalism Vertical File (ARVF).
The Special Collections Rare Book Collection is at the end of the comics collection, behind a vault door, inside a temperature-controlled room.
It contains the Charles Schmitter Fencing archives. And the oldest printed book at MSU: Scriptores Rei Rusticae (1472, Venice). They even have a Book of Hours here.
Randy’s Final Thoughts
“Well, I’ll need to retire one day, I suppose.”
“My replacement will need to be enthusiastic about comic scholarship, knowledgeable in the field of comics books and care deeply about growing the collection and understanding how important it is.”
“The MSU Comic Collection is always open to donations of comic books. If you or someone you know wants to donate their collection, they can email or call the MSU Libraries’ Development Office.”
“Personally, I think it would be cool if the library put a little more recognition into the comics, such as the graphic novels. We have a ton of graphic novels, including the first-ever, Will Eisner’s ‘A Contract with God’ from 1978.”
“There’s a future in academic comic study. It just depends on administrative attitudes. Currently, MSU offers two minor degrees in Comics.”
“Every February, we host a two-day long MSU Comics Forum here on campus.”
“Visiting scholars with an MSU netID can apply to stay overnight at the Owen Hall Grad Dorm here on campus.”
“Plan a trip. Let us know you’re coming. We look forward to seeing you.”
Donate your comic collection to MSU by emailing Randy Scott and the library development office:
Search the MSU Comic Collection here
Randy’s Comic Index
Russell B. Nye Popular Culture Collection
MSU Comics Forum
Map of MSU Campus
Library of Congress has 150,000 comic books
Ryan’s Final Thoughts
Having toured the collection multiple times, I feel it necessitates its own building.
Due to the size, importance and future growth potential of the collection, MSU should consider centralizing the entire collection under one roof exclusively.
You could also add a museum component to this, complete with display cases, regular events and periodic in-person signings.
Ryan’s Recommendations on Visiting the MSU Comic Collection
While visiting MSU, you might want to make time to check out the following:
1.) Brody Square (241 Brody West) campus food hall
Park in the Kellogg Conference Center parking garage (219 S. Harrison Rd.) for $1.50/hr. Walk directly across the street to Brody. Up on the 2nd floor is one of the most ingenious campus food hall concepts ever created.
Brody features 9 to 12 food stations. For $10.00 per person it’s all you can eat, all day long. And yes, this is open to the general public.
They have a wondrous array of food featuring things like:
Burritos, sushi, spicy crab soup, Cajun fish with mashed potatoes and gravy, Hudsonville ice cream (get the Cake Batter with chocolate syrup), 15 breakfast cereals, pepperoni pizza, vegetable spring roll, miso soup, mango slush drink, pasta with spinach and alfredo, breadsticks, and more.
Also impressive is their automated tray system. You walk over to a moving wall of empty metal racks and slide your tray in and it disappears into the back for the cleaners. Every university in the country should replicate this food hall model.
2.) MSU Dairy Store @ Anthony Hall (474 South Shaw Lane) 9am-8pm
Park out front at the meters. 8 minutes per quarter or use your credit card.
This is an ice cream parlor open to the general public and run by the MSU Department of Food Science. All the ice cream is made right here at MSU. You can even buy half-gallon tubs!
I recommend trying a double scoop of the Sesquicentennial Swirl and Dantonio’s Double Fudge.
Also try the Grilled cheese on sourdough with a cup of soup.
3.) Curious Book Shop (307 East Grand River Ave)
Park directly behind the store. $2.25 for 90 minutes maximum.
Opened in 1969, this is a used & rare bookstore with a large sci-fi section.
The store is owned by Randy’s friend Ray Walsh. Ray has done a tremendous number of good things for the book community over the past several decades.
Ray puts on the annual Michigan Antiquarian Book & Paper Show. You can usually find Ray himself a half mile down the road, running his other bookstore, Archives Book Shop (519 W. Grand River).
Some Other Cool stuff in Lansing:
Potter Park Zoo (1301 South Pennsylvania Ave, Lansing)
Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern (1200 North Larch Street, Lansing)
Lansing Brewing Company (518 East Shiawassee St, Lansing)
Meat BBQ (1224 Turner Rd, Lansing)