Bookend: A Library of Laughs

May 1, 2023

Head curator Jenny Robb poses with collection items from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum
Jenny Robb at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University in Columbus. Photo: Stephen Takacs

Jenny Robb says we are living in the golden age of cartoons and comics.

“When I was growing up, we didn’t have graphic novels for a children’s audience,” says Robb, head curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum (BICLM) at Ohio State University in Columbus. “But now we have all kinds of stories,” she says. “Autobiographical, fantasy, adventure, you name it. It’s incredible to see this explosion of quality comics.”

BICLM, named after an early 20th-century Columbus Dispatch cartoonist, opened in 1977 and now hosts the world’s largest collection of print cartoon art. Its millions of comic strips, books, and archives of cartoonists’ original art and papers are a treasure trove for serious scholars and fans.

Noteworthy holdings include most of the original art from comic strip Calvin and Hobbes and 75 tons of newspaper comic clippings donated by the San Francisco Academy of Comic Art—nearly a century’s worth of newsprint recovered from libraries that were transitioning to microfilm. A rare scrapbook of British satirical cartoons (including one print lampooning Caroline Herschel, widely believed to be the first woman paid as a professional scientist) is thought to have been created between 1750 and 1830.

Cartoons can be valuable historical sources, Robb says, offering contemporary readers a look at another era’s sociocultural climate.

“They tend to be the work of a single artist, but of course that person is influenced by what’s going on in the world around them,” she says. “In some ways they reflect that and some ways they actually influence it.”