- [Kicking off a more regular column from Mr. Raroo with an offkilter starter - the following text is an excerpt from a longer paper he wrote for the course “Information and Society” in the Masters in Information and Library Science program at San José State University.]

The paper’s intended audience is individuals who know little to nothing about video games and have no idea how or why games can be an important part of any public library’s collection. The bulk of serious gamers will no doubt find information in many parts of the paper that is common knowledge to most game enthusiasts, most notably statistics about the average gamer and a discussion of the popular perception of violence in videogames.

I’ve decided to omit those portions of the paper and instead present two sections in particular: “Circulating Videogames in Public Libraries: Difficulties and Possible Solutions” and “Videogame Use In Library Programming.”

To provide some background context, I work in a public library in the position of library assistant. To describe my job in layman’s terms, I’m the person sitting the Reference Desk whom you might ask help in finding a book.

Currently the library system I work for does not circulate video games to our patrons, which I find disappointing. The benefits of providing video games as part of a library collection is steadily becoming apparent as more and more libraries start offering gaming resources to patrons.

Please view the full document to access the Works Cited list - a link to the paper in its entirety is provided here.

-Circulating Videogames in Public Libraries: Difficulties and Possible Solutions

Libraries have historically owned and circulated materials that have been questioned and challenged by community members. For example, in the San Diego Public Library system, a patron can read the newest issue of Playboy magazine or check out a copy of Mein Kampf (City of San Diego, 2008a). Libraries serve as a forum for all ideas, opinions, and expressions, even those that are disliked or controversial. The first section of the American Library Association’s (2008) Freedom to Read statement reads “It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those which are unorthodox or unpopular with the majority.”

With this in mind, videogames, which contain a vast assortment of views and expressions, seem like a natural fit for library collections. Unfortunately, many factors above and beyond even the sensationalism of game violence have served as obstacles to libraries circulating videogames.

Opposition From Traditionalists

Though typically library employees and administrators are educated and well-informed, that does not mean that they are free from sharing the same public perceptions of videogames as the rest of society. -For instance, members of the generations that grew up before videogames became a major component of the entertainment industry might not have the same connection with gaming that newer generations have. Thus, the misperception about videogames held by some individuals working in libraries may influence decision-making and serve as an obstruction to circulating videogames.

Oakley (2008) describes that when building a collection at the Guilderland Public Library, “there were some initial concerns from library traditionalists who saw gaming as the antithesis to reading” but states that in the year they launched their circulating game collection, the number of books borrowed by teens saw an increase of twenty percent. Still, most non-gamers know nothing of games beyond what they have seen reported in mainstream media and their mental representation of videogames lies in what they read about or see in the news. “Seeing videogames in the same sentence with libraries often raises eyebrows. Much of the information we receive about games from the mainstream media is negative: they are violent, addictive, stereotypical, and do not fairly represent women or minorities” (Galloway & Lauzon, 2006).

However, as previously discussed, the types of videogames highlighted in the news media represent only a small portion of what is truly being purchased and played. Additionally, videogames hold not only recreational value, but can provide artistic and educational benefits as well.

Lack of Videogame Knowledge

Even librarians and administrators who are open to the idea of providing videogame resources may feel intimidated by the abundance of videogames and systems that exist and don’t have any idea where to begin building a collection. “For librarians who are not active gamers, it can be hard to keep up with what the most popular games and systems are in your community” (Saxton, 2007).

While a wealth of information such as review archives and in-depth articles exists in videogame magazines and on game-centric websites, the multitude of data might be overwhelming to a librarian who has little to no experience with videogames. Nevertheless, options to gain information on providing videogame resources are available.

Conducting outreach methods such as contacting library systems that have already begun circulating games provides insight into what methods of building videogame collections have been the most successful. Establishing contact also provides firsthand accounts of what videogames have been the most in-demand by library patrons and what vendors provide the most competitive prices and comprehensive selections for purchasing games.

Another possible solution for librarians with limited videogame knowledge is to go the source and ask for assistance from gamers directly. Oakley (2008) describes using input from a library’s Teen Advisory Committee in order to take direction on starting a videogame collection. Additionally, the New York Public Library System solicited input from patrons as one of its sources of deciding which games to purchase when first building its game collection (J. Martin, personal communication, April 21, 2008).

Ultimately, libraries creating videogame collections are doing so to benefit the patrons they serve, so input and direction from the public is a critical source of information and assistance. Not only does public involvement provide insight and guidance on the types of videogames that have the most demand, but it also provides a possible avenue of support from community members for the new service.

Preventing Theft of Videogames

Libraries take many steps to thwart theft of materials, from magnetic strips in books to elaborate security camera systems. Still, the reality is that items will be stolen, especially those that are popular and in-demand with the public. With most new videogames costing $50 or more-, the concern naturally exists that libraries’ investments in building videogame collections may be compromised by stolen materials. Some library systems, however, have had much success with deterring theft of videogames. Oakley (2008) states that during the initial year of circulating games, with security measures including putting magnetic strips on both the games themselves and their instruction booklets, a total of six games were stolen.

However, other library systems have not fared as well. Jack Martin, the New York Public Library’s Assistant Coordinator of Young Adult Services, describes theft as the largest initial problem in circulating videogames. “We had huge numbers of games stolen from branches nearly as quickly as they hit the shelf. We created a behind-the-desk binder system to prevent this, however, and the loss rate has declined” (personal communication, April 21, 2008).

As with other popular types of library materials, finding an immediate safeguard against theft may be difficult, but once a pattern of use has been established, solutions to the problem of stolen items can be found and implemented.

Justification of Funding

Even if libraries decide to start providing videogame resources for patrons, justifying the procurement of funds to build a game collection may be troublesome. With library budgets across the United States being cut in recent years, services and resources have been sacrificed. For example, the Mission Valley Branch of the San Diego Public Library system went from being open 80.5 hours a week in 2002 to being open 45 hours a week in 2005, a decrease of approximately 45% of operating hours available to the public (City of San Diego, 2008b).

Convincing library administration, staff, and supporters that building a videogame collection during times when funds are so limited is certainly a daunting challenge. Raina Lee, editor-in-chief of 1-Up Megazine, states, “You will have to justify and defend the reasons to include games at the library, since it is taxpayer money, and some cranky people will want some answers! Be prepared to have academic discussions and emphasize the social aspect of gaming” (personal communication, February 28, 2008).

Involving library staff and community members through means such as soliciting input from a Teen Advisory Council as well as making presentations about the benefits of videogames to library administration or at events like Community Council meetings may have a positive impact on gaining internal and external support for purchasing videogame resources. For instance, before the gaming initiative began in the New York Public Library system, a formal proposal to library administration was drawn up detailing the overall vision, background, benefits, potential costs, and plans for staff training (J. Martin, personal communication, April 21, 2008).

Educating library staff members, administration, community members, and patrons about the reasons for libraries to provide videogames resources will surely endow more widespread support and understanding for justifying the funding of such a venture.

Finding Funds to Build Collections

Considering funding is so limited in many library systems across the United States, libraries granted permission to build a videogame collection will still face problems if there is not ample money to pay for the initiative. Saxton (2007) offers a possible solution to the problem of finding funds with the example of how the Martin Luther King Jr. Branch of the Cleveland Public Library system obtained gaming equipment for their library’s collection and programs:

"There are several ways to procure equipment depending on your library and community. Several libraries have purchased the equipment, either out of their budgets or with grant funds, as part of plans for ongoing videogame programming. If this is not an option, then you may be able to solicit help from your local videogame store by asking them to cosponsor an event and loan the equipment."

Beyond library budget and grant funds, approaching a library’s Friends group may provide another resource for funding the creation of a videogame collection in a library. The Ann Arbor District Library, for example, received substantial donations from the Friends of the Library group in order to purchase videogames as well as prizes for participants at gaming tournaments (Helmrich & Neiburger, 2005). In addition, rerouting some or all of the money spent on low-circulating or unpopular portions of the collection provides another source of funding.

Historically libraries have always built their collections in large part upon the demands and needs of the public, and funding has shifted throughout past decades to account for the procurement of media such as vinyl records, laserdiscs, audiocassettes, and microfilm. Since demand for various formats has decreased or been completely eliminated in recent times, funding should shift to emerging popular formats, of which videogames have been demonstrated to hold a significant place.

Approaching game companies directly is another method by which libraries -can find assistance in building a videogame collection. Lee (personal communication, February 28, 2008) suggests that libraries provide an excellent method of publicity and marketing for videogame publishers:

"It’s free marketing for game developers and publishers. Making games available at the library won’t hinder sales. Developers and publishers will love it since putting their games into the library makes them part of the intellectual canon. Only then is gaming taken seriously. It’s the same as putting games at the Smithsonian or any other museum. It’s good public relations for game companies, and it also legitimizes their work as cultural and relevant."

As circulating videogames in libraries becomes more common, it will be to the benefit of public library systems to form relationships with game publishers. Already, some game companies seem to be taking note of possibilities circulating videogames in public libraries offer.

For example, in February 2008 Nintendo donated 21 Wii consoles to five different library systems as well as the American Library Association with the goal of encouraging library gaming (Library Journal, 2008). Libraries have always enjoyed donations of a wide assortment of materials from both publishers and members of public, and videogames have the potential to be no different.

Even with sales of videogames on the increase at a significant rate, having videogames in libraries may actually help boost sales even higher by exposing more people to the artistic, entertainment, and educational value gaming offers players. In that sense, it is within the best interest of game creators and publishers to work with libraries in building collections.

Videogame Use In Library Programming

Beyond gaining public support and finding funding for building a videogame collection, libraries face the problem that many users may not own the hardware needed to play the games checked out. While some libraries may provide listening or viewing rooms for library materials, this is not a constant amongst public libraries across the United States. In most cases, users are expected to use the materials they check out on their home equipment.

For instance, if a patron checks out a DVD, the lending library usually does not provide the DVD player needed to watch it. However, unlike formats such as DVDs, videocassettes, and CDs, videogames are released for specific systems. A game released for the Sony Playstation 3, for example, will not run on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 or Nintendo’s Wii. Considering that game systems often cost hundreds of dollars, the audience of potential users becomes very limited.

Still, library systems that have begun circulating games have seen amazing demand for the resource. The San Diego County Library system, for example, began circulating games in late 2007 and many titles quickly had reserve lists of 50 or more patrons (County of San Diego, 2008). It goes without saying, then, that even with the necessity for patrons to own the hardware needed to use the videogames they borrow, there is certainly a high demand and use.

All the same, there will always be a portion of the patron base that is not able to check out videogames because they lack the necessary hardware. - Libraries still have the option of bringing videogames to such type of patrons, though, by hosting gaming programs such as tournaments.

The most common target audience of library videogame programs thus far is the historically reluctant Young Adult demographic. “Libraries realize that we need to take steps to get this generation in the door before they become jaded blog-reading, Netflix-subscribing, Google-fu masters who can’t imagine why someone would bother actually going to the library” (Helmrich & Neiburger, 2005).

Videogames are being used as a lure to attract more Young Adults into the library than what would otherwise be the case. The results show that such a strategy is indeed working and teens initially coming to the library solely for the purpose of attending gaming programs or checking out videogames expand their use of the library by exploring other available resources. Oakley (2008) notes that normally “the circulation of teen fiction and nonfiction at the library increased about four percent annually, but the year we launched the circulating game collection, there was a 20 percent increase in the number of books being borrowed by teens.”

Additionally, Saxton (2007) states “many teens who initially became involved in the library through gaming events have gone on to attend other library programs as well.” Though videogames may be the reason that some patrons first begin using a library, there is definite evidence to suggest that an increase in use amongst other library resources rises by simply increasing the number of patrons coming through the library’s doors.

Despite the initial aiming of gaming programs at the Young Adult patron audience, many libraries are starting to recognize that videogames are very popular with older audiences as well. In January of 2008, the Milford Library in Massachusetts held an all-ages gaming event on their Patron Appreciation Day in which library fines were waived if library users could beat circulation assistant Katie Spofford in a game of Dance Dance Revolution (Bernstein, 2008). Some library systems are even hosting gaming programs limited exclusively to adult participants.

According to Amanda Schukle, Collection Development Librarian for the County of San Diego, from the time when the San Diego County Library system began circulating games and hosting gaming events in 2007, adult interest in videogames was so high that a Nintendo Wii was purchased to be used specifically at events held solely for adult patrons. Since this first step, the County of San Diego has purchased a Nintendo Wii for each library branch in the system to promote both juvenile and adult gaming programs (personal communication, March 13, 2008 and May 6, 2008).

Considering the figures previously stated describing the typical gamer—namely that the average age of a gamer is 33 and 70% of all gamers are over the age of 18—it’s no surprise that libraries circulating videogames and holding gaming events were quick to learn that the patron base for utilizing gaming resources goes far beyond the youth demographic. Even so, the fact that many library systems still do not even circulate games in the first place suggests that it will take a considerable amount of time before videogames become ubiquitous within libraries.

[Mister Raroo is a happy husband, proud father, full-time public library employee, and active gamer. He currently lives in El Cajon, CA with his family and many pets. You may reach Mister Raroo at mister.raroo@gmail.com.]